Jammu & Kashmir

Fragile peace

Print edition : September 06, 2013

A man being taken to hospital along a deserted street during curfew in Jammu on August 13. Photo: AFP

Shops set ablaze in a market of Kishtwar on August 9. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Sajjad Kitchloo, Minister of State for Home, after tendering his resignation over the Kishtwar violence, in Jammu on August 12. Photo: PTI

Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister. He has ordered a judicial probe into the incident. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

An uneasy calm prevails in Jammu after a communal flare-up in Kishtwar, and vested interests are bent on taking political mileage out of the incident.

AS if other challenges were not enough, Jammu and Kashmir erupted in communal flames from a spark in the mountainous town of Kishtwar in the Chenab valley on Id day. There are many versions of what led to the arson in the town on August 9 and the death of three people apart from injuries to scores. But what is certain is that there were attempts to draw “sinister political mileage” out of the incident.

Trouble reportedly began as an altercation between two bikers when thousands of Muslims were about to return to their homes after prayers at the Idgah of Kishtwar. Not only did the incident have an adverse impact on other communally fragile areas of Jammu, but its repercussions were felt nationally. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley rushed to Kishtwar, but the authorities did not allow him to proceed from Jammu airport. Curfew was imposed in seven out of the 10 districts in the Jammu division. The Army was called out in both Kishtwar and Jammu to prevent further flare-ups. It did help, but tension was palpable even a week after the incident.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Minister of State for Home Sajjad Kitchloo, who represents Kishtwar in the Assembly, had to bow out of office when the clamour by the BJP for his dismissal grew. The BJP accused of him being “responsible” for the trouble, but beyond saying that he was present in the town and did not do anything to prevent it, the party could not substantiate his involvement. However, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah yielded to “national” pressure and asked his colleague to put in his papers. The government also ordered a judicial probe into the incident by a retired High Court judge.

Kitchloo said he was resigning because he wanted to ensure a fair and transparent probe. “Certain political parties are trying to malign me for petty ends and are blaming me for the incidents that happened on the festival of holy Id. I am innocent. I have done no wrong, my conscience is clear, and the electorate of Kishtwar will vouch for my secular credentials. I am deeply hurt that for petty political ends some people have stooped so low as to accuse me of something I have not done,” he said. “I want the truth to come out. The Chief Minister has ordered a judicial probe into the incident. My conscience does not allow me to continue as a Minister until the probe is complete.”

After his resignation, Kitchloo blamed the BJP for the clash; he said its State secretary and his personal security officers had led a mob towards the Idgah. “As soon as I came out of the gate of the Idgah, the mob attacked our vehicles,” he told Frontline. He said the situation would have been worse had he not restrained as many as 25,000 Muslims who were pitched against some 15,000 Hindus. He said passions were high among those who had gathered for the prayers. “But for my restraining orders and the efforts of the police and the paramilitary forces, more than 400 people would have been killed,” Kitchloo said.

However, the BJP’s argument is that Kitchloo did not ask the district administration to act even though he held a sensitive portfolio such as Home. Its leaders say that initially more shops belonging to the Hindu community came under attack. Kitchloo incidentally had defeated the BJP’s Sunil Sharma by nearly 2,000 votes in the 2008 Assembly elections.

But neither Kitchloo’s resignation nor the judicial probe ordered stopped accusations and counter-accusations against each other by the ruling National Conference and the BJP. Omar Abdullah cited the communal riots at Godhra in Gujarat in 2002 and asked the BJP who had resigned after those riots. With the Congress, his party’s partner in the ruling coalition, maintaining silence, he was left to fend for himself. The Left parties, too, criticised him, and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati sought his dismissal.

The Omar Abdullah government is already faced with the resurgence of militancy in the State. With the Kishtwar fire spreading to Jammu and other districts, fear loomed large of a repeat of the 2008 agitation following the transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board. But this time, timely action by the Army saved the situation though most of Jammu province remained under curfew for many days.

The Kishtwar incident is attributed to the failure of the administration, which has become unaccountable under the leadership of Omar Abdullah. With a Muslim-Hindu population ratio of 52:48 per cent, Kishtwar has been on the edge several times, particularly when elections to the Lok Sabha or the Assembly are due. Electoral politics on the basis of religious vote bank has thrived in the past 20 years in the region.

Simmering tension

Even before the August 9 incident, Kishtwar was simmering. On July 26, a girl from the majority community was allegedly raped at gunpoint by members of the Village Defence Committee (VDC) in Kuntwara village. Two of the accused were arrested and later produced in court. But the tension that had built up following the incident blew up on Id day.

VDCs, formed in the mid-1990s to counter the militancy and to protect the Hindu community, have of late been a subject of discussion. Questions are being raised about the need for VDCs as militancy has declined in the entire Chenab valley. According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), in Kishtwar district, 3,174 of the 3,287 VDCs are of Hindu descent and the rest are Muslim. “This information was sought from the government under the Right to Information Act. This surely is a disturbing situation as the imbalance in the possession of arms poses a threat of communal polarisation every time there is even a minor irritation,” said JKCCS programme coordinator Khurram Parvez.

VDCs are otherwise a “voluntary” force patronised and fed by the State. Muslims have been demanding that these be disbanded as they are a reason to divide communities. Separatists in Kashmir have echoed this demand.

There are other problems too. Political parties have always used the not-so-uneven ratio of Hindus to Muslims, particularly in Kishtwar, Bhaderwah and to an extent Doda, for their electoral prospects.

Communities polarised

At the centre of the debate on the August 9 incident is the version that pro-azadi sloganeering had fuelled the tension on Id day. But Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said, “This is nothing new. There is the influence of separatists in certain pockets of Chenab and Pir Panjal regions. And that has been there for a long time.”

Witnesses to the incident this correspondent spoke to said that on Id day Muslims had indeed raised slogans such as “Naraae Takbeer Allah o Akbar” (God is Great), but they insisted that this was a religious chant that had now become synonymous with the separatist discourse in the Valley. However, independent sources said that pro-freedom slogans did reverberate in the area. “But that is nothing new. The friction between the communities was fairly fresh and there was some problem on both sides and many young people might have raised slogans to provoke them,” said Nazir Ahmad Dar, a journalist in Kishtwar.

The moot question is why the State government did not act in time despite intelligence inputs. Many believe that this question cannot be suppressed with the resignation of Kitchloo, who, according to a report, had to scale a wall at the dak bungalow when a mob tried to storm it.

With the BJP upping the ante before the 2014 elections and the complete failure of the National Conference-Congress coalition to pre-empt an action that could avoid the clash, the Chenab valley stands polarised as of now. Kitchloo’s resignation under pressure from the BJP has instilled a sense of “defeat” among Muslims in the Jammu province. “This can lead to anything. Two Muslims and a Hindu were killed and even Omar Abdullah made this differentiation in his tweet. This would surely push them to the wall and we may see a new group of youth joining extremism. This is a very dangerous situation,” said a noted academic in Jammu who did not want to be named.

But Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress is hopeful that things will settle down. “Kishtwar was the only place besides Kashmir where there was not a single communal incident in 1947. And I hope that this proves an aberration. The BJP is responsible for the flare-up,” Azad, who is popular in the region, told Frontline.

A silver lining was the quiet in Kashmir, which did not erupt as it did in 2008 over the Amarnath land issue. Except for a few shutdowns, it has been relatively calm there. This could help the efforts made towards peace in Jammu.