A day before the Eid-ul-Fitr a friend of mine, a known BJP leader, rang me up from my home town Kishtwar – now a troubled place – to wish me on the auspicious occasion. He was critical of me and my family having left the practice of celebrating the occasion with friends and relatives at Kishtwar. We had a long chat over the issue. While my friend insisted that such occasions should be celebrated with the childhood friends and relatives, my point was that the communal divide prevailing in the area was so disturbing that I no more feel the same attraction, which I did a decade back, for the township, where I was born and brought up. As I look back, a song by Muhammad Rafi, 'Kal Chaman Tha Aaj Ek Sahara Hua' just pops up in my mind.
With a population of around 2.30 lakh (2011 census), Kishtwar is situated at a distance of about 230 kilometers from Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The district, which was part of erstwhile Doda district till 2006, has a unique distinction. It is connected with motorable road with Jammu, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and through tracking route with Leh. While the township has a population of 34000 souls, around 94 per cent of the people here live in the rural areas. The area was, till August 9, known for its hydro power potential, world's best sapphire and saffron, gypsum reserves and green gold.
Communal clashes in this hilly terrain are not new. The district has seen the increasing polarization between the two communities since last over a decade. The urbanization, politics of division, administrative apathy and government's incapability have almost brought the two communities at cross roads ripping apart the social fabric of the society, which was once the way of living in the area, known as the land of sufi and saints.
The first major clash between the communities broke out in 1992 when a BJP leader and renowned public figure Satish Bhandari was killed in broad day light by unidentified gunmen, suspected to be militants. The killing, condemned by one and all, was followed by week long disturbances. Though the administration imposed curfew immediately after the incident, a government employee, Abdul Qayoom Dar, was targeted inside his house by a mob. He was burnt alive alongnwith his house, though his family somehow managed to escape the furry. The majority community responded with targeting the shops and other business establishments of minority. Though police picked up some youth for arson and clashes, the killers of both Bhandari and Dar went scot free and the cases were closed "as not traced".
During the peak militancy period, in mid nineties, the state and centeral governments armed the people of a particular community "in order to protect themselves from the militants". Though the people in rural areas were provided with 303 rifles, some of the youth in the main township are believed to have been armed with automatic weapons. These youth, as per some former cops and officers in district administration, actively participated in counter militancy operations. However, despite all odds the communities lived together and communal brotherhood prevailed in the beginning of new century.
As militancy was at its fag end in this troubled region, the youth armed by the government started using the official weapons for their personal gains. There were numerous incidents where Village Defence Committee members resorted to bloodshed to settle personnel scores in the remote villages. The victims never got any compensation as the cases were not falling under "militancy category" and only unsuccessful prosecution was launched against few of them.
Till 2003 the polarization between the two communities had started showing its results. An argument during a cricket match in 2003 led to a minor clash between the two communities but the matter was resolved with the intervention of some prominent persons of the township.
As the state was engulfed by Amarnath land row, the communal flare-up started building up underneath. The intelligence agencies had informed the state government that Bajrang Dal activists were holding regular meetings but no action was taken. Finally it was on August 12, 2008 when a procession returning from the Chowgan ground after offering payers in absentia for separatist leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, who was gunned down in Valley, was allegedly attacked at Hydyal Chowk. The clash broke out when some youth from the majority community, raising pro-Azadi slogans (something common in the area) tried to march inside Hydyal locality, mainly inhibited by minority. If eyewitnesses account is any consideration, the procession was fired upon by some renegades and VDC members. A grenade was also lobbed on the procession. The clash left a youth, Maqbool Kelam, dead and around 22 persons, mostly from the majority community, injured.
As the tempers ran high, a mob from the majority community started targeting the shops of minority around Bus Stand and Shahidi Road area. The town started burning again as the administration failed to respond in time. A teenager, Goofran, said to be a domestic help of a local resident, was standing in Gulhadi Chowk when he was fired upon, allegedly from the house of a leader affiliated with a right wing organization. He died on the spot. A senior doctor, living in the locality, was also accused of having fired with his licensed weapon injuring some of the youth, who were allegedly trying to target Amar Shopping Complex near his house. While around two dozen shops of minority community were damaged, some miscreants struck in the night hours and set house of a National Conference leader Sheikh Faizullah on fire at Hydyal. A similar attempt on a nearby house, owned by former NC MLA Jalal-ud-Din Qazi, was foiled by the police personnel on guard. A patrol pump, owned by Malik family, was damaged near Kuleed, while a residential structure owned by a local doctor, Dr Naqeeb, was set on fire near Degree College. Though after weeklong disturbances normalcy was restored, the perpetrators of violence, the killers and those involved in damaging the property, again went scot free. A BJP leader was said to be named in the FIR under section 302 RPC (murder) but he was not even questioned. The only action from the police was that it rounded up around three separatist leaders and booked them under Public Safety Act. The open FIRs (as it is called in legal parlance) remained on papers and the cases were never even taken up for investigation.
Now what went wrong on August 9, this year, has been discussed and deliberated upon at length not only in the state but across the country as well. The columnists and TV news anchors, sitting in various parts across the country, have even pronounced judgments holding a particular community responsible for the clash. Some of them smell the hand of "forces across the borders" while others termed it as an attempt to "repeat 1990 like forced migration". BJP termed the incident as "a national concern" and NC patron Dr Farooq Abdullah co-related it with Gujrat. Back home the "axed minister" Sajad Ahmed Kichloo cited Godra, while the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah himself was "pained to special attention being paid to the happenings in Jammu and Kashmir".
I am not on to the subject. As Kishtwar remained under curfew for the 7th consecutive day there are bigger questions to be answered and major challenges to be faced – for at least the local leadership. The unfortunate part is that those who were killed or faced losses were neither the forces who instigated the violence, nor were part of it, even remotely. The people, irrespective of their religion, had expected something like this but no one had thought that an auspicious occasion of Eid would prove a virtual disaster for them. As per the official estimates, around 89 shops, 7 hotels, 3 residential buildings, 1 patrol pump and 35 vehicles have been damaged in the township. The government has already announced "a half hearted" and "ill-planned" compensation package and has constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the cases, connected to August 9 clashes. Both the communities have suffered equally and it is the traders who faced the main brunt. The problem may be complex for the government as in most of the cases the shops were run by traders from the minority community but the structures were owned by the people from majority. While the state announced compensation for the businessmen who were targeted, nothing has been said about the shop owners, who also suffered heavy damages of their structures. Police has rounded up around two dozen youth, most of them from majority, while district administration made an attempt to break the ice between the two communities. Till today not a single minister, not to talk about the Chief Minister himself, has visited the township in order to make a "political attempt to diffuse the situation". The situation is grim as the prolonged curfew and tension has led to the humanitarian crises, which has more impact on the society than the loss of property worth crores.
Political observers believe that Kishtwar clashes will go a long way in setting the trend for upcoming general polls in the state, but people – the actual sufferers – want the peace to be restored. And peace may return but the question is what about the communal harmony and brotherhood, which has become the biggest victim? What about the divide, some people sitting in power corridors have created or at least allowed to be created?
(Firdous Tak is Resident Editor at Greater Kashmir (Jammu). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)