A clinical look at the sequence of rioting in Kishtwar since the targetted violence against the miniscule Pandit community and its forced exodus from the Kashmir valley in 1990 reveals a five-year cycle of aggression, viz., 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008, and now 2013, which can hardly be coincidental. The implication is grim: long term plans, most likely in concert with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), have been made for the ethnic cleansing of Kishtwar’s Hindu community, as a prelude to achieving a festering dream (read sore) called Greater Kashmir.
The scheduled exit of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has made the region extremely volatile, with a Pakistan determined to extend its influence on both frontiers pushing jihadis across the Indian side of the line of control to provide relief to the departing Americans. At the same time, the jihadi forces and their collaborators are exerting pressure on the Jammu and Kashmir Government to disarm and disband the village defence committees (VDCs) that have served as the vanguard of the defence of Jammu region since 1995 and provided a sense of security to the beleaguered Hindu community.
Union Minister Farooq Abdullah has jumped into the fray and informed the cabinet that the VDCs comprise of “communal” elements, thereby aggravating Hindu insecurity. The Congress state unit president Saifuddin Soz has also chipped in, calling for a review of the role of the VDCs.
Since the issue is critical to national security, it is imperative that the VDCs are maintained and strengthened, as militancy is expected to escalate steeply in coming months. Kishtwar district comprises 43 per cent Hindus and 57 per cent Muslims, but arms licenses have been issued in the ratio of 2:98, though it is well known that Hindus are the vulnerable community.
Strategic expert Maj Gen Gagandeep Bakshi (ret) points out that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with its hundreds of madrassas is a global jihad factory. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union triggered the fall of the Najibullah regime, but gave Gen. Zia-ul Haq delusions of power and led him to intensify the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, via the Jamait-e-Islami. The ISI wanted the ethnic Dogra community to be ousted from this district, especially after terrorists were eliminated due to the vigilance of the village committees.
The first selective killing of Hindus in Jammu province took place in 1993, when 17 Hindus were identified and killed in Sarthal near Kishtwar. This set a trend that continued up to 2001; the VDCs were formed in response to these communal killings in remote areas that could not be defended by the army.
The current violence, say Hindus from Kishtwar who are visiting the capital to apprise Parliamentarians of their plight, was not an ordinary incident sparked off by some local irritant, but a disturbing instance of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir vs. state minorities (read Hindus). Nor was the violence spontaneous or unexpected, as suggested by the initial reports that appeared outside the State.
The region has been communally sensitive since the hanging of Afzal Guru in February this year. Just two days prior to Eid, the police entered several local mosques and removed posters of Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah with Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, which called on Muslims to take to the streets. Far from strengthening security in the area, the then Minister of State for Home, Sajjad Ahmad Kitchloo, permitted similar posters of Maqbool Bhat, Afzal Guru and Shabir Shah to be plastered on the walls of his family home in the district.
As Kitchloo was present in the town throughout the incidents, locals hold him responsible for all that unfolded. Kitchloo kept the then Deputy Commissioner Chaudhary Saleem Mohammad, Senior Superintendent of Police Sunil Gupta and a 200-strong police force inactive at the Dak Bungalow while mayhem was unleashed from 10 am to 7.40 pm on August 9, Eid day. The Sashastra Seema Bal post in Kishtwar reportedly told the SIT appointed to probe the violence that they had specific orders not to intervene in the arson and looting.
An armoury owned by Kitchloo’s relatives was allowed to be looted by opening the iron gates (there is no evidence of the gates being forced open) and 35000 cartridges and 42 rifles were taken. So far, only 22 rifles have been recovered and 11 persons booked. The blatant nature of the violence – with shops and markets owned by Hindus reduced to ashes in minutes with no response from the police and administration – forced the Chief Minister to take Kitchloo’s resignation on August 12; the Deputy Commissioner and Senior Superintendent of Police were transferred within 24 hours.
But the State Government indulged in a misinformation campaign to keep Parliament and the Prime Minister in the dark regarding events in the district, and the Army could enter only at 7.40 pm. The people alleged that the administration transported miscreants outside the district.
Ostensibly, the violence began a little after 10 a.m. in the Hindu-dominated Kuleed Chowk area after a local BJP leader Sunil Sharma was returning home after bringing some emergency medicines for his family, and was stopped by a 1,500-strong procession headed for Eid prayers at the Chowgan ground. Eid processions have never taken this route in the past, but Hindus stoutly deny that this sparked off any incident.
Instead, they claim, the brahmin mohalla heard loudspeakers making objectionable calls, as a consequence of which Hindu shops and businesses were attacked with stones and petrol bombs. In all, over 100 shops and a similar number of private cars and other vehicles were reduced to a cinder by the time the Rashtriya Rifles’ units 11RR, 8RR and 17RR entered the town.
For years, rich and influential Muslims have been putting immense pressure on rich Hindu families to sell their properties in prime locations in the district to them, and move out. These properties were gutted in the recent violence with the intention of impoverishing and demoralizing the Hindu community.
Kishtwar residents demand that Jammu’s connectivity with Himachal Pradesh should be improved, a demand persistently been made by Ladakh, to give India a fighting chance to hold on to the region. If Hindus are expelled from Kishtwar, the road to Greater Kashmir will be clear. To save the State, India must strengthen the VDCs and provide them with sophisticated weapons in place of the obsolete 303 rifles.