August 2003 News

Unquiet peace in Kishtwar

7 August 2003
The Hindu
Praveen Swami

Kishtwar: A gaggle of schoolchildren spent the afternoon rummaging through the charred debris in Kishtwar's Malik Market with all the enthusiasm normally reserved for a birthday lucky-dip game. One plunge by a neatly-dressed student brought out a pen, another a fancy eraser, a third a notebook. Bal Krishan Sharma, the owner of the destroyed stationery store that had attracted the children, seemed beyond caring. 'The riots,' he said, 'have taken my life's savings. Let the children have what's left.' Less than a week after the August 1 communal riots that ripped through this remote mountain town in Jammu and Kashmir's Doda district, life seems to be returning to normal. Curfew has been lifted, the markets are packed, and no one other than children seems to pay much attention to the dozen or so shops destroyed during violence. Scratch the surface, though, and the deep communal fissures in Kishtwar become evident. Everyone in the town knows who the key figures in the rioting were; indeed, the police have named them in their First Information Report on the violence. The District Administration, however, seems reluctant to act on its own FIR, fearing a second round of bloodletting. The foundations for the riots were laid in late August, when around 250 refugees arrived from the mountain village of Pullar. The refugees claimed their village had been attacked by terrorists four times over the past week, and demanded military support for their Village Defence Committee, a volunteer militia. Even as negotiations were under way with the local Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Mohammad Aslam Hamdani, the BJP called for a strike. On August 1, true to form in the communally-surcharged Kishtwar, Hindu-owned shops closed down while Muslim-owned shops stayed open. The Government Degree College shut for the day, in line with the policy designed to avert communal clashes among students. Even as the BJP workers and the Pullar refugees marched through Kishtwar, Mr. Hamdani sought to open the College, claiming its action was not in line with Government policy. Matters soon escalated, though the sequence of events is disputed. Mr. Hamdani, says the BJP mandal president, Hukam Chand, named in the police FIR for inciting the riot, caught hold of protesters who were just marching peacefully, and abused them in communal terms. He claims the mob was then attacked by another one led by a local politician of the ruling People's Democratic Party, Mushtaq Hap. Muslim witnesses disagree. The BJP mob first started stoning Muslim-owned shops which had not closed down, says local shopkeeper Bashir Ahmad, a PDP supporter. Matters were not helped by the fact that a junior military official actually threatened to use force to block efforts to arrest Mr. Chand on August 1, after he was admitted to a Rashtriya Rifles-run medical facility for minor head injuries sustained during the riots. Muslim communal leaders now use this as evidence of State support for the BJP. Mr. Hap, meanwhile, had himself admitted to hospital for an alleged heart condition, a fact which Hindu communal leaders say is evidence that a Muslim-dominated State apparatus is aiding its own. 'Motives will be read into whatever we do now,' says a senior district official, 'our hands are tied'. Terrorist violence has led to Hindu-Muslim confrontations frequently in Kishtwar. In August 2001, the massacre of 19 shepherds provoked Hindus to attempt an assault on a mosque in Atholi village. Ironically enough, both the temple and mosque in Atholi are built in the same square, an architectural feature common in rural Kishtwar. Yet, with the Government unwilling or unable to confront communalism, extremists have been allowed to gain influence and legitimacy. By Indian standards, the latest riot, like its predecessors, was small. Communal harmony, though, is key to the survival of Kishtwar, set as it is in the middle of one of the worst terrorism-hit areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Sadly, there is little of it in evidence, at least just now.


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