Kashmir, Where Beheadings Also Strike Fear
29 June 2004
Asia Times Online
Bangalore: On Friday, militants in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K)killed an Indian engineer and his brother by slitting their throats. The two had been taken hostage two days earlier, along with two other locals - both Muslims - who were subsequently freed. The abductors had demanded a ransom of about US$10,000. The bodies of Sudhir Kumar Pundir, a 28- year-old employee of Indian Railways Construction (IRCON), and his 18-year-old brother Sundeep were found half-buried in a pit in a field in J&K's Pulwama district, south of Srinagar. The two victims had been blindfolded, their hands and legs tied with ropes. The significance of the attack on an IRCON employee is immense. IRCON is engaged in the construction of the prestigious 120-kilometer Qazigund-Baramulla rail project. The project will link by rail the people of Kashmir with the rest of the country, and is seen as a big step towards further integrating the state with the rest of India. By targeting an IRCON employee in such a gruesome manner, militants are hoping to halt the construction of the rail link. India has often referred to Kashmir as its crown, and by slitting the throat of an Indian employee, the militants have sent a powerful message. The killing of Pundir and his brother has triggered panic among IRCON employees working on the project. They fear that it is only a matter of time before militants strike again. Work has been called off on the project and employees are unlikely to restart until they are sure the government can guarantee their security. Meanwhile, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan concluded two days of peace talks in New Delhi on Monday, with both sides agreeing to hold 'a sustained, serious and constructive dialogue' on J&K (the mountainous region is claimed by both nations) until the issue is finally resolved. Although neither side floated any specific proposals for resolving the Kashmir dispute, the talks marked the first direct discussions on the contentious issue since leaders of the two countries initiated a formal peace process in January. Indian officials said that much of the discussion on J&K centered on possible short-term measures to improve the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, such as opening a bus route across the Line of Control that separates Indian and Pakistani forces in the province. The beheading phenomenon The murder of the Pundir brothers comes close on the heels of a series of beheadings of hostages by militants in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Militants with links to al-Qaeda beheaded a Korean hostage in Iraq last week, two days after an American hostage in Saudi Arabia was decapitated. A month ago, Nick Berg, another American working in Iraq, was kidnapped and then beheaded. In 2002, Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan, was taken hostage and then killed by having his throat cut. In the Middle East, where terror tactics have included suicide bombings, hijackings and shootings, hostages are usually shot dead. Decapitation of hostages is a recent phenomenon. But J&K, the Philippines, Chechnya and Algeria have witnessed scores of beheadings by militants. The first beheading of a hostage by militants in J&K came to light in 1995. Six Western tourists trekking in the Himalayas were kidnapped by a terrorist group, al- Faran (which later changed its name to Harkat-ul Mujahideen). While one hostage escaped, another, Hans Christian Ostro, a Norwegian, was beheaded. 'Al-Faran' was carved with a knife on Ostro's torso. While Ostro's beheading by militants evoked outrage world-wide and captured international attention, the beheading of hundreds of ordinary Kashmiris and Indian soldiers by the militants has gone almost unnoticed. The adoption of medieval practices such as beheading and chopping off people's noses and ears since the mid- 1990s in Jammu and Kashmir has been attributed to the increasing Talibanization of the militancy. In the early 1990s, the militancy in Kashmir was dominated by Kashmiris, but by 1994-95 the foreign element in the militant groups increased. Gradually the face of the militancy changed with Pakistanis, Afghan and Chechen jihadis carrying out the more gruesome attacks. Indian army sources in Rajouri and Poonch - the two districts in the Jammu region of the state that have perhaps been the worst-hit by terrorism in recent years - say that the number of brutal killings is far higher in Jammu than in the Kashmir Valley. Scores of victims here have been beheaded. The noses or ears of suspected informers have been chopped off. Bodies of victims have been found sliced to bits. During the India-Pakistan conflict at Kargil in the summer of 1999, the severely mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers caused outrage all over the country. The victims had been severely tortured before being killed. The eyes of some victims had been gouged out. The extreme brutality of militant attacks in Jammu has been attributed to the fact that foreign militants and jihadis dominate the militant groups active here. In the Valley, many local boys joined the militant groups, although their numbers have fallen in recent years. In Jammu, but for the Gujjars (who graze sheep in the upper reaches of the mountains and are familiar with the mountain tracks) who have worked with the militants as porters and guides, locals have largely stayed away from taking up arms. A fate worse than death The use of particularly brutal tactics creates far more terror than the fear created by guns and grenades. Residents of J&K point out that the sight of a decapitated body or the thought of having to live with an acid-scarred face or without ears or a nose for life paralyses them with fear. Several times over the past 15 years, Islamic militants have imposed the burqa (an all-enveloping cloak that covers a woman from head to toe) on women, threatening them with acid and paint if they dared to defy the diktat (order). Women admit that they succumbed to the terror only because of the extreme brutality and gruesomeness of the punishment. In 2000, 16-year-old Mewaiz was shot through the knees for wearing trousers and leaving her head uncovered. There have been several instances of girls becoming targets of acid attacks by militants simply because they had left their heads uncovered or were going to school. The districts of Rajouri and Poonch witnessed a sharp surge in particularly gruesome attacks in the months of November-December 2002. A jihadi outfit had imposed the wearing of the burqa in Rajouri a few weeks earlier. They slit the throats of girls who defied the diktat. Both Hindus and Muslims have been beheaded by the jihadis over the past 15 years. In 2001, the beheading of two Hindu priests in Poonch triggered immense rage in the district, prompting the security forces to impose a curfew in the area. More Muslims have, however, been beheaded or subjected to gory forms of torture and killing. Muslims suspected of being informers are seen as the worst 'traitors' of the jihadi cause. There have been cases of children being beheaded on the suspicion that their fathers were informers and of women being injected with poison as punishment for their fathers, brothers and husbands working with the local police. In 2002, three teenage girls were killed in Hasiyot in Rajouri district. Two of them were beheaded, the third shot dead. Militants accused them of being informers but the girls' families believe that the girls were killed because they were going to school. In March this year, five-year-old Zahida and her four-year-old brother were executed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Jammu's Doda district because her parents refused to provide sanctuary to militants. Meanwhile, several cases of beheading came to light in the run-up to the recent general elections. The Hindustan Times reported an incident where militants chopped off the ears of two village elders they had abducted in Jammu's Udhampur district. The victims had been severely beaten before their ears were chopped off. The militants then took the two victims back to the village and showed the chopped ears to the terrified villagers. This was followed by a warning to the villagers not to vote in the general election. The cases of beheading and chopping off of noses and ears are far too numerous and horrific to be recounted here. Suffice to say, the cases that appear in the Indian media are but the tip of the iceberg. What sets apart the beheadings in Kashmir from the recent ones in Iraq and Saudi Arabia is that militants here have not used the Internet or videos to draw international attention to themselves. Their aims are local. They want to intimidate and terrorize local people into obeying their orders and falling in line with their thinking. And they are succeeding.