Communal clashes in Kishtwar: Lessons from the Past, Metaphors for the Future

An analysis on the cause and effects of the Kishtwar communal clashes.

‘Lastly, there is the effect of the remarkable fact that people in general experience their present almost naively, unable to appreciate what it holds; they must first put some distance between it and them – in other words, the present must first have become the past before it will furnish clues for assessing what is to come.’[i]
It seems winter of violence is coming[ii] to Kishtwar. What we saw on the day of Eid on Friday were the initial signs of what we are going to see and experience in the coming days. Old wounds have started bleeding once again, the rivalries of 90s and much earlier, which one thought were dead and buried long back, have started to resurface. If things are not stopped what we are going to witness will be a long and bloody winter. The latest reports coming from Kishtwar have confirmed three dead and at least 80 injured. About hundred shops are burned to ashes or looted along with many burned and looted homes. Indefinite curfew has been imposed and the situation seems to be in control. But, as soon as I started writing this piece, news started to come that communal tension is brewing up in Tehsil Padder, some 50 km from Kishtwar main town. According to a local news reporter the trouble on Friday “erupted following an altercation between two youth when a religious procession, on its way to Eidgah was passing through Kuleed area of the town. The altercation soon flared up and resulted into stone pelting, following which the youths from majority community went on rampage and set shops and vehicles standing at Kuleed Chowk on fire. In retaliation, the youths from minority community set few houses and shops of majority community on fire.”[iii]

Asking the question, ‘which group started it first?’ is a lost cause from the very start. Both communities have started the clashes many times before and both communities will have to share the responsibility for whatever has been lost – life, property and faith. But, the question that still remains is – why now, why suddenly on Eid, and with such intensity did death and madness dance on the streets of Kishtwar? Neither do things happen suddenly, nor are such clashes spontaneous. If not well thought out, clashes like these at least have one thing underlined – they are necessarily preconceived. Below, I will try to locate the short and long term causes for the Friday clashes.

Understanding the contemporary
The recent clashes in Kishtwar seem to be preconceived and locals from Kishtwar had sensed something sinister looming over.[iv] There had been some skirmishes in last 15-20 days here and there, but they were mostly avoided. The situation started to get out of hook from 24th of July this year, when a Muslim teenage girl was allegedly raped by four Village Defence Committee (VDC) men in Kuntwara, Kishtwar.[v] From 27th July onwards, people have been protesting for punishing the ‘culprits’ and disbanding the VDC. Though the ‘culprits’ have been arrested, but the question of disbanding VDCs was sidelined. This was the not the first instance where VDC men were alleged to be involved in harassing the Muslim community. Previously, there have been several reports of VDC men being involved in harassing the local Muslim population.

When the whole district of Kishtwar was in a state of panic because of the recent earthquakes, there were rumours of some ‘masked men’ looting and abducting young children.[vi] Continuously for two-three nights before Eid, people in the villages of Hullar and Hunjala of the main town of Kishtwar complained of movements of some ‘masked men’ and protested against the inefficiency of police and local administration to nab these men. No body till now is clear who these ‘masked men’ were and what they wanted. On social networking sites, some people called them ‘Gurdachor’ (Kidney thieves), child lifters etc. More than anything, both Hindu and Muslim communities feared that they were the members of the other community trying to scare them.

Then the last in the list of many causes, came up the posters of Hizbul Mujahidin (HM) pasted on the walls of Jamia Masjid and many other small lanes and by lanes of main market in Kishtwar. These posters first came up in May 2012, reappeared in Feb 2013, and then according to some locals were seen again two days before the Eid. On one side, where these posters threatened people against helping the ‘agencies’ and paramilitary forces, the posters also called on the surrendered militants to join them back in their fight for the self-determination of Jammu and Kashmir. Posters further warned some people of returning their money which HM had given to them ‘for profit sharing purposes’[vii].

Thus panic was continuously been created for both the communities and it was just a matter of time when that one spark will burn the whole town. And that spark came on the day of Eid, just when the Eid Namaaz was going on, starting with a scuffle between two small groups that took over the whole town. All the incidents discussed above point to a fact that, the clashes were not spontaneous and  the rumour mills were working day and night to create this situation. But, who is to benefit from these clashes? As a preliminary observation it seems that the whole disturbance is created by some mainstream political party/parties to outplay the other groups in the eve of the 2014 parliamentary elections. In Kishtwar, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), due to its young and local leadership, has been making inroads into the strong belts of National Conference (NC) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). It’s people to people contact and ‘development agenda’ in the priority list of 2014 elections has given it many new members from all corners of Kishtwar. BJP Kishtwar wing, as in various other parts of the state, bases itself on mobilizing Hindu votes over various issues like discrimination against Jammu, aberration of article 370, ‘persecution of nationalist forces’[viii], etc. Till now they have not touched any development agenda for 2014 elections. So their vote base remains restricted to the Hindu community only.

National Conference, despite having the Kishtwar constituency seat and despite having the State Home minister elected from Kishtwar, has not done much for the development of the place. Roads even in the main town explain the worrying state of things in Kishtwar. Irregular water supply, unemployment, high level of corruption in various government schemes like MNREGA and PDS, timber smuggling, unfair means used to get new contracts etc., all appear as blots on the image of National Conference in Kishtwar. PDP at times has been able to raise these issues and thus it seemed that the tide had been tilting towards PDP in the next 2014 elections.

But elections in Kishtwar as in whole India are much more than development issues. They are about past histories, dynastic politics, caste and religious polarizations.

NC always had big names like Sheikh Abdullah and Bashir Ahmed Kitchloo to prove their pro-people politics; they always had enough leadership from Jammu and their history passes through Naya Kashmir manifesto[ix], a red flag with a plough enough to prove their secular, democratic and egalitarian credentials. PDP on the other hand lacks most of these. Their tallest leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has been known for his ambiguous and ever changing stands on Kashmir problem, absence of any big name from Jammu and their mostly Kashmir-valley-based politics at times makes them alien in erstwhile Doda district.[x] Their history also passes through ‘healing touch policy’ and the green flag which at times is seen as an anti-Hindu and anti-nationalist force by many within the Hindu community in the erstwhile Doda district.

Because of these clashes, the agenda in Kishtwar has been set for the 2014 elections, and it will not be development but religious polarization. PDP because of its predominant Kashmir based leadership and because of its doubtful secular credentials will possibly be playing a losing game. More the polarization of votes along religious lines, more will the BJP gain in the elections. The top national BJP leadership has already given signals with their statements that they want to raise the Kishtwar clashes on to a national level. Arun Jaitley’s plan to visit the area two days after the riot also points towards this. NC also seems to be in a winning situation from these clashes because as soon as religious polarization in the election takes place, NC will surely play its ‘secular card’, evoke its past history, its secular credentials and there has always been a sizeable section of population in Kishtwar which in utter desperation of not having communal representative will vote for NC.

So, it clearly emerges who among these parties will be benefitted from the riots in the coming elections. There are many others things which hint that a big section of political class knew about the clashes beforehand. The local MLA (who was also the Home Minster of state before he resigned) was in Kishtwar on the day of Eid, and locals say that he never went out of to pacify the crowds. Otherwise, it does not make any sense with a minister being himself in Kishtwar along with the (Divisional Commissioner) DC, (Superintendent of Police) SP and rioters having a free hand to kill and loot. From 9am in the morning till at least 4pm in the evening, army was not called to stop the rioters. When the rioters were roaming free with guns in hand, there was no one but a few local policemen with sticks trying to do whatever they could.[xi]

Questioning the Past

Even if one agrees that everything that happened on Friday was well thought out, still the question remains, how did people get mobilized so easily? Have not Muslims and Hindus been living in the same Kishtwar for centuries and despite small fights, one had not seen some of the  deadly communal clashes as one saw in 2008 (protests due to Amarnath Land controversy) and on Friday, 9th August, 2013. In this section, I will try and build a longer view of Hindu-Muslim relations in Kishtwar. I will start my observations from the late 1980s which I know might not be acceptable to many scholars given the prior history of communalism in Kishtwar or the larger erstwhile Doda district. Though the history of inter-community relations turning bitter can go a long way backwards, but my reasons of restricting myself to late 1980s comes from the lack of time and space to deal with such a large canvas. Here I will try to understand the inter-community relations in Kishtwar along two axes – the nature of insurgency[xii] in erstwhile Doda district and the response of the Indian state by forming the Village Defence Committees (VDCs).

Opposite to the almost homogeneous society of Kashmir, Jammu province is highly heterogeneous, with large ethno-religious groups. Jammu province consists of all major religious communities of the state like Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists, and various ethnic groups like Dogras, Gujjars, Bakarwals, Kashmiris, Jats, Paharis etc leading to a mosaic of identities[xiii]. Linguistically too, Jammu offers a lot, with Dogri, Kashmiri, Gojri and Pahari being the main languages assisted by various local dialects like Siraji, Bhaderwahi, Poonchi, Kishtwari, Pogli, etc. Likewise, various communities in Jammu differ in their cultural affiliations: if Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur embody the Dogra culture; Doda and Kishtwar have the predominant Kashmiri culture, while Rajouri-Poonch have a Pahari Culture. Thus insurgency against Indian state had to negotiate with these multiple identities and had to understandably satisfy many concerns.

Insurgency started in the valley from the mid-1980s onwards, but the waves reached various districts of Jammu for the first time around 1993, and in some districts it reached as late as in 1996[xiv].

The movement, unlike in the valley, touched its peak much later in 1997-2000 and from there onwards it gradually started to decline. When almost the whole of Kashmir valley was up in arms in late 1980s and early 1990s, the erstwhile Doda district was more or less calm. By 1993-1994, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was almost a spent force in Kashmir and the movement was continuously being taken over by various armed Islamic groups like Hizbul Mujahidin (HM), Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Ansar etc.[xv] This explains the complete absence of JKLF in the erstwhile Doda district and the movement thus being run by armed groups like HM with religion forming the core of their philosophy. JKLF undoubtedly was the first armed outfit of Kashmir but was soon followed by various other militant outfits like the armed wing of Jama’at-e-Islami, and Hizbul-mujahidin (HM). HM could mobilize a huge following among the majority community (Muslims) in Doda, and the reason for this was the huge network of Jama’at. Jama’at had been in Jammu and Kashmir politics from 1940s and in mid-1990s its network and mass contacts came handy for HM. The structure of Jama’at has very well been explained by Yoginder Sikand and he argues,

The JIJK has two provincial wings in the Indian-administered part of the state – one being the Kashmir valley and the other being Jammu. Each provincial wing is headed by a provincial amir (amir-i-suba), who is assisted by a Provincial Advisory Council (subad-e-majlis-i-shur’a) and a provincial secretary (qayyim-i-suba). The chain of command and authority is then further carried down to the district level, where, in each district, the JIJK has a district amir (amir-i-zila), a District Advisory Council (majlis-i-zila) and a secretary (qayyim-i-zila).

The JIJK has a similar set-up at the sub-district level (tehsil), and, finally, at the local (muqami) level, where it has a system of ‘circles’ (halqa). A circle of the JIJK can be set up wherever there is more than one member of the organization. It is headed by a local amir (amir-i-halqa), who is elected by the local members.”[xvi]

The inclusiveness and democratic character of any movement can be judged from the way it deals with the various marginal sections of the society. And Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference had set a rich example of it. After the passing of the historic New Kashmir Manifesto by All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference in its Sopore Conference in 1944, Dalits of Jammu, like the toiling Muslim masses of Kashmir, saw a ray of hope from the exploitation meted to them by the upper caste landlords. Thus, when a movement was started by the Jammu Praja Parishad against Sheikh Abdullah and National Conference, Dalits[xvii]apart from Communists became the main supporters of National Conference in Jammu.[xviii] The J&K land reforms of 1950s in which land was distributed without the any compensation to the landlords, strengthened the bond between Dalits and NC further, and Dalits became staunch supporters of NC, apart from some joining dalit sabhas like the Harijan Mandal.[xix] With the coming of insurgency, the relation between Dalits and Muslims became much more complicated and a bond tried to be built by NC was almost shaken to its roots. In erstwhile Doda district, except the few initial targeted killings, maximum killings were mostly religion based. The killings in Sarthal, Cherji, Atholi, Kulhand, Dessa included common Hindu villagers and many a times included dalits also.

It was in a way the failure of the later phase (post 1993-94) of the Kashmiri National movement that it could not garner the support of the Dalits of the erstwhile Doda district. The apprehension of supporting an Islamic movement was very clearly expressed by Dalits. Nathu Ram, a young Dalit school teacher argues, “Groups like the Lashkar see all non-Muslims, no matter what their caste or class, as, by definition, enemies of God. How could we ever agree to live under them?”[xx] It was thus not the marginality of various sections in the society, but rather religion, which become a prime marker of ‘us and them’, pro-Azaadi and Anti-Azaadi camps.  In the absence of any attempt of solidarity from the various pro-tehreek/ Azaadi groups, Dalits of erstwhile Doda took the side of their co-religionist rather than getting close to the pro-Azaadi camps. Had the movement stood by its democratic and secular principles, and shared the concerns of everyday life, the Dalits of erstwhile Doda district might have supported the call for Azaadi. But it was not to be so and thus most of the Dalits in Kishtwar and Doda did not even hesitate to be a part of the Village Defence Committees (VDCs). Killings of these marginal sections of society proved that the movement was had increasingly become religion-based in erstwhile Doda district and stood less on any secular, democratic or an egalitarian ethos. In this light, then, it becomes crucial to put more light on the VDCs and what they have come to mean to the local population.

The response of Indian state to the pro-Azaadi groups was very much similar to that in Chhattisgarh, where a local militia (Salwa Judum) was created to fight the insurgents.

The idea of VDCs first came from the hilly Doda district and the argument given by the government was the presence of hilly and mountainous topography of Doda, where the houses are scattered and thus it was impossible for the security forces to provide protection to the villagers. Praveen Swami argues that one reason of using VDCs in Doda was that due to the obscurity of Doda, the killings and the militancy does not make the headlines, so the army was not that interested in being deployed to Doda.[xxi]

But can the obscurity of Doda be the only reason for the forming of VDCs? Apart from being a very ‘obscure district’, Doda is also economically one of the most backward districts of the state with very few means of livelihood except. A VDC personnel was paid only Rs. 500 per month, which is three times less than a Special Operation Group (SOG) personnel working in J&K.[xxii] Thus, in financial terms, it was very beneficial for the Indian state to have VDCs. In the name of protecting the people a method was devised in which local people fought the insurgents, with a small salary and this also prevented the deployment of army in these places, which could have been very costly.[xxiii] Thus what the VDC did for the state as well as the central government was to create a few more jobs for the unemployed youth on one hand and save resources on the other. But the real repercussions of the policy of arming the locals was much more serious and dangerous, as most of the recruitments were strictly done on a communal basis, and most of the arms were given to the Hindus and almost negligible to the Muslims. This retrograde step made the other community – the Muslims- apprehensive about the nature of this armed militia and the cordial communal relations which different groups shared till now was fissured deeply… K. Balagopal puts it in a much forceful way when he argues, “If it is unpardonable to militarise a society in the name of tackling an insurgency, then it is unpardonable a hundred-fold to criminalize it”.[xxiv] What Indian state did by creating VDC was actually ‘criminalization’ of civilian population, the full repercussions of which are yet to be seen.

The main force behind the AFSPA being imposed in the Jammu region (erstwhile Doda District especially) was BJP and specifically the M.P from Doda-Udhampur Constituency, Prof. Chaman Lal Gupta from BJP. As soon as the act was passed, huge ammunition was given to the SOGs and a large number of Hindu youths were recruited into the VDCs.

This had a very strategic importance for the BJP in Doda and other parts of Jammu region. By projecting themselves as the real well-wishers and saviours of the minority community (Hindu), they expected to galvanize mass Hindu opinion and thus increase their vote tally. Not only were the VDCs almost reserved for Hindus but certain announcements were made by various BJP leaders which further increased the gulf between the two communities in Jammu region. One such example was when “senior BJP leader Sahib Singh Verma, stirred a major storm when, in the course of the BJP’s ‘Save Doda’ campaign in Jammu, he announced a reward of one lakh rupees for every civilian who shot dead a ‘militant’”.[xxv] Under tremendous criticism by various sections of the civil society, Sahib Singh Verma changed his words from ‘every civilian’ to a ‘member of VDC’, thus making it quite clear why VDC was brought into being. Even statist commentators like Praveen Swami could not ignore the direct relationship between VDCs and BJP. In one of his articles he argued, “the VDCs did little to help the BJP in the recent Assembly elections but the fact is that the scheme has helped the Hindu Right generate a state subsidized cadre”.[xxvi] Thus to a large extent it is very clear that the VDCs were a brain child of the Hindu right wing political parties to get more support and votes in the Jammu region and thus consolidate their base properly in Jammu.

Though according to the officials statements of the Government of India (GOI), militancy is at the lowest ebb in the whole J&K, but erstwhile Doda is still a ‘disturbed zone’, AFSPA is still in place and the VDCs still call the shots. On October 29, 2012 when the whole Kishtwar town was protesting against a ‘blasphemous page’ on Facebook, along with the demand of arresting the culprits, it was also demanded that the government disband the VDCs. Though there seems to be no direct relation between the two demands, yet the presence of armed Hindu groups is linked to the larger question of Hindu-Muslim relations and everyday life. Along with many other factors, the presence of these armed groups and the ‘gun culture’ that has developed in Kishtwar town has completely ripped apart any harmonious relations which existed between two communities.

Thus under the pull of these two factors –the Islamic nature of the later phase of the Kashmiri movement and the creation of VDCs – the two communities chose their sides accordingly and the common spaces kept on shrinking thus making the divisions more and more apparent. This division which seemed to be political in the initial phase soon entered the ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ spaces and the fissures are now visible very clearly from strict demarcation of religious practices, to dressing sense and even eating habits. Now the search for an Indian or Pakistani ‘other’ does not start from the plains of Jammu or across the LOC. A native Kishtwari is slowly being replaced by a bhagwa (saffron) and sabaz (green) Kishtwari. Now they do not need to travel long distances to find their imaginary enemy, he is there across the street or across the boundary wall of their homes.

[i] Sigmund Freud (2004), Mass Psychology and other Writings, Translated by J.A Underwood with an Introduction by Jacqueline Rose, London, Penguin Books. Pp. 109

[ii] ‘Winter is coming’, (which means that after a long and beautiful summer, will come a long and disastrous winter, when the dead will rise and walk on the earth to destroy all that was living and beautiful), is a brilliant one-liner in an American television serial, Game of thrones.

[iv] The sources of information about the local perceptions of things are the long telephonic conversations which I have been having with my family, friends and relatives in Kishtwar before, during and after the riots.

[v] ‘Minor gang-raped in Kishtwar, 2 held’, Greater Kashmir, Srinagar, Sunday, 28th July.

[vi] Asif Iqbal Naik, ‘After quake, `masked men’ create terror in Doda’, Early Times, Kishtwar, 4thAugust.

[vii] Asif Iqbal Nik, ‘HM poster appears on walls of Jamia Masjid, Kishtwar’, Early Times, Kishtwar, 18th May, 2012|

[viii] This refers to the arrest of a Sub-inspector from Thathri, Kishtwar who was been allegedly involved in various fake encounters. Local BJP wing protested in Kishtwar against the arrest of the said Sub-inspector calling it as the ‘persecution of nationalist forces’.

[ix] New Kashmir manifesto was the vision document of NC which was used as a blueprint for the future reforms (1948-1953). It was passed in 1944 in Sopore session of National Conference.

[x] Erstwhile Doda district refers to undivided Doda district before new District Kishtwar was carved out of it.

[xi] Maneesh Chhibber, ‘Kishtwar a tinderbox, region under curfew after clashes’, Jammu, Indian Express, 11thAugust, 2013.

[xii] Insurgency here refers specifically to the armed rebellion lead by many groups in Jammu and Kashmir for the right of self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

[xiii]Luv Puri (2008) Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir: The uncovered Face, New Delhi, Bibliophile South Asia.In this book Luv Puri has dealt in some detailed analysis of militancy in Jammu province.

[xiv]The first incidents of violence were seen in Doda district which started with the abduction of a French Engineer working in Baglihar dam in 1991, and killing of various civilians for the first time in 1993-94. In Rajouri-Poonch infiltration did occur but the civilian population got involved for the first time in 1995-96.

[xv] For a detailed history on the politics of JKLF and HM, see chapter 3rd of Sumantra Bose (2003), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, New Delhi, Vistar publications.

[xvi] Yoginder Sikand, ‘The Emergence and Development of the Jama’at-i-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir (1940s-1990)’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 2002), pp.-711

[xvii] Balraj Puri (1968), ‘Jammu and Kashmir, in Myron Weiner ed. State politics in India, Princeton, Princeton University Press , pp. 227

[xviii] According to Balraj Puri and Prem Nath Bazaz, in Jammu the main support of Sheik and NC was the communist group led by Com. Dhanwantri and Sardar Budh Singh. Controversy surrounds the presence of Dhanwantri in Jammu. According to Puri and Bazaz, Dhanwantri was a CPI activist deputed to look after the party building in Jammu. But according to the preface of an obscure book, “The warnings of Punjab” written by P.C Joshi and Dhanwantri himself, (which the author found in P.C Joshi Archives, JNU), Dhanwantri was in Andaman Jail continuously till 1946, so his question of being in Jammu is impossible. Nonetheless there was a definite communist presence in Jammu which gave NC and Sheikh a little but important hold.

[xix] Balraj Puri (1968), ‘Jammu and Kashmir, in Myron Weiner ed. State politics in India, Princeton, Princeton University Press , pp. 227

[xx]Yoginder Sikand, Dalits In Jammu: Demanding To Be Heard,, 10 November, 2004.

[xxi] Praveen Swami, ‘Disturbed Doda’, Frontline, Vol. 18, No. 17, Aug, 18-31, 2001.

[xxii]An SOG (Special Operation Group) was a group of local youths recruited temporarily in J&K police force for combating militancy in J&K who were paid a salary of only Rs.1500 and they had to work much more than the policemen because they were thought to be more knowledgeable about the area.

[xxiii] Yoginder Sikand, ‘Village Defence Committees in Doda: Solution or Problem?’, at, Issue no.27, February, 2007.

[xxiv]K. Balagopal, Kashmir: ‘Self-Determination, Communalism and Democratic Rights’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 44 (Nov. 2, 1996), pp.  2921

[xxv] Yoginder Sikand, ‘Village Defense Committees in Doda: Solution or Problem?’, at, Issue no.27, February, 2007.

[xxvi] Praveen Swami, ‘On an Edge in Kishtwar’, Frontline, Vol.20, Issue, 17, Aug, 16-29, 2003

Amit Kumar is a PhD Scholar at the Department of History, Delhi University. He did his masters, MA (in Modern History) from JNU and in his fourth semester, worked on a seminar paper comparing insurgency in Kashmir Valley and erstwhile Doda District.

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