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Deepening divide in Jammu and Kashmir

By Praveen Swami


The deep communal chasms between Hindus and Muslims must be bridged — but it is unclear if J&K’s politicians have the will or imagination needed to do so.


“Sacrilege,” screamed the headlines in one Jammu-based newspaper. Over a week ago, the panchayat of the small mountain hamlet of Kot Dhara mediated a feud between the owner of a horse and a local hirer. After hearing both sides, it ordered that compensation be paid to the owner for ill-use of his horse — and that the animal be put out of its misery.


Later, Bajrang Dal activists in the communally-fraught Rajouri town learned that the horse’s broken corpse was buried a few hundred metres from the hamlet’s temple. For most of the week, it seemed that killing of human beings would follow the killing of the horse, as surely as night follows day, until some firm police intervention put down the brewing riot.


Kot Dhara is perhaps the most inappropriate stage conceivable for an acting-out of the ugly communal war that enveloped Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of the Amarnath shrine board riots. Its residents have long been united by the shared pain of communal fascism. In August 2000, a woman and two small children were among six Hindu civilians butchered by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in one of the waves of communal massacres that followed the Kargil war. Less than three years later, terrorists entered the village again, searching for a Muslim who they alleged was an informer. He was away: but the four women and two children at home were beheaded.


The Kot Dhara-type incidents show that the communal fires set off by the shrine board riots are still burning across J&K. Early in July, charges of wilful sacrilege provoked violence north of the Pir Panjal too. Mobs attacked the police in Srinagar after an accidental fire at Jenab Sahib in Soura damaged the shrine’s ceiling. At least one newspaper quoted local residents who claimed to have broken the police guards’ rifles to pieces after finding cards and liquor in the guard room — inflammatory claims the newspaper made no effort to substantiate.


Why is it that even the fall of the Congress-People’s Democratic Party government has failed to douse the flames?


When the Congress central leadership arm-twisted former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad into revoking the grant of land to the shrine board, few anticipated that the communal backlash in Jammu would prove as intense as it did. Few in New Delhi had been watching the steady growth of Hindu reaction since 2003, mirroring the expanding ideological influence of Islamism in Kashmir.


In the build-up to the 2002 elections, the BJP found itself discredited by its failure to contain terrorism. Much of the Hindutva movement’s cadre turned to a new grouping, the Jammu State Morcha. JSM leaders wanted a new, Hindu-majority State carved out of J&K. In the event, both the JSM and the BJP were annihilated in the elections, winning just one seat each.

New generation of Hindutva leaders


A new generation of Hindutva leaders now took control of Hindu neoconservative politics in Jammu. Sushil Sudan and Anil Kumar were its most visible figures. Bajrang Dal chief Sudan, son of a politically-active family from Sundarbani, had a clear understanding of street-level politics. Kumar was a long-standing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak from West Bengal, who had cut his organisational teeth in the Kalakote-Sundarbani belt. The two men proved perfect partners. If Kumar had the ideological vocabulary needed to draw Hindus to Hindutva, Sudan understood the mechanics of the mob.


Soon after the Congress-PDP government came to power, the new Hindutva leadership unleashed its first mass mobilisations. The leaders of the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad claimed that the former PDP Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s calls for demilitarisation and self-rule were existential threats. Pointing to the expulsion of Pandits from Kashmir at the outset of the jihad, the Hindutva leaders said Mr. Sayeed was preparing the ground for the expulsion of Hindus — and Hinduism — from Jammu.


From 2003, the Hindutva groups sought to forge these anxieties into a concrete political mobilisation around the issue of cattle slaughter. Their cadre would often interdict trucks carrying cattle, and use their capture to stage protests. It wasn’t as if the anti-cow slaughter movement had stumbled on a great secret. For decades, cow-owning farmers — in the main Hindus themselves — had sold old livestock, which no longer earned them an income, to traders from Punjab and Rajasthan.


In turn, the traders sold their herds to cattle traffickers on India’s eastern border, who fed the demand for meat among the poor of Bangladesh. But the Hindutva groups understood that the cow was a potent — and politically profitable — metaphor.


Violence followed. In December 2007, for example, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal cadre organised large-scale protests against the reported sacrificial slaughter of cows at Bali Charna village in the Satwari area of Jammu, and Chilog, near Kathua district’s Bani town. Earlier in March 2005 also, riots took place in the villages around Jammu’s Pargwal after Hindutva activists made bizarre claims that a cow had been raped.


It is possible that the Farooq Abdullah government was not wholly unhappy with this sharpening of group boundaries. At that time, the State government was working on a report calling for creation of new provinces whose boundaries were to be drawn along J&K’s ethnic-religious faultlines — a demand endorsed with some variants by both Pakistan and Hindutva groups. National Conference politicians believed — correctly — that the Hindutva campaign would lead to a consolidation of Jammu’s Muslims behind the party.


Perhaps the most worrying prospect now is the possibility of the success of the shrine board protests leading non-Hindutva political groups to adopt the Hindu communalism which propelled it — a process which, in Kashmir, has led to the legitimisation of Islamist claims and causes among a far wider audience than the religious right-wing.


It has passed almost unnoticed that the shrine board protests in Kashmir were driven in good measure by mainstream parties — not just secessionists.


Baramulla offers an interesting illustration of the politics of the protests. Islamists set off the conflagration. A 600-strong June 27 peasant gathering at Watergam was led by the Jamaat-e-Islami activist, Nisar Ahmad Ganai. Elsewhere in Baramulla, though, pro-India parties drove the protests. A 5,000-strong gathering at Sheeri-Baramulla on June 30 was led by the local National Conference activist, Abdul Qayoom, and PDP dissident Ghulam Mohideen.


In Anantnag, similarly, both the APHC and Geelani’s Tehreek-i-Hurriyat played an important role in organising protests. Tehreek leader Hafizullah Mir organised an 800-strong rally at Anantnag’s Lal Chowk on June 25, while the APHC-linked Fayyaz Ahmad Sodagar and Zahid Hakim led a similar crowd at the same venue the next day. However, the Congress helped the protests move beyond the Islamists’ urban bases. Local Congress leaders burned effigies of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at Wandi-Valgam on June 30, while NC activists were the principal leaders of protests in Paibugh.


Secessionists were, in fact, often peripheral to protests now held out as examples of their influence. On June 27, they were reported as having led a 2,000-strong protest which hoisted a Pakistani flag on the clock tower in Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk. Leaving aside the fact that the flags bore the crescent-and-star logo of Islam and not Pakistan’s national insignia, as reported by several newspapers — Indian and foreign — the police videotape obtained by The Hindu shows politicians Javed Mir and Firdaus Ahmad Shah arriving late in the course of the protests, rather than actually leading them.


Significantly, Kulgam district saw a grand total of just seven protest gatherings. While the Jamaat-e-Islami organised the 8,000-strong rally at Qaimoh on June 30 and an earlier gathering at a historic shrine in Kulgam town, there was no violence at all. Answers lie in the configuration of the district’s politics. The main political force, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is the sole party in the region which had not made an alliance of convenience with the Islamists. Its principal rival, the PDP, had no interest in fuelling the anti-shrine board protests, once it itself came under assault on the issue. Local NC leaders simply did not have the on-ground muscle to influence the course of events.

Political opportunism


Will the political opportunism that underpinned the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir pay off in the coming elections? Depressingly, the answer, most likely, is ‘yes.’ Most analysts expect the BJP to make significant gains in Hindu-majority areas of Jammu, while the NC is thought to have improved its position in the Muslim-majority areas north of the Chenab and the Kashmir Valley. When the plot of a classical Greek tragedy reached an impossible-to-resolve impasse, its author would turn to a device known as deus ex machina: literally, “god on a machine.” An actor playing god would be winched down to the stage to resolve the crisis through a miracle, allowing the show to go on. Elections scheduled for October are being seen as deus ex machina to heal the wounds of this summer’s violence.


Addressing the deep communal divisions in J&K will take a good deal more than just a miracle — but it is far from clear whether the State’s politicians have the will or imagination to write the new script that is needed.


Source: The Hindu, New Delhi