What pushed Kishtwar over the edge?

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Clashes in Kishtwar Photo: PTI
Shops and houses were set on fire after two groups indulged in stone-pelting and arson in Kuleed area in Kishtwar district last week. PTI Photo

As communal riots go in the country, it was probably the most inane reason for one to start. A crowd of around 50-60 Muslims from the village Huller were heading to the idgah in Kishtwar to offer prayers, shouting “God is great”, the template Muslim slogan. Some say they were also chanting separatist slogans. On passing through Kuleet, a Hindu village, an alleged motorcycle-borne cop drove through the procession upsetting the people, who then started beating him. This alarmed the villagers who reportedly started throwing stones at the crowd. The consequent disorder alerted the people who had already gathered at the nearby idgah. A section of them marched towards Kuleet and set fire to shops.

Incidentally, the J&K Minister of State (MoS) for Home, Sajjad Ahmad Kitchloo, who has since resigned, was in the idgah at the time and watched the situation unfold. In the following hours, the communal violence spread through Kishtwar town and its outskirts, leaving three people dead – one killed in police firing, another burnt alive by a mob and the third killed after being abducted from a police station at Padar. His body was later found hung from a wire at a helipad in Gulabgarh. Scores of people were injured in the clashes. There were attacks on properties with the minority community bearing the brunt in Kishtwar town and the majority community suffering losses in the village.

Kitchloo sought refuge in the nearby Dak Bungalow. From there he started directing the operation, but with little effect. And when the police failed to restore order, the government called in the army to patrol the streets. The deceased have been identified as Arvind Kumar Bhagat, Bashir Ahmed Mocha and Ghulam Rasool. The next day, the entire region was threatening to go up in flames with Jammu at the centre of it. On the night of 10 August, a group of miscreants chased away the police from the streets of the New Plots locality in Jammu city and set fire to a hotel and around eight shops. There were similar attacks in other areas. This forced the government to clamp curfew in the state and deploy the army to control the situation. Similar measures were taken to tackle the fast deteriorating situation in the neighbouring districts of Rajouri, Sambha and Udhampur.

There was a fallout in the valley as well. Separatists were quick to call for a two-day shutdown and there were protests in several towns. However there was no violent reaction. As is the familiar practice, the government cut access to internet in the entire state. The communal violence in the town, otherwise known for good inter-community relations, has baffled many. According to Asif Iqbal Naik, a local journalist, the situation in the district was simmering for a long time. It only needed a trigger to boil over and the Eid scuffle provided this. “There was tension in the district after four Village Defence Committee members abducted a minor girl in August and raped her. So far only two of the assaulters have been arrested. This created a divide between the two communities which has been simmering since,” he said.

Moreover, three days before Eid, separatists had put up posters across the town advising people that the time for seeking ‘azadi’ through slogans had passed and that it was time for ‘real struggle’. The posters with pictures of Afzal Guru and JKLF founder Mahmood Bhatt had been issued by the Shabir Shah-led Deomocratic Freedom Party, a constituent of the moderate Hurriyat Conference.

However, according to PDP leader Asghar Ali, there was nothing exceptional about them. “Posters like these occasionally surface in the town. This has been happening for more than two decades, but they do not necessarily affect the public mood,” said Ali, whose hotel in Kishtwar was also gutted in the clashes. He blamed government failure for the riots. There was intelligence input that trouble had been brewing in the town, but despite that, there was no police deployment and no pre-emptive measures were taken.

One such input was from a senior officer in the district administration. Days before his recent transfer from the district, the Additional Deputy Commissioner had identified a group of around eight troublemakers in the town and asked for their arrest.

BJP leader Sunil Sharma, who was blamed for stoking the conflict for political gain, said that the trouble was started by a mob beating a cop. He blamed the Kitchloo family of the former MoS Sajjad Kitchloo, for engineering riots in the district. “Whenever the Kitchloo family sees the political ground shaking underneath their feet, they create communal tension to consolidate their position,” Sharma told TEHELKA. These riots didn’t happen suddenly, they were pre-planned, he said.

However, local leaders in Kishtwar say that only the BJP benefits electorally from a communal clash in the district. “The Muslim-Hindu population ratio is 60:40,” said Ali. “So a polarisation will only help the BJP while the Muslim vote will get split between the Congress, the NC and the PDP.”

The government has now ordered a time-bound judicial inquiry into the circumstances that led to the riot. The state government did not allow BJP leader Arun Jaitley to visit Kishtwar and he was forced to return to New Delhi. Similarly, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti was turned away while on her way to the town. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah taunted the BJP for making a show of outrage over Kishtwar. “Would Jaitley be so kind as to inform Parliament whether the Gujarat home minister or MoS, Home resigned or even offered to in 2002?” Omar tweeted. “3 unfortunate deaths – one Hindu, two Muslims – and we had a judicial inquiry with a minister resigning. Would the BJP care to recount its 2002 response over the Gujarat riots? They cannot because their star PM waited for days to call out the army and have yet to apologize. Hypocrites!”

However, the clashes did not completely separate the two communities. In Kishtwar itself, the wedding procession of doctor Ashish Sharma, son of a J&K excise department employee, was escorted by his Muslim neighbours to his bride’s house in a Muslim-dominated village, Poohi.

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