Early one September afternoon thirteen years ago, a football arced over the playing field outside the Government Degree College in Rajouri, slamming into a boy standing on the far side. For no reason anyone remembers, a brawl broke out between two groups of students: the football had been launched, it was said, by a Muslim player; the student it hit was Hindu.
Inside an hour, mobs from the nearby bazaar had joined in the fighting. Even as shops and homes began to go up in flames, the police opened fire. Four people were dead before the madness was spent.
Five years after communal fires last raged across Jammu and Kashmir, claiming dozens of lives in a battle sparked off by the grant of land-use rights to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the state has again been seized by a wave of hate. Three people, at the very least, are dead; towns and cities under curfew. The violence has created an uproar in Parliament.
The thing is, communal crisis is the state’s norm: it’s part of the warp and weft that everyday life is woven from.
In April, communal clashes broke out because of an anti-encroachment drive in Poonch; a teacher’s stray remark almost sparked off riots in Bhaderwah two years ago; in 2007, an India-Pakistan cricket match led to pitched communal battles in Rajouri. It isn’t just the Jammu region, either: Kashmir has a vibrant tradition of dystopian politics, seeking to sharpen the boundaries between the largely-Muslim valley, and Hindu-majority Jammu. Last month, Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, called on his followers not to rent their homes to migrant workers, saying a plan was afoot to stage a Partition-style massacre.
Communal crisis is the norm: Image from PTI
It’s just blown up a bit more than usual this time.
Metropolitan liberals sometimes imagine Jammu and Kashmir as a kind of Islam-coloured New Age Shangri-La: a place where Sufi mystics have melded faiths, and temple bells chime in time with the azaan. That’s not quite the truth. Like much of the region, Jammu and Kashmir was lashed by Hindu-Muslim communalism in the run-up to Partition–complicated here, as it was in some other Princely states, by the fact that the pre-independence ruler ran an expressly Hindu state.
In 1931, after Dogra troops killed 28 protestors in Srinagar, Hindu-owned businesses and homes were targeted. More communal violence broke out that September. Partition, which saw thousands butchered across Jammu, entrenched the communalisation.
In Kashmir, Muslims watched the large-scale communal massacres in Jammu with fear. Sheikh Abdullah later described how deeply the experience had scarred his constituents. “There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur”, Abdullah said, noting that “some of these had been Muslim-majority states”.
Hindus, south of the Pir Panjal mountains, looked through at events through a different
Sheikh Abdullah used the rise of the Jana Sangh-linked Praja Parishad to stoke communal fears in Kashmir. In one speech, he claimed the Praja Parishad was part of project to convert India “into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised.” If the people of Jammu wanted a separate Dogra state, Sheikh Abdullah said, “I would say with full authority on behalf of the Kashmiris that they would not at all mind this separation.”
From 1977, the unresolved strains between Kashmir and Jammu became increasingly sharp. In order to fight off growing competition from the Jamaat-e-Islami, Sheikh Abdullah began to cast himself as a defender of the rights of Muslims. He attacked the Jamaat’s alliance with the Janata Party “whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims.” National Conference leaders administered oaths to their cadre on the Quran and a piece of rock salt–a symbol of Pakistan. Paranoia paid those who stoked it big-time: the National Conference was decimated in the Hindu-majority constituencies of Jammu, but won all 42 seats in Kashmir.
When the 1983 elections came around, other politicians showed communalism could be a multi-player game. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted an incendiary campaign in Jammu, built around the claim that the discrimination the region faced was because it was part of ‘Hindu India’. Across the Pir Panjal, Farooq Abdullah and his new found ally Maulvi Mohammad Farooq — secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father — let it be known that they were defending Kashmir’s Muslim identity. At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state.
For several years, Hindutva groups have used the same tactics to corall their constituency, which has electorally drifted Congress-wards in December 2007 for example, VHP and Bajrang Dal cadre organised large-scale protests against the reported sacrificial slaughter of cattle, and riots broke out in 2005 following allegations a cow had been raped.
Prosperity and education have, paradoxically, deepened the schisms. Kishtwar’s communal politics, for example, has been driven by competition over the spoils of big dam and road construction projects.
Everyone stands, thus, to benefit from deepening ethnic-religious tensions: indeed, critics contend former Minister of State for Home Sajjad Kitchloo wilfully delayed acting in Kishtwar, knowing that communal polarisation would benefit his party.
How might all this end? Elements in Jammu and Kashmir’s polity have long urged Partitioning the state along ethnic-religious fault lines in response to religious fears. In 1950, the United Nations-appointed mediator on Jammu and Kashmir, Owen Dixon, suggested that a solution to conflict in the state might lie in replicating the logic of Partition.
In 1953, Hindu nationalist icon Shyama Prasad Mookerjee raised the variant on theme, writing that “we would readily agree to treat the valley with Sheikh Abdullah as the head in any special manner and for such time as he would like but Jammu and Ladakh must be fully integrated with India”.
Everyone from the Pakistan’s former special envoy Niaz Naik, to Geelani, Congress leader Karan Singh and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh-linked Jammu State Morcha have since, at one time or the other, backed the same idea.
In 1999, the National Conference itself issued a blueprint for Partition. Based on the proposals of a committee, the state government advocated the creation of six new provinces. Muslim-majority districts Rajouri and Poonch were to be carved out from the Jammu region as a whole, and recast as a new Pir Panjal Province. Udhampur’s single Muslim-majority tehsil, Mahore, was to form part of the Chenab province, while the rest of the district was incorporated into Jammu. Even the single districts of Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil, were to become separate provinces.
There’s little chance these plans will ever reach fruition. They do represent the political class’ dysfunctional response, though, to the communal storm winds that have lashed Jammu and Kashmir for the best part of a century now: to pander to chauvinism, rather than take it on.
Partition is the theory; the communal riot the practice.
Reiterating his demand for dissolution of Village Defence Committees, Syed Ali Shah Geelani called for a complete shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir on August 15 and also on August 16. He said the shutdown on August 16 would be a symbolic resentment and protest demonstration against the high handedness of VDCs.
313 Brigade. Reports ‘‘68 shops, 7 hotels, 35 vehicles gutted in