At the centre of the Kishtwar communal clashes is vote-bank rather than separatist politics,a sustained effort at polarisation that explains how a small fight escalated into a frenzy so suddenly.
The response of political parties puts it in perspective. The BJP chose this one incident from among hundreds in Jammu and Kashmir where people have been killed and properties destroyed,and sought to bring it to the national stage by sending Arun Jaitley to the spot. And the ruling National Conference too had political motives when it halted Jaitley at Jammu airport but simultaneously accepted all of the BJPs demands the resignation of Minister of State for Home Sajjad Kitchloo,a judicial inquiry,and enhanced relief to victims.
The stage was being set over the past month. Across Chinab valley,some unidentified people have been pelting stones at and beating up others,while members of village defence committees have been opening fire. It is not clear who these mischief-makers are,but it was Ramzan and all this took a communal colour.
Before it became a political laboratory for polarisation,Kishtwar,whose population comprises a nearly equal number of Hindus and Muslims,was considered the least communally divided region in Chinab valley. Two agitations had strengthened the bond a joint struggle for carving out a separate district for Kishtwar,and one for a separate degree college. In the 1970s and 80s,several youths of both communities were killed in police firing.
The first visible sign of a communal divide in the Chinab valley the mid-mountains between the Muslim-majority Kashmir and the Hindu-majority Jammu,Kathua,Sambha and Udhampur districts emerged after the separatist movement in Kashmir in 1990. Unlike their counterparts in Rajouri,Poonch and Jammu,the Muslims in the Chinab valley are Kashmiri-speaking,though they also use the local dialects. As such,the separatist movement and militancy reached Chinab valley sooner than other hilly districts in Jammu. The Hindu population,ethnically closer to Jammu Dogras,opposed the movement. And as the complexion of the militancy changed with the involvement of groups such as Harkat and Lashkar-e-Toiba,there were instances when scores of Hindu villagers were selectively attacked and killed. Many Muslims,meanwhile,became victims of atrocities by security forces. The government gave arms and training primarily to Hindu villagers to repel militants,and these village defence committees too drove a rift between the communities.
The rise and fall of a police officer is an illustration of the divide. Sub-inspector Shiv Kumar Sharma,also known as Sonu,of Thathri was arrested in June for running and arming a militant group and for involvement in a grenade attack on a police station. From a village defence committee member in 1996,Sharma was made an assistant sub-inspector in 1998 following a visit to Doda by then union home minister L K Advani and CM Farooq Abdullah. Credited with counter-militancy operations,Sharma was simultaneously accused by Muslim groups of staged encounters,the arrest of innocents and extortion. Once he was arrested,the BJP organised protests terming the arrest a political conspiracy by the NC-Congress government to appease pro-militant forces.
In July 2006,the government created eight new districts,including Kishtwar,ending a long agitation. In 2008,communal tensions hit a flash point during the Amarnath land row. Kishtwar saw clashes; two people were killedin August that year.
POLLS & TRENDS
UNTIL RECENTLY,communal clashes did not fit into the regions vote-bank politics. The NC or the Congress dominated assembly constituencies in the Chinab valley. Though saffron groups had always had a support base across the valley,it was not enough to win the BJP an election.
Changing trends in the Kishtwar constituencys polls illustrate how parties of late have been playing on the communal divide. Kishtwar has always had a Muslim legislator. The NCs Sajjad Kitchloo (the minister who has resigned) has won the seat the last two times and his father,Bashir Ahmad Kichloo,four times.
Before the militancy years,the BJP polled a mere 1,066 votes in 1983,and 3,309 in 1987 against Bashir Kitchloos 18,044. In 1996,when the BJP made militancy a poll issue,its candidate came second with 10,900 votes to the senior Kitchloos 17,889.
In 2002,the BJP was nowhere in the contest as Sajjad Kitchloo with 16,725 votes edged the Congresss Ghulam Haider (15,062). But in the last election,in 2008,the BJPs Sunil Kumar (16,783 votes) ran Kitchloo (19,248) close,while the PDP,contesting for the first time,polled 10,403 votes to be number three. The BJP had managed to consolidate the Hindu vote and Kitchloo would have lost but for the SC votes. Sunil Kumar,incidentally,had been working with security agencies in counter-militancy for almost 10 years before joining politics.
The Kitchloos,too,have always sought to consolidate the Muslim vote-bank,though indirectly. They have always kept a hold,directly or indirectly,over the management of the century-old Islamia school in Kishtwar town and the main Jamia Masjid,both influential institutions. Their monopoly over the Muslim vote,however,has now been challenged by the PDP. And because of this competition,the BJP senss an opportunity to secure the seat.
The communal flare-up may have been controlled for now,but the divisive politics is far from over.