As Murder of RSS Leader Puts Kishtwar on Edge, Communal Tensions in Poll Season Continue to Plague Common Lives

As Murder of RSS Leader Puts Kishtwar on Edge, Communal Tensions in Poll Season Continue to Plague Common Lives
As Murder of RSS Leader Puts Kishtwar on Edge, Communal Tensions in Poll Season Continue to Plague Common Lives

Srinagar: Surrounded by mountains on all sides and dotted with pristine water streams, the idyllic town of Kishtwar, sits tucked between Srinagar and Jammu – almost equidistantly – at a distance of 220 kilometres.

The beautiful, rolling landscapes of the region, however, reverberate with communal tensions, with even small incidents capable of flaring-up things. The town lies at the intersection of south-east Srinagar and North-east Jammu, and inhibits Hindus and Muslims in a ratio of 60:40.

Day curfew was lifted from Kishtwar on Monday after remaining in force for a week following the killing of a senior RSS leader, Chanderkant Sharma and his security guard by unknown gunmen. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) was constituted to probe the matter.

With the incident occurring just days before the Lok Sabha elections, people have been associating it with Kishtiwar’s murky history of poll-time violence. “Every time there is an election, such incidents occur” says Firdous Tak, a local PDP leader and former legislator.

Days before the Panchayat polls of November 2018, a BJP senior leader, Anil Parihar, and his elder brother, Ajit Parihar, were killed in a similar manner. The case was initially investigated by the local police and is now being handled by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

While the police blames the militants for the killings, people from all walks of lives, see it as nothing but a pre-election gimmick

For Asif Iqbal Naik, a journalist based in Kishtiwar, all this seems to be related with politics and elections – and he blames the administration for it.

“After the killing of Parihar’s brother, the police and administration knew about the threat people like Chanderkant faced. However, their security was not enhanced and additional measures were not taken,” he says, “It is like leaving a lamb in the jungle for wolves.”

The RSS leaders in the region, too, are of the opinion that the security of their leadership is being compromised.

“RSS and BJP leaders are always on the hit list of militants. We have been requesting the administration for proper security but it has gone unheard,” says Ram Sewak, a senior RSS leader. Like others, Sewak also attributes the recent killing to elections.

“The terrorists want to discourage the nationalist forces like they are doing in Kashmir,” he says, adding, “They target leaders and kill them on the selective occasions, like festivals and elections, in order to create communal tensions.”

Sewak advocates the enforcement of the Special Operations Group (SOG), the counterinsurgency wing of J&K Police in the region to counter militancy.

However, PDP’s Tak believes that the police needs to be more ‘cautious and responsible’ in its approach. “After a killing, the police starts harassing innocent people. The relatives of militants who have nothing to do with them are being picked and treated horribly,” Tak says.

“As a result of this, people pick up guns, join the militancy,” he adds. Administration and police, he says, is the pushing people of a particular community to the wall.

Considering the communally sensitive nature of Kishtwar, Tak thinks that there should an equal number of Hindu and Muslim officers.

“There are hardly any Muslim officers on top posts. From Deputy Commissioner to the SHO, everyone is from a particular community,” he says.

Tak’s views are in tune with Sewak’s, who also blames the administration for mismanagement. “It is because of the army that the situation remains under control. Otherwise, the administration has failed miserably,” Sewak says.

Once a Militancy Hotbed

Kishtwar, a part of the Chenab Valley — a hilly belt consisting of three districts, including Doda and Ramban —was once a militancy hotbed.

In the early 1990s, with the outbreak of armed militancy in Kashmir, Kishtwar was flooded with newly recruited militants.

The area remained charged with violence even at the time when counter-insurgency operations intensified in the valley and most militant ranks were neutralised.

Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s main militant group had a special group active in Kishtwar. Besides this, Muslim Janbaz Force, another pro-active militant group responsible for the abduction of two Swedish nationals in 1991 was functioning from this belt.

During that time militants were accused of killing a number of civilians in the area, especially Hindus. However, by 2006, the area was almost militancy-free after a military brigade deployed and Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were formed.

The VDCs were set up as counter-militancy groups in 1992-93, following the number of attacks on minority Hindus. At that time, the entire Chenab Valley was under the Doda district and 5,000 VDC members were appointed in Jammu and Ladakh divisions.

However, the VDCs later came under grave accusations of human rights violations, for the murder and rape of Muslims in the area. Ever since, there has been a number of protests against the VDC members and calls have been made to disband them.

With the Valley witnessing an increasing trend of militancy,attempts have also been made to revive it in this area. In July last year, police claimed to have busted a Hizbul Muhajideen module. A militant and over-ground worker were arrested and a huge cache of ammunition was recovered from their possession.

Election Season

There is general consensus among people here that at the time of elections, Kishtwar sits delicately at the cusp of violence.

“Political leaders from the different communities try to create tensions here. It has been a set trend. They to exploit religion to get votes,” a young scholar from the area tells News18 on the condition of anonymity.

In August 2013, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims on Eid, in which, three people were killed, around eight people were injured and property worth millions was set to blaze. The army was called in to control the situation.

The killing of the RSS leader has once again triggered violent protest with protesters ransacking the office of the senior superintendent of police, forcing authorities to impose strict curfew in the town and adjoining areas besides suspending Internet services in the entire Chenab valley comprising Kishtwar, Doda and Rajouri districts.

While Internet services were restored in Doda and Ramban districts on Friday night, the service was also restored in Kishtwar on Monday with the improvement in the situation.

With elections around the corner, Kishtwar is evidently on the edge. Reeling under curfews and uncertainty, an operatic intensity hangs heavily in the air. The residents sit, with their fingers crossed, praying that another riot doesn’t break this election season.

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