By Yoginder Sikand
Early last month, unidentified gunmen shot dead 22 Hindus in Kulhand, a remote mountain village in Doda in Jammu and Kashmir. The massacre is an indication that the situation in Doda district, racked by conflict over the last fifteen years, continues to be volatile.
Local opinion is divided on precisely who was behind the massacre. Many Muslims claim that it was the handiwork of the ubiquitous ‘agencies’. H, a teacher in Doda, says, ‘It could well have been done by the ISI but, equally, it could have been done by the Indian armed forces, as in the case of the massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chhatisighpora in 2000, which, some people say, was engineered by the army and falsely attributed to the militants, after which the army is said to have killed 5 innocent Muslim villagers in Pathribal, claiming that they were responsible for killing the Sikhs. There have been so many killings here and in the Kashmir valley of innocent people by militants as well as Indian forces that we don’t know who was behind the Kulhand massacre’.
L, a shopkeeper in Doda, argues, ‘In the past, whenever militants have massacred people like this, one or the other militant group has claimed responsibility. In this case, no group has done this. Hurriyat leaders rushed to Kulhand to commiserate with the victims’ families and many militant outfits have condemned the act’. R, a Muslim student, thinks that the massacre might have been perpetrated by political rivals of the Congress because it occurred soon after Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s landslide victory in nearby Bhadarwah. ‘It might have been to defame Azad, destabilize his government and polarize people Doda on communal lines to benefit certain political parties, such as the BJP, that thrive on Hindu-Muslim conflict’, he opines. ‘On the other hand’, he adds, ‘the massacre might have been done by some terrorist groups that, shocked by the massive turnout in the recent elections and realising that many Muslims here are fed up of militancy, want to stir communal conflict to keep the pot boiling’.
A, a Hindu from Kulhand, provides an interesting twist to the story of the massacre. He claims that the day the massacre took place a meeting of the Village Forest Committee, consisting of local Hindus, was held in the house of a Hindu school-master in Kulhand in which a serious altercation took place, and one of those present had threatened the others with dire consequences. ‘It might be that this person contacted local militants to finish off his enemies’, he says. The person he alludes to denies the charge. He admits of an ongoing dispute with other Hindu families in the village for the last three generations and says that his social relations are with the Muslims of the village rather than the Hindus. ‘I have several cases pending in the courts against other Hindus in the village, but I did not issue any threats and I have nothing to do with the massacre’, he insists.
While many Muslims in Doda are hesitant to blame militants for the massacre pending an impartial investigation, most Hindus, as well as some Muslims, think otherwise. T, a Rajput from Kulhand, who lost his son in the massacre, insists it was the handiwork of militants. He claims to have seen the same persons who killed his son roaming in the area a fortnight before the carnage. ‘They had long hair and beards and spoke with each other in Kashmiri’. T speaks of how militants often come to Hindu homes in these remote parts and demand food from them and even stay in their houses. ‘We give them what they ask for and refuse to tell the army about their whereabouts for fear of our own lives. And this is how the militants have repaid us for our kindness’, he says, sobbing uncontrollably.
N, a widow who lost her only son in the carnage, echoes this view. ‘Those who say that militants were not behind the massacre only want to deny that Muslims, like anyone else, can commit such a heinous crime. They say that militants could not have done it because, they say, Islam forbids this, but these militants are not pious religious people at all but criminals’. As she relates the events of that fateful day, her neighbours, Hindus and Muslims, listen grim-faced in stunned silence, and a young maulvi from a neighbouring village places his arm on my shoulder and bursts into tears.
As I leave T’s house, S, her Muslim neighbour, tells me, ‘Some militant groups have their own false interpretation of Islam based on unrelenting hatred of all non-Muslims. But that is not our Islam, the Islam which the Sufis taught us, and at whose hands our forefathers, who were Hindus, became Muslims’. ‘Popular support for militancy has considerably declined’, S adds, ‘because we have seen how it has been infiltrated by criminals and also because we now realize that conditions in Pakistan are terrible and that it is better to be with India instead of becoming a Pakistani colony’.
The massacre suggests that the militants, if they were indeed responsible for the deed, are getting desperate, S says. ‘They wanted to sabotage the recently-held peace talks in Srinagar and widen the communal divide. And now the BJP is taking up the issue, spreading canards about ethnic cleansing of Hindus by Muslims in Doda, thereby playing into the hands of terrorist outfits that actually want this to happen. In actual fact, most local Muslims are opposed to Hindus migrating from here and our leaders have issued appeals for peace and communal harmony’. S tells me of how Muslims joined Hindus in organizing a complete strike in Doda district to mourn the massacre. ‘Even Sayyed Ali Gilani of the Jamaat-i-Islami, known for his advocacy of Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan, sought to come to Kulhand to commiserate with the victims, but he was stopped by the police. The general secretary of the Jamaat-i-Islami visited Kulhand and announced that the Jamaat would pay for the education of three children who lost relatives in the massacre. Prominent Muslim leaders, social workers and doctors visited Kulhand along with Hindus to provide relief and express their shock and sorrow and the Imam of Doda’s Jama Masjid joined the priest of the town’s major temple to denounce the heinous act’.
‘There has never been any communal violence in our area, whether in 1947 or even at the height of militancy’ says R, brother of a Hindu lad slain in the massacre. ‘Hindus are a small minority here and the village Muslims are like our brothers. We visit each others’ houses, attend each other’s festivals and help each other at times of need. Our Muslim neighbours helped us carry the bodies of people killed in the massacre and arrange for their cremation’, he adds. But, R admits, some Hindus are planning to leave the village, following some others in the area who have already done so for fear of more attacks. ‘There is of course a distinction between our Muslim neighbours and the militants. Many Muslims in our village are opposed to the militants but cannot speak put against them or else they will be killed. But after this incident a wall of suspicion has come up. We don’t know who is working with which agency and the trust that we enjoyed for centuries is no more. Our Muslim neighbours insist we should not leave the village, but even they admit that they cannot protect us from the militants’, R says. ‘We don’t know who was behind the massacre’, he adds, ‘but the government should immediately institute an impartial inquiry to set suspicions at rest’. This demand is echoed by every Muslim and Hindu I met in Doda.
R is planning to leave Kulhand for Doda or Udhampur, but G, the son of a slain Hindu school-teacher, is determined to stay on. ‘Where else can we go?’, he asks. ‘We hav
e our land and animals here and we’ll be treated as beggars elsewhere. We’ll live and die here just as our ancestors did’. ‘It isn’t just the Hindus who are fearful here’, he tells me. ‘Many more Muslims than Hindus have been killed by militants and various agencies, so our destinies are interlinked. Communalism is not a major problem here. We have no enmity with local Muslims. But selective killings have created a fear psychosis. Certain militant groups as well as the BJP are hell-bent on widening the communal divide in Doda’. ‘Ordinary Hindus and Muslims opposed to this’, he says, his eyes brimming with tears, ‘but what can we small people do, when our fate is being determined by people from outside?’