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Jammu's Hindu uprising

By Kanchan Gupta
August 05, 2008 14:30 IST
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Jammu is burning. And as of now it appears unlikely that the rage sweeping through the entire province can be doused in the coming days. On Monday, the police, clueless as to how to handle the situation and directed by an inspector general of police who is an outsider, shot at protesters in Samba. They did not shoot to injure or scare away the crowds chanting slogans against Governor N N Vohra and waving the national tricolour. They shot to kill by aiming their guns at the protesters' heads.

The brutal response of the administration and Vohra's inability of to gauge the extent of popular disquiet and outrage have only strengthened the resolve of the protesters to continue with their agitation. The relentless bandh and blockade of highways has been extended by another five days. People continue to defy curfew and army pickets, pouring into the streets in hundreds, something unprecedented in India.

What we are witnessing in Jammu is a Hindu intifada: The young and old, men and women, youth and children are locked in an unequal battle with the police -- and, since Friday, the army -- demanding the immediate revocation of the government order cancelling the transfer of 800 kanals of land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board. The land was meant for creating temporary facilities for pilgrims who trek to the Amarnath shrine every year, braving inclement weather and jihadi attacks.

It's been more than a month that the Hindus of Jammu have taken to the streets, burning tyres, taunting policemen, braving tear-gas and real bullets, violating curfew and blockading the highway to Srinagar. The images emanating from Jammu are eerily similar to those that emanated from Gaza and the West Bank during the Palestinian intifada. More tellingly, the tactics that have been adopted by the protesters are those that have often brought the Kashmir valley to a standstill. If you look at the photographs of the Hindu intifada, you will get a sense of how Jammu has decided to give Kashmir a taste of its own medicine -- in this case it is Dum Dum Dawai (a public thrashing).

The details of the land transfer fiasco are well-known. The Congress-Peoples Democratic Party government headed by Ghulam Nabi Azad had instructed the forest department to transfer the land to the SASB. Within days Muslims in the Kashmir valley, led and instigated by pro-Pakistani separatists, took to the streets, insisting no land should be provided for pilgrim facilities.

The All-Parties Hurriyat Conference spread three canards: First, the transfer amounted to alienation of 'Kashmiri land'; second, it would lead to intrusion of 'Hindu culture' in Muslim Kashmir; and, third, it would cause ecological damage.

Amarnath pilgrims deserve better

The PDP, sensing an opportunity to revive its pro-separatist -- if not brazenly anti-India/anti-Hindu -- image in the run-up to the assembly election in Jammu & Kashmir, joined the protest and subsequently withdrew from the government. To his credit, Azad stood firm and refused to budge from his government's decision, till N N Vohra took over as governor, replacing Lieutenant General S K Sinha (retd).

Vohra, in his capacity as ex-officio chairman of the SASB, wrote a letter to Azad, returning the land and also offering to relinquish the board's task of organising the annual yatra, thus making the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine subordinate to the valley's Muslims ├╝ber alle (above all) politics and Delhi's equally odious politics of Muslim appeasement.

Vohra reportedly sent his letter to Azad at 8.30 pm on June 28. "The news of that abject surrender provoked an explosion of outrage across Jammu," says a senior member of the Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, a broad-based organisation without any political affiliation which is at the forefront of the protest.

"The governor has violated the SASB Act. He cannot act unilaterally. Any decision of the board has to be endorsed by at least five members," says Professor Hari Om, academic and vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Jammu and Kashmir unit. "He is also in contempt of the high court which had passed an interim order approving the transfer of 800 kanals of land to the board in Baltal," he adds.

For all his efforts to appease the Muslim protesters in the Kashmir valley by 'returning' the land that had been allotted for Hindu pilgrims, Vohra was unable to save the Congress-PDP government. The PDP pulled out from the ruling alliance on June 28; on July 1, Azad, obviously under mounting pressure from his party bosses in Delhi, reversed the earlier decision.

Images: Pilgrims' progress

Meanwhile, in Jammu there was a spontaneous shutdown on June 30. "I don't recall such a massive bandh in recent years," says a lawyer who has been involved with the protest; he does not wish to be named, fearing harassment by authorities. Neither do the protesters wish to be identified because they fear they will be picked up from their homes by the police who take their instructions from Srinagar.

So, every morning, afternoon, evening and night, students, workers, professionals, senior citizens and housewives take to the streets, engaging the police in dogfights, hurling tear-gas shells back at their tormentors, chasing cops when they are outnumbered, retreating into narrow alleys when the men in uniform re-gather, and then surging out all over again. Their faces masked with handkerchiefs, they hurl stones; their eyes reflecting their rage. Scores have been shot and wounded; three of them have died; a young man was chased across rooftops by the police -- he jumped to his death.

"Each death only makes us more determined. We are not going to be bullied by the valley anymore. Jammu wants a voice of its own. Jammu's Hindus will no longer tolerate oppression by Kashmir's Muslims," says a young protester, still in his teens, from his house in downtown Jammu. His voice has just begun to crack.

The day after the June 30 bandh, Jammu flared up with street marches and protest rallies. The authorities responded by clamping curfew, in an effort to force people to remain indoors, till July 7. Women came out of their homes and dared the police to shoot them. An enduring image of the Hindu intifada is that of an aged woman, a Pandit who was forced out of the valley along with her family and three lakh other Pandits in the early days of jihadi terror, threatening a Kalashnikov-sporting policeman at a curfew picket with her tattered and torn slipper.

On July 7, the Congress-PDP government officially exited office; the next day the Sangharsh Samiti suspended its agitation, giving the governor a fortnight's time to either have the land restored to the SASB or resign from office. "Vohra did neither. He only added fuel to the fire. He has been insensitive and his actions have only served to provoke the protesters," says a senior official in the Jammu administration.

"Years of neglect of Jammu by Kashmir has resulted in what you are seeing today. The people are frustrated. The Pandits have at last found a platform to vent their anger. Jammu has more people than Kashmir, but the lion's share always goes to the valley," says Professor Hari Om.

Jammu province has 37 assembly seats and two Lok Sabha constituencies. The Kashmir valley has 46 assembly seats and elects three Lok Sabha members of Parliament. Of the 37 assembly constituencies in Jammu province, 25 have a Hindu majority population; the remaining 12 have a Muslim majority profile. "Our voice naturally gets drowned," says an advocate who is a member of the Sangharsh Samiti.

The natural beneficiary of the Hindu intifada would be the BJP. It could end up sweeping all the Hindu majority seats in Jammu province and even emerge as the single-largest party in the next assembly. The Muslim vote in the valley would be divided between the National Conference and the PDP. The Congress could get wiped out -- it has little to claim as support in the valley; following the intifada in Jammu, it can't look forward to winning 15 seats in this province as it did in 2002.

This should have set alarm bells ringing at the Congress headquarters in Delhi. Strangely, the party's 'high command' doesn't seem to care. Or so it would seem from the near non-response to the protest.

Vohra and his patrons in Delhi have "clearly underestimated the determination of Jammu's long-suffering Hindus who have had to cope with denial and deprivation for decades as the state government focuses only on the Kashmir valley," the advocate- activist says.

This explains what happened on July 22. Kuldeep Raj Dogra, in his mid-30s, who was participating in a hunger strike at Jammu's Parade Ground, decided to do something tragically dramatic: He consumed poison, stood up to read out a passionately patriotic poem he had penned, faltered and fell dead. "It was his way of registering his protest against Omar Abdullah's speech in Parliament... he was incensed by the National Conference leader's duplicity," says Professor Hari Om.

The police panicked. They forcibly took away Dogra's body to his hometown, Bisnah, 15 km from Jammu, and "tried to cremate it using old tyres, kerosene oil and liquor", according to a Sangharsh Samiti leader. His widow Shilpi tried to prevent the cremation and raised a hue and cry. The police have been accused of "insulting, abusing and assaulting" Shilpi to silence her. But a huge crowd gathered and snatched Dogra's body from the police. It was taken to Jammu and the situation subsequently just went out of control.

Since then, the Hindu intifada has gathered both force and speed. Curfew has been clamped on all of Jammu and Samba. The army has been called out. The governor has been virtually forced to remain confined within the Raj Bhavan by protesters who continue to gather at the gates in large numbers with every passing hour. Vohra's 'eight-point formula', which included 'allowing' the SASB to 'maintain infrastructure during the yatra period', to end the deadlock, has been spurned. The Sangharsh Samiti is adamant that it will settle for nothing less than restoration of the 800 kanals of land to the SASB for Hindu pilgrims.

Just how determined the protesters are can be gauged from the manner in which thousands of them laid siege to the airport after hearing that Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti were flying in. They had to be flown from the airport to Raj Bhavan in a helicopter after the protesters refused to let them through.

Since Friday night, the intifada has escalated and spread to virtually every corner of Jammu province. Protesters, defying curfew, have been relentlessly pouring out into the streets throughout the night, daring policemen and army personnel to shoot them. Two men were shot dead, 35 were injured when the police fired on protesters ransacking the district magistrate's office in Samba. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the intifada was truly raging in Jammu and beyond.

All trucks headed for Srinagar have been stopped by protesters at Samba and on the Jammu-Pathankot national highway. No trucks are being allowed to enter Jammu from Srinagar. Kashmir's Muslims could yet get to know what it feels like to be at the receiving end of popular fury and mass anger, as opposed to the valley's made-in-Pakistan rage.

Kanchan Gupta is associate editor, The Pioneer. He is based in New Delhi

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