By Saurabh Chandra
So what do we make of the riots in Kishtwar?
The recent riots in Kishtwar are not the first time they are happening there. In 2008 too they happened exactly at the same time before 15th August. The kind of arson, however, where many shops and establishments have been gutted is unprecedented in that region. Many fear that this is an attempt to re-enact the 1989 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Srinagar. Because people are often forced to leave an area when their livelihood burns down. More than an economic setback, it will be an emotional scar which will result in the first trickle of people leaving, eventually leading to a mass exodus. Historically, the region has been a great example of peaceful co-existence of various communities. It has also had a strong Sufi influence. Kishtwar was one of the few areas of Jammu region which remained peaceful even during the horribly mad times of 1947. It is clear that times have now changed.
The incident was triggered by an Eid procession which evolved into a riot. There was a similar riot in Srinagar a couple of days ago for the very same reason. There are separatists who wield influence, however limited, in the state and that separatism, as of today, is largely an Islamist endeavour. It means that religious processions will often takea political colour. The police in Kishtwar was a mute spectator to the riots since it had no way to control the mob other than shooting at the people. Civilian casualties by police firing would have created even more unrest all over the region; they were probably right in their judgement. The army has now intervened and also done a flag march to maintain peace. It would be impractical to expect non-fatal crowd control techniques from the army.
In a state like Jammu & Kashmir, where such disturbances have been happening for over five years— prior to that, terrorism didn’t leave space for such incidents—it is inexcusable that the local police did not have means of non-fatal mob control. It is also worth asking if it is only when the riot occurs that it needs our attention. Given that large religious congregations often turn political, why isn’t the local intelligence unit giving early warnings? Also the fact that after a riot, we have a spectacular track record of not making any convictions encourages the rioters to do it again, and again. If Bangalore police can take pictures of traffic violations and prosecute people, we can surely find ways of quickly—and publicly—prosecuting rioters.
Doda region (of which Kishtwar was a part till a new district was carved in 2006) is much more diverse and communal tensions can be way more violent than the Valley. If the state administration shows resolve in rebuilding the livelihood of folks whose establishments were burnt, prosecuting people who indulged in rioting and arson, and promises rubber bullets and water cannons the next time such an event happens, then I will bet on the minorities of Kishtwar staying where they are. The alternative to this is the army intervening and operating under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Or an exodus of population from Kishtwar. Both of these would be tragic.
Map: JK Police
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based technology entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. He tweets at @saurabhchandra.