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Tension in J&K town after RSS show of strength on Dussehra
05-11-2015

Bhaderwah: In Jammu and Kashmir, where expectations are high that the Prime Minister will bring with him the much-awaited economic package when he lands in Srinagar on Saturday, one town is still talking about Dussehra day.

Almost two weeks later, Bhaderwah in Doda district still remembers three things: a visit by Chief Minister Mufti Moham-med Sayeed who declared he would increase tourist footfalls to this scenic part of the Chenab Valley; a bigger turnout at the annual RSS shastra puja procession; and, firecrackers in the Ravan effigy that could have set the town ablaze, had community elders not managed to prevail.

As they do every year, Hindus and Muslims in this town had gathered around 4.30 pm that day for Dussehra’s grand finale.

Hours earlier, RSS activists had marched through the town, some holding guns, others with lathis, at the same time as the Chief Minister held a review meeting of the Bhaderwah Development Authority, and inaugurated a tourism festival.

As the effigies of Ravan, his son and brother, packed with firecrackers, went up to the sounds of patakas, there was a commotion.

Clutching torn and half-burnt shreds of paper in their hands, some men in the crowd claimed the crackers had been packed with pages from the Koran. The writing on the paper looked Arabic. Swiftly, a crowd gathered, demanding action against the wrong-doers.

“It was touch and go, but we have 95 per cent good people in this place, that is why the situation could be controlled,” Sajjad Khan, Deputy Superintendent of Police in Bhaderwah, told The Indian Express. “Leaders of both communities, from Sri Sanatan Dharam Sabha and the Anjuman Islamiyya, cooperated to restore order.”

The elders at the Anjuman Islamiyya mosque explained to a crowd outside the mosque that no one in the town could be held responsible for firecrackers that had been bought from Jammu. A message went out from the mosque loudspeaker, asking people to calm down.

The next day, Muslim community leaders — like most places in the Chenab Valley, Bhaderwah has a mixed population of about 60 per cent Muslims, 40 per cent Hindus — called a general shutdown in protest.

“We have handed over our demands to the police. They must investigate who was behind the incident, and who supplied the firecrackers,” Khairat Hussain Farash, president of the Anjuman Islamiyya, said.

The government has set up a police SIT to go into the incident. The police are also getting the script on the torn pieces of the paper examined by a Mufti for an expert view.

But the close call has put the town on edge. Farash pointed to the weapons display by the RSS during the processions and asked if Muslims would be allowed to march with weapons.

BJP district secretary Manish Kotwal said there was nothing unusual about the RSS march. “It has taken place every year and no one has said anything before this. RSS is a social organisation, they are not anti-national. But what has changed is that Bhaderwah elected BJP and there is frustration about that,” Kotwal, who is also an RSS activist, said.

“Some people don’t like that the BJP is a ruling party in the state now,” said Kotwal, “and they are trying to destabilise the government.”

The October 22 incident, along with the Udhampur truck attack incident in which a teenaged boy died and another is still battling for life, the marches by the RSS from Jammu to Rajouri and Kishtwar, the ink-throwing incident on independent legislator Engineer Rasheed, the fracas in the J&K Assembly over beef, and even the Dadri killing, have given rise to a feeling among Muslims across the region that “anything can happen anywhere to anyone”, Abdul Qayoom Zargar, a social worker in Doda, said.

Across the Chenab river from Bhaderwah, Doda witnessed for the first time this year a march by RSS activists through the town, with participants displaying guns and lathis.

The day after, members of the Muslim community took out their own procession, demanding a ban on the RSS.

“We are sitting on a powder keg,” said lawyer Syed Asim Hashmi. “The most dangerous thing is that the RSS wants to own this town politically.”

Both Zargar and Hashmi said the situation in the region had changed after the Assembly elections which, for the first time, polarised Hindu and Muslim votes — three BJP legislators, all first-time candidates, and one Congress candidate won the four seats in Doda district.

“The communities are now polarised because of that,” Zargar said.

Doda, he said, was communally peaceful even during the height of militancy. “Hindus lived here without fear. No Hindu thought of migrating from this place, even though this was a centre of militancy. They lived here without any communal tensions. But now attempts are being made to somehow create even the smallest spark,” he said.

Chenab Valley, which includes the districts of Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban, was a region that “guarantees the unity of Jammu and Kashmir”, Hashmi said, but the polarisation has set off fears and suspicion between the two communities.

“There is a strange atmosphere everywhere. Muslims fear that this region will become part of Jammu, and Hindus fear that it might become part of Kashmir,” he said. Adding to the insecurity are the Village Defence Committees, all Hindu, which were given guns to defend themselves during the years of militancy. “Why do we need VDCs now, especially in mixed Hindu-Muslim villages,” asked Zargar.

In neighbouring Kishtwar, which witnessed communal violence in 2008, and again in 2013, a few months before the Lok Sabha elections and a year before the Assembly polls, when three people were killed, BJP MLA Sushil Sharma, and Minister of State, had the exactly opposite view of the situation.

“After the elections, there is a change in the atmosphere. Both communities wanted the change, and they brought it electorally. Since then, the atmosphere has improved, and everything is peaceful,” said Sharma, who used to be a VDC member himself and was later promoted as a Special Police Officer.

Attempts were being made to spoil the atmosphere through the Udhampur incident, he said, “but the government is taking it very seriously, and the situation has been mostly defused. It was an attempt by some elements to set the Valley on fire but it has been brought under control.”

RSS activist and zonal head Chander Kant said the new political configuration has sent out a message to all “wrong elements” in the region “that in today’s situation, they have no political backing. There will be proper investigations by police against anti-national activities, there will be cases registered against people. Wrong-doers are under check now.”

Kishtwar Deputy Commissioner Ghulam Nabi Balwan said the town was “peaceful”, and the people had all given him the assurance that they will maintain peace and communal harmony. The RSS march had gone off peacefully, he said, and the activists had accepted the route suggested by him. “But we are also vigilant. If anything untoward happens, we are ready to tackle it and localise it, and prevent it from escalating. This is a town where the lives of the two communities are intertwined.”