Jammu’s Alternating Narratives

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After the gruesome Kathua tragedy, almost everybody is asking: what is happening in Jammu? And why is it happening at all? Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal explains the crisis that has pushed the temple city into a catch-22 situation where it has to decide which side of history the city is so keen to follow

The rape and murder of an 8-year-old nomadic girl in Kathua does not only portray a chilling gory tale of the brutal depths of sexual violence but is also significant for the potential of a heinous crime in polarising Jammu on communal lines. Shockingly a sizeable chunk of Hindu population has thrown its weight behind the accused by propping up the misplaced narrative of Hindu victimhood.

Xenophobia has been an important element both in the crime and the ugly defence of the alleged perpetrators. Crime Branch investigators say the motive behind the heinous crime was to scare away the nomadic population of Gujjars-Bakerwals, who are Muslims, from the upper caste Hindu dominated belt of Kathua.

Though it is unclear what interests this would have promoted, one can safely hazard two guesses. One the communal polarization of the region serves the political vote bank interests of the Hindu right wing, both in the state and rest of the country. Second, driving away the migratory population from the region allows influential land grabbers, enjoying political patronage, to encroach on vast tracts of state and forest lands with impunity.

The Gujjars and Bakerwals follow a migratory nomadic pattern of life, spending their time in the plains during winters and shifting to the upper reaches of the Himalayas in the summers. Theirs is a sustainable way of life which does not impose much burden on the flora and fauna of the land. Barring some aberrations of some members of these tribes settling down, after purchasing or encroaching upon small chunks of land, these nomads are virtually landless and live off the forest lands. Many stereotypes have been propped up in recent years to brand these tribes as ‘land grabbers’, ‘cattle smugglers’ and ‘pro-terrorist’. These are erroneous claims with not even a shred of evidence.

The nomadic communities are extremely vulnerable in the absence of a definite tribal affairs policy in Jammu and Kashmir, the non-demarcation of forest lands and the inability of successive state governments in bringing the J&K Forest Rights Act at par with the national law. BJP, a partner in the ruling coalition government, has been ruthlessly opposing the demands for amending the forest rights act, ironically stonewalling any discussion on this by invoking Article 370 which it otherwise opposes.

The vulnerability of the nomadic community has increased since the BJP became a partner in the PDP-led coalition government with many of their families in Jammu region being evicted forcibly from the forest and state land in the name of anti-encroachment drives, even as the big land sharks remain untouched. The ability of the BJP to whip up frenzy through anti-Muslim hate-mongering by stereotyping the Gujjars and Bakerwals provides a social legitimacy to such actions and rhetoric. Since 2014, the Hindu right wing has been tirelessly perpetuating hatred against these nomadic tribes, who are part of the state, and Rohingyas Muslims, who are foreign immigrants taking refuge in Jammu due to their persecution in Myanmar.

The unleashing of this xenophobia is part of a project that the saffron brigade started in 2008, with a counter agitation against Kashmir over Amarnath land transfer amidst a conscious denial of communal ideology fuelling the divide. In recent years, the anti-Kashmir narrative has been transformed into a more open demonization of Muslims.

Jammu’s newfound appetite for communal discourse and polarization is rooted in several factors including a sense of victimhood, that stems from the theory of regional discrimination (no empirical evidence of which exists) and the domination of Kashmiri politicians and Kashmir’s political discourse which invokes a sense of inferiority.

Ever since partition, Jammu is a sad saga of a leadership vacuum, and local political formations were unable to replace the popularity of the Muslim Conference of pre-1947 days. This space has off and on been captured by the Hindu right wing, often with the Delhi’s tacit facilitation and support (irrespective of the party in power in central government), which is inspired by the ambition of using Jammu as an ultra-nationalistic counter to Kashmir’s separatist narrative, right from the days of the Praja Parishad agitation of 1950s. When BJP came to power in 1999 in Delhi, it leveraged the right-wing groups to penetrate deeper into the social fabric of the state through silent mushrooming of RSS shakhas and communalization of institutions like village defence committees.

Post-2014, Jammu has had a brush with a more virulent form of Hindutva, which is primarily an offshoot of the national landscape. The parallel religious radicalization of Muslims in Kashmir and Chenab Valley’s also provides it with the necessary fuel; the religious radicalization on both sides is fodder to each other and gets strengthened through the injected poison of ‘othering’. The Gujjars and Bakerwals, who have been soft targets in any incidence of communal polarization despite their distinct identity, have become even more vulnerable as the RSS narrative pushes this intermingling of several minorities including Rohingyas under one umbrella of Muslim identity; also by the appropriation in Kashmir’s political discourse of Gujjars-Bakerwals as Muslims, in the aftermath of the Kathua incident.

Jammu’s present and prolonged bout of communal discourse cannot be fully grasped without an understanding of its history in the last seven decades.

Since 1947, Jammu has had a strange history of alternative and parallel narratives of pluralism and communalism. If 1947, was witness to the darkest periods in this region with large-scale massacres and violence triggering massive displacements across the disputed Line of Control on either side, in 2018 the Kathua rape and murder exposes the dark underbelly of communal ideology that continues to erupt every now and then, vertically followed by its horizontal expansion, disturbing the secular fabric of the region.

In 1965, when many Muslims in Rajouri and Poonch sided with the pro-Pakistan rebellion, inspired by the rebellion of 1947, the Muslims began to be seen as the ‘other’. But within years, the two communities mended fences and revealed a perfect example of communal amity.

Between 1984 and 1989, Jammu was severely impacted by the Punjab militancy and the changing political idioms of Punjab politics, causing communal polarization and even rioting between Hindus and Sikhs, unlike the days of the partition of the sub-continent when both communities were together engaged in pitched battles against Muslims.

While it didn’t take long for the relations between the two communities to repair, the challenges thrown by the Kashmir militancy through the 90s and the incidence of both the en-masse migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley as well as some cases of selective killings by militants did not hamper the traditional amity between Hindus and Muslims. Occasional communal simmering from parts of Doda region in 1991-92, including the one after a busload of people, were asked to alight off, then segregated on basis of religious identity for non-Muslims to be shot dead by militants, did not inspire vindictive politics in much of Jammu region including its Hindu heartland, the powerful nerve centre of the region with Hindu dominated Jammu city as its capital.

Barring some aberrations, Jammu showed exemplary calm and maturity, not succumbing to the nefarious designs of both the state and non-state actors keen on sowing the seeds of divisive politics. This was despite the traditional animosity with respect to Kashmir. The hegemony of Kashmiri politicians has often caused much anxiety and an inferiority complex and in the absence of a viable leadership post-1947, Jammu by and large clung to the politics of discrimination. The division of the state into two entities separated by the LoC did not only deprive Jammu region of an effective leadership, it also burdened it with the mobility of refugees from Pakistan Administered Kashmir that continues to inspire a warped and selective sense of historical trauma, pain and suffering. The wounds inflicted on the Muslims through butchery in Jammu city, Reasi and other places and the massive flight of lakhs of Muslims to the newly created Pakistan in 1947, is something that remains forgotten and induces psychological denial. Is this inspired by a politics of hate or by the apolitical nature of Jammu’s society?

Jammu has been an enigma for several decades. While Jammu itself is a complex mélange of many sub-regional, linguistic, ethnic and religious identities as well as diverse topographies, it has curiously also accommodated many immigrants since before partition and absorbed many diverse cultures as part and parcel of the region. Several communities have lived for years, by and large in harmony.

Even the initial protests over the Kathua episode were staged jointly by Hindus and Muslims in Kathua and students from mixed backgrounds in Jammu University.

In the post-partition period, Jammu’s society until 2008 had been by and large apolitical and peaceful. Only recently, the Hindu belt of the region has emerged with a predominant Hindu narrative and a silent militarism. Its newfound political consciousness is injected by virulent doses of communal hate that serve the agenda of political groups that wish to use this narrative for vote bank politics, both within the state and outside.

In striking contrast, Jammu has a history of heroes like Bawa Jitto, who fought feudalism hand in hand with a Dalit friend, Mian Dido, who rebelled against the landlords patronised by the Lahore durbar and the Dogra rulers; and Comrade Dhanwantri, the firebrand ideologue and activist of the Revolutionary Group led by Bhagat Singh.

For the larger public of Jammu, it is a major challenge. They need to decide whether they wish to be employed as tools in the hands of right-wing radical groups and re-ignite the shameful legacy of 1947 or do they want to revive the legacy of accommodation and Jammu’s liberal heroes; this legacy is as old as the legendary stories of lion and goat drinking water together from the same river.

(The author is Executive Editor Kashmir Times)

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