Kishtwar was sitting on a powder keg and waiting to explode. A match stick was lying very near. A verbal exchange between a few people on Eid Day warped into a communal frenzy. Within hours, its two main bazaars were reduced to cinders. Smoke was billowing out of the town when columns of army marched to put an end to senseless violence that left 2 dead, 30 wounded.
Next day as stunned victims started to count the loss, the local politicians also tried to do their Math, with an eye on the polls. What must have been achieved or rather could have been achieved in terms of the vote pie charts. The time to harvest on a sustained polarisation had come.
The BJP which has never won the Kishtwar assembly seat smelt an opportunity. It didn't waste any time and dispatched Arun Jaitley to Jammu and later to raise decibels in Parliament. The party believes it would get a shot beyond Kishtwar till Jammu and further up to Kathua, hoping to replicate the success in the aftermath of 2008 Amarnath agitation when it wrested votes from rival Congress. A shout from its Prime Ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi from Hyderabad is not without a meaning.
The BJP in Jammu is feeling the pinch. With 7 of the 11 MLAs expelled, it is looking for an emotive issue to recreate the 2008 magic. Kishtwar could be a plank.
The National Conference put brakes not only on Jaitley's visit but virtually locked up opposition leader Mehbooba Mufti. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah did not "allow anyone to play politics" but himself. He virtually forced his junior minister Sajjad Kitchloo - an MLA from Kishtwar - to resign after BJP accused him of playing a hand in the riots. Abdullah even ordered a judicial inquiry to steal the wind from BJP's boat.
The PDP kept waiting for Abdullah to err to score some brownie points while coalition partner Congress chose to do what it always does on sensitive issues - Ostrich!
Kishtwar fires were not stoked on a single day. It was building and waiting to implode. The dry twigs were laid when a girl from majority community was raped by a family member of a VDC - Village Defence Committee - member and three others. The rape followed the arrest of a VDC man turned cop Shiv Krishan Sharma alias Sonu for faking encounters and arms seizures. A teenage boy was mysteriously killed in Doda. And then an unseen kaccha gang that pelted stones on houses during Ramazan nights. Incidents like these, the Gool-Ramban killings and a few provocative speeches only added to the communal tension in the Chenab valley.
Tension in fact is not new in the mountains. It had erupted during the 2008 Amarnath agitation. Kishtwar was then an epicentre. Kashmiri sentiments found an eco much to the chagrin of the other community. In the August of that year, communal riots left 4 dead and scores injured. The wedge was drawn deep. The government of the day did not take any action against a single rioter - a failure if repeated now would embolden arsonists.
Good and bad times in Chenab valley Muslims and Hindus have co-existed in the Chenab valley for centuries, sharing language, food, culture, songs and even Sufi shrines, but mixed marriages were and are refrained though. A few such weddings between affluent families never became an issue. Kishtwar fought together for district status and a degree college but fault lines never blurred.
People in the three main cities of the erstwhile Doda district -Doda, Kishtwar and Bhaderwah - chose government employment, others worked as forest lessees, contractors, labours and hunters gaming for the fantastic partridge and deer in thick jungles. Belt forces, however, remain a preferred choice even today, possibly because locals have always romanticised with guns.
When militancy broke out in 1990, the Chenab valley was initially reluctant to support separatism given the trade and educational links with Jammu. A few incidents of atrocities by security forces coupled with separatist politics turned the tide prompting some of the youth to join militant ranks. A few bloody massacres and killing of an RSS leader in Kishtwar in early 90s prompted government to restore "parity".
It armed and trained civilians and ex-soldiers mainly from majority community. The VDC members protected villages by night but actively teamed up with security forces in anti insurgency operations. Some like Sonu got rewarded for eliminating militants.
And as if the 12 bore guns with the sizeable hunter population in the area were not enough, hundreds of sophisticated rifles were allotted to the village committees.
In the hills with no or difficult access, the hunters and VDCs with absolutely no accountability could prove dangerous. Conservative estimates suggest there are roughly 40,000 weapons in the area.
But as militancy waned over the years, some of the VDC members started extortion and extra judicial killings. With no check on, they often fuelled tension.
On Friday, it is alleged some members were openly brandishing guns and a day later a civilian was allegedly abducted and murdered in Paddar area on the outskirts of Kishtwar. Chief minister Omar Abdullah told reporters that his government is seeking details about all the unregistered guns.
Relentless operations by police and security forces in the Chenab valley has brought down militancy to a naught and many feel the private militias should be wound up.
Politically, who stands where in Chenab? With a mix of 60-40 population, the Congress, BJP and National Conference have always shared the vote pie in Chenab valley. But in 2008, a resurgent Ghulam Nabi Azad - stumped over Amarnath row - surprised everyone when Congress swept the area taking 5 of the six seats. Minister Kitchloo retained his ancestral assembly seat of Kishtwar winning more than 19,000 votes as against BJP's 17000 odd votes. Kitchloo would have lost had not 5000 Hindu voted for him. The influential Kitchloo family runs a few education and charity institutes in the area. Kitchloo and his father, Bashir Ahmad, have always bagged a good chunk of Hindu votes. Clearly, the Kishtwar fires won't help him.