All it took was two motorcyclists swerving too close to a procession heading for Id prayers to set off a communal conflagration that has claimed four lives, left scores of shops and houses burnt, and a fragile Hindu-Muslim amity on the edge in Kishtwar town of Jammu and Kashmir.
As a dazed population struggles to comprehend just what hit them, there is unanimity across the religious divide that sectarian election politics is the culprit. Just who did the mischief is a minor detail.
On Monday, as the State government kept up its firm blackout on all news emanating from Kishtwar town, keeping it out of bounds for journalists and blocking internet services, some news did filter out. Despite the resignation of Home Minister Sajjad Kitchloo — legislator from Kishtwar and who was present in the town as it burned — people continued to defy the curfew and a violent clash took place between protesters and the police in which one officer and several others were injured.
There is anger on both sides. The Muslims are angry because their Id prayers and procession were allegedly disrupted by a couple of Hindu youth, and the Hindus are enraged that most of the shops burnt are theirs. The annual Machail Yatra to an ancient Hindu pilgrimage in Kishtwar has also come to a standstill after some vehicles of yatris were damaged. According to the police, 48 shops were burnt, three of which belong to Muslims.
Kishtwar residents, however, say that more than a hundred shops, two hotels and six houses have been burnt. One of them is Haji Faheem who saw his plywood shop on Hidyal chowk being burnt before his eyes. “A dozen or so police officials including one officer watched, even as I begged them to do something to stop the mob. Even if they were a few in number they could have fired in the air,” he told The Hindu.
Pritam Gupta’s shoe shop near the Dak Bungalow met a similar fate at the hand of a Muslim mob. He rushed into the Dak Bungalow that was a refuge for Mr. Kitchloo as well as the deputy commissioner Mohammed Saleem (now removed) and some 200 odd security men. Says he: “I pleaded with the DC to do something. He told me to sit on a sofa near him. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as the town burnt, these officials sat and watched. Some order was restored only when the army columns entered the town.”
Kishtwar has a Muslim-Hindu population ratio of 60:40. Two decades of militancy has led to some suspicion here. Mr. Kitchloo of the National Conference defeated Sunil Sharma of the BJP by approximately 2000 votes. It is common knowledge in the district that tension had been building up between the two communities in the days before Id.