The consolation of a ‘usual riot’

Dismissing Kishtwar riots as another ‘usual riot’ makes us blind towards the far-reaching implications of such riots in a state like Jammu and Kashmir.

The riots in Kishtwar shook up the nation earlier this year. They started in Kishtwar town during an Eid procession on August 9th causing widespread arson and three casualties. The immediate trigger, by all accounts, seems to be an altercation when the security officer of the local BJP leader tried to go on a motorcycle, through the Eid procession that was shouting out anti-India slogans. The Police decided to be a mute bystander during the gutting of the shops that followed.


The situation was brought under control only when the Army was summoned. However, Kishtwar remained under curfew for nearly 20 days, before things went back to normal. The unrest spread to other areas of the Jammu region, which were also under curfew till August 15th. The local MLA Sajad Ahmed Kichloo, belonging to the National Conference, was present in Kishtwar for Eid and had to resign in the aftermath.

The riots have left behind many accusations and counter-accusations. Given the sparseness of this district and low population density, most Hindu majority villages have been armed by the administration and Village Defence Committees (VDCs) formed to safeguard themselves from terrorists. The valley based separatist accusations are that these VDCs are the root cause of this unrest. On the other hand, people are left wondering why an Eid procession was equipped for arson. There were reports in the region in the days preceding Eid, of masked strangers coming into the villages. None of these reports have been found true but they add to the conspiracy theory prone discourse within the region. Many people think this was an attempt to repeat something like the Kashmiri Pandit exodus from the valley.

Kishtwar has historically been a peaceful region. It remained so even in the heady times of 1947. But things have changed over the last two decades. Similar riots happened in 2008 during Eid in the backdrop of the Amarnath land allocation row. Riots during Eid processions and anti-India slogans are not uncommon in Srinagar. For that matter, riots happen across India as the recently released Home Ministry dataset indicates. In just the first 9 months of 2013, there were 93 communal riots in Uttar Pradesh, 40 in Bihar and 56 in Maharashtra alone.

The Kishtwar riots have three contending explanations. First, it was a ‘usual’ communal riot with local political actors playing their roles along with poor policing, possibly hampered by political directives. Second, it was a planned attempt to create an exodus of Hindus from the region. And third, it was the VDCs trying to push the Muslims out, and that resulted in clashes. Whether the riots themselves were of the ‘usual’ or the ‘unusual’ kind, the aftermath of the event has been a run-of-the-mill affair.

As it happens in most such riots, curfews and arrests have taken place but no convictions seem to be in sight. The usual technique of ‘doing something’—setting up of a judicial commission, has been applied. A one-man commission of Justice (retired) RC Gandhi has been created to probe into the events. The other customary technique of euthanasia for such probes—that of an extension to the Commission—has also been applied. The Commission was supposed to share its findings on September 22nd and this date has been extended for another month to October 22nd.

As in other parts of the country, the emphasis has been on providing compensation to the riot victims rather than justice. In Jammu and Kashmir, this has become a matter of further controversy since compensation amounts differ for state-subjects (those with ancestral residency in the state) and non-state-subjects. The emphasis on compensation reveals a mindset of placing riots in the same category as natural disasters and avoiding holding people accountable for it. Riots need men (for no women as yet have been found rioting) to come together as a mob and inflict criminal acts on fellow men and women. That these men need to be arrested and punished seems to be a matter of low priorities.

The Kishtwar riots are a good example of how the boundary between internal and external security is not demarcated. The same police reforms that can help prevent ‘usual’ riots can also prevent the ‘unusual’ kind. Speedy justice and quick punishment to people who indulged in killings and arson is the only way to dissuade them and others from doing this again. That is also the only way to reassure innocent citizens whose livelihood got burnt down, that they can trust the state and that they should not migrate from their hometowns. The riots have already had a simultaneous impact—they have strengthened the Islamist separatist agenda in the state and also the Hindu chauvinist one.

Even if a riot does not have a more devious objective of communal exodus behind it, it is a poor consolation, to say that they were of the pedestrian variety. Riots across the country are a serious concern and point to the underlying institutional failure. However, in a state like Jammu and Kashmir they have the potential to go beyond local issues. Perhaps the national security implications of the Kishtwar riots can wake us up to the urgency of institutional policing and judicial reforms, before it is too late.

Photo: Agent 009