Gaping fissures

Kishtwar violence highlights the abdications of politics and administration at the local level

Communal clashes that broke out in Kishtwar on Friday have left three dead and at least 20 injured. On Sunday, political squalling broke out after BJP leader Arun Jaitley was detained at Jammu airport and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti was confined to her home with the state government making it clear that it would not allow political visits to the strife-torn district. Since then, J&K minister of state for home, Sajjad Ahmed Kitchloo, has resigned from his post and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has ordered a judicial probe. Could the visits of elected representatives have helped to contain and address some of the people's rancour? Or was this a moment for political parties to observe restraint? The Kishtwar violence raises far more pressing questions.

To begin with, why have communal tensions in the region been allowed to boil over? Intelligence reports had warned of imminent clashes and there was sporadic violence through the month of Ramadan. Yet the state government was caught unprepared it had not even provided for adequate security cover. The Omar Abdullah government's failure to read the warning signs, or to politically and administratively counter the forces of polarisation in the region has a longer history. Communal unrest in these hilly areas of Jammu, where Hindu and Muslim populations are more or less evenly balanced, had flared up during the Amarnath shrine land row of 2008. Religious radicalisation, revolving around the region's places of worship, has grown in the last few years, eroding and endangering ties between communities. Religious and regional divides have reinforced each other, as Jammu grew increasingly estranged from the Valley. By all accounts, the state government has done little to bridge this gap.

While local processes of reconciliation are missing in these parts, the village defence committees (VDCs) continue to play a prominent role. Beginning in the mid-1990s, during the peak of the insurgency, groups of villagers were armed and trained so that they could defend themselves against militants. Militancy has long been on the wane, but the J&K government continues to put off reviewing the need for arming civilian groups, now being partly blamed for this weekend's violence. The state government has responded to the Kishtwar violence with the usual knee-jerk responses curfew, information blackout, media bans. The simmering discontents that have been laid bare, however, call for a sensitive and consistent response at the local level, not frenzied damage control in the face of a crisis.

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