The exact nature of communal clashes Kishtwar is a matter of intense debate. No detailed independent account has come in yet. But the political discourse on these clashes has just made one very significant departure from the past, counting and declaring the bodies of unfortunate victims of riot with their religion.
The issue assumes additional importance because it came from the two responsible persons whose every word under the circumstances would matter most, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Finance Minister P Chidambaram - incidentally among the most articulate voices in Indian politics.
Mark their words:
At 11.52 on Monday Omar tweeted, “3 unfortunate deaths - 1 Hindu, 2 Muslim & we've a judicial inquiry with my Minister resigning. Would the BJP care to recount 2002 response.” By counting the bodies as Hindus and Muslims, Omar was perhaps trying to send a message that the Hindus were not at the receiving end in the Kishtwar/Jammu communal clashes and the BJP was only narrating one side of the story, in effect indulging in false propaganda.
Two-and-half hours later when Chidambaran who is currently overseeing the Home Ministry due to the absence of Sushil Kumar Shinde, stood in the Rajya Sabha to make a statement on the incident and also respond to points made by the Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley and others, first said, “two persons -- one belonging to one community and the other belonging to the other community were killed” and 29 others including some security personnel were injured were in Kishtwar.
A while later while he spoke of tension in Jammu, he elaborated that “the condition of one is critical and one dead body of a resident of Keejai was recovered late in the night of 9 August.”
“So far the death toll is three, one belonging to the Hindu community and two belonging to the Muslim community, but all of us are Indians; three Indian lives have been lost and I deeply regret loss of these lives”, Chidambaram said.
An announcement of body count on religious lines from the highest quarters in the government is a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon that began on Monday.
The counting of dead by their religious affiliations was generally given after the temperatures of clashing communities had cooled down. So far they have talked in terms of “a particular community/the other community/majority/minority” and such other expressions. The media too broadly followed the same unwritten principles.
This hedging may have been considered farcical but it was still maintained lest it provoke a spiral of retaliatory attacks. Mobile messaging and Internet services in parts of J&K were snapped as some reports suggested to prevent or at least contain the speed and volume of rumours that is usually spread by motivated groups in such situations.
Both Omar and his father, Union Minister Farooq Abdullah, brought in a Gujarat parallel to counter the BJP attack on their handling of Kishtwar. Omar through a series of tweets and Farooq through a short intervention in the Rajya Sabha said, “In 2002, Gujarat, in the riots period, didn’t allow people to go to Ahmedabad. They didn’t deploy the Army”.
Jaitley in his speech also mentioned the “selective targeting of a community” and also referred to 1990 when forced migration of Hindus took place from the valley and for describing current Kishtwar incident.
The debate will continue about whether it was appropriate for Omar and Farooq to rake up the 2002 Gujarat riots, particularly when the National Conference was part of the NDA and Omar was a minister in the Vajpayee Government around that time, and continued to be there after an initial resignation in protest that was rejected by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
A cornered BJP then also had spoken of body counts in terms of their religious affiliations, Hindus and Muslims when Narendra Modi was accused of a carrying out a campaign against Muslims.
The BJP had defended Modi by giving out numbers - how many rounds of bullets fired by the police, and the number of Muslim and Hindu dead. Their argument was that it was not a carnage targeting a community but an unfortunate communal clash. Omar has taken that a step forward.
Incidentally, while leaders of political parties and even media do not have a free access to visit and report from Kishtwar, Twitter has emerged as the new medium of political warfare. On the day of the incident, on Friday, it was angry exchanges on Twitter between Omar and Sushma Swaraj that made bigger news for the outside world than what actually was happening in Kishtwar.
Yesterday, again, Omar did not need to present in Parliament to counter Jaitley or other political leaders. He did not need to call a hurried press conference or give a sound byte to an agency but he used Twitter, to instantly reach out and convey his message.
Messages that unleashed intense public debates are not going to die down any time soon. Kishtwar clashes may have changed the tone and style of public discourse for a long time to come.