Kathua rape puts Sidhra, one of few remaining Muslim settlements in Jammu, at focal point of communal rift

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series that looks at the perceived demographic divide (and the resultant communal tension) between Hindus and Muslims in Jammu; it is a schism that became perceptible in the late 1980s and was brought into sharp focus following the alleged rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua.

The main gate of a whitewashed, double-storied house in Sidhra locality of Jammu is locked. Like many others in this Muslim-majority area of Jammu, the owner of this house, a Kashmiri, left along with his family in the second week of April. They will return in November now, when the winter chill grips the Valley, and live in the city's warmer climes for few months till spring.

"It is empty, like all other houses in this lane," Rupa Devi, a shopkeeper outside the house said, "It is a thriving place in winters, but as soon as the summer comes, they all return to Kashmir and the lanes and bylanes appear to be haunted by ghosts."

 Kathua rape puts Sidhra, one of few remaining Muslim settlements in Jammu, at focal point of communal rift

File image of lawyers in Jammu protesting over the Kathua rape and murder case. PTI

Sidhra is one among the few Muslim settlements in the Hindu-majority Jammu region. This 'lopsided' demographic indicator is at the heart of the poison that some leaders of BJP and other political parties are feeding the people of this region, thereby vitiating the atmosphere following the brutal gang-rape and murder of the eight-year-old nomad girl in Kathua.

Sidhra is a vacation home for rich and elite Muslims of Kashmir Valley. Others who have made it their home, even if briefly, come from far-flung districts of the state such as Poonch, Ramban, Doda, Kishtwar, Anantnag, Ganderbal, and Shopian.

"My father purchased the land almost fifteen years back and constructed a house there... we stay there only for four months, as the temperatures drop in the Valley," Javid Hassan Shah, the owner of the locked house, said over the phone from his residence in Srinagar.

"In 2008, during the economic blockade of the Valley, when we returned, someone had broken in. The fridge was gone, so was the TV and even the bed covers and kitchen utensils were stolen. After that, we have been only keeping plates and cups in the house."

Shah is a businessman whose father was a senior government official. He says he has been thinking of selling off the property. "It is better to invest in Delhi and Bengaluru than in Jammu. There is fear in the atmosphere here and you can't even raise your voice."

"When the state's deputy chief minister calls your housing colony a 'communal colony', do you think it is safe to live there," Shah adds.

Shah, 64, was refereeing to the statement of BJP leader, Nirmal Singh, the deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who ordered a probe in November 2015 on "communal enclaves" coming up in Jammu city and its periphery. He said these enclaves or colonies were built on religious lines and they will not be allowed to come up "in this relatively peaceful region of the state".

Many living in Sidhra are migrants from Chenab and Pir Panchal Valleys, who have made this locality their home. In recent years, according to a revenue officer, the Muslims of Kashmir and Pir Panjal have made massive investments in the housing sector in Jammu. "Most of them are on the outer edges of the Jammu city, including Khati Talab, Bathindi, Sunjwan and Sidhra. The roads in these colonies are remarkably clean, but residents face water scarcity," the officer said.

When the colonies like Sidhra were being given shape and people started buying the land, locals were left behind in the real estate race. As the demand for more land and more colonies rose, many other residential colonies like this came up.

"Fifteen years back, when I would travel on my motorcycle, I would get scared there because it was like a forest. Today, there are no forests, only brand-new houses," Romesh Chaudhary, a businessman in Sunjwan area tells Firstpost. "The Gujjars occupied the state land, settled there for few years, and then sold the land to Kashmiri Muslims at throwaway prices."

That is perhaps the reason why the Jammu Development Authority (JDA) has come under criticism in recent years for targeting Muslims settlements. Lal Singh, the former forest minister who resigned for participating in a rally defending the accused in Kathua rape and murder case, was at the forefront of this battle to try and uproot the Gujjars and Bakerwals from the forests areas.

There was a series of incidents in which nomadic families were uprooted, after their dokas – makeshift mud and wooden logs houses – were set ablaze by miscreants.

The JDA started running a sustained campaign for "recovery" of encroached land. This triggered a crisis, forcing Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to issue orders that no displacement from forests should take place without the prior permission of the tribal affairs ministry. All hell broke loose after this.

Mehbooba asked officials to ensure that no member of the tribal communities is harassed during anti-encroachment drives. Some members of Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes were angry over alleged step-motherly treatment being meted out by various government agencies during the anti-encroachment drive.

"It is an anti-Hindu order," BJP leader Ashok Khujaria, told Firstpost. "The minutes of the meeting held by the tribal affairs department clearly indicates there is a major plot at our hands here."

Singh said he would retrieve hundreds of kanals of "encroached" forest land and impose a blanket ban on cultivation inside forests. In response, Bakherwal and Gujjar leaders demanded that the central Forest Rights Act, 2006, be extended to Jammu and Kashmir as well. Ironically, this is the one issue on which the BJP holds dear the primacy of Article 370.

In a memorandum submitted to the Bar Council of India on 20 April, the High Court Bar Association in Jammu, mentioned more than once, a plot to engineer the "demographic change" in Jammu. The bar demanded that the order issued by Mehbooba on 14 February be reversed.

This order had stayed all eviction drives against tribal settlements in Jammu until a proper tribal policy was put in place. If absolutely necessary, such measures would have to be sanctioned by the tribal affairs department and no police cover could be given, the memo said.

The Gujjars have been facing the wrath of the JDA, which has been carrying out targeted anti-encroachment drives against Muslims. A Muslim youngster was killed in 2016 in Sarore area of Samba and several others, including some differently-abled persons, were injured during the drive carried out by the state government. The authorities used brute force to destroy property worth lakhs of rupees, especially property belonging to the Gujjar community.

The makeshift houses were burnt down and those living in these structures were first beaten mercilessly and then either taken to the police station or were forced to flee. "We did it because these people first occupy a piece of land and afterwards sell the same land to Kashmiris at cheap prices," former forest minister Singh said, after one of the encroachment drives.

But in Nikki Tawn area, the JDA officials evicted Gujjars who had been living there for the past 30 years. Their structures were burnt and they were forced to flee. The nomads argued that they have been coming to the area for thirty years because it sits near the river Tawi.

The trouble started when Gujjars and Bakerwals started constructing a Mosque in the area to offer prayers on the vacant land, which the JDA later claimed belonged to it. Gujjars maintain that construction of mosque became the main provocation for their eviction.

'The atmosphere is so bad that one day there will be a riot and we all will be killed," Amjad Hussain, 72, a retired government official who sold his land and property in Poonch and came to live in Sunjwan, told Firstpost. "If things continue like they are, the day is not far when our homes will be set on fire."

Read Part 1: Kathua rape case deepens Jammu's communal schism, brings city's perceived Hindu-Muslim divide back into focus

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2018 15:45:08 IST

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