Catalysed by Kathua rape-murder case, communal polarisation in Jammu and Kashmir reached new heights in 2018
Jammu feels neglected by Kashmiri leaders and Kashmir blames Jammu for its underdevelopment. The communal sentiments feed into this perception
Editor's Note: As another turbulent year comes to an end in Jammu and Kashmir, Firstpost will run a series of reports on how the state changed in 2018 and how these changes will translate on the ground. This series will focus on new-age militancy and the changing political landscape in the Valley, as well as the ever-increasing gap between the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir.
For decades, after thousands of Muslims were massacred in Jammu in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent, communal tensions have always played a role in shaping the demography of the Hindu-majority region. But never before have the communal divisions been as stark as they are today. The rape and murder of a minor nomad girl early this year has only added to the tensions and now it is only a matter of time before these tensions come to a boil.
Early in November, a seminar organised by a Hindu right-wing group called for immediately stopping the "Islamic invasion" of Jammu, which is the Winter Capital of Jammu and Kashmir. It was one of those attempts to consolidate the Hindu votes of Jammu. The speakers tried to suggest that there was a conscious effort to change the demography of the region and the dominance of 'Muslim Kashmir' over 'Hindu Jammu' should not be tolerated anymore.
When the PDP formed the coalition government with the BJP, one of the main arguments, late Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, pushed to defend the alliance was to reduce the gap between the two culturally distinct region. But four years down the line, that gap has only widened and communal polarisation is at its peak. This suits the BJP. A united Hindu vote in Jammu is in its favour, while in Kashmir, the Muslim vote has become fragmented among the regional parties.
But to suggest that the BJP will benefit from this polarisation in the coming Assembly election would be a bit premature. In the last Assembly election, the party won 25 seats in the region, riding on the 'Narendra Modi Wave'. But in recent months, after the alliance with the PDP, the Congress has often accused the BJP in the state of 'colluding with anti-national forces', and it has made its presence felt in the border areas of region — which till the BJP came to power was its own domain.
Since 2014, the BJP has been tirelessly propagating hatred against Gujjars and Bakerwals, who descend on the region during the winters with their livestock and are permanent residents of the state. This was made into a policy, though temporarily, by former minister Lal Singh when he evicted thousands of nomads from the forest land occupied by them by decades.
As Mufti left Jammu to the whims and wishes of the BJP, many nomadic families were forcibly evicted in the name of anti-encroachment drives. The Jammu Development Authority has come under criticism in recent years for targeting Muslims settlements selectively. Singh, 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 forest areas.
Growing tensions in the region, and indeed across the state, saw a series of incidents in which nomadic families were uprooted after their dokas — makeshift mud and wooden log houses — were set ablaze by miscreants.
The JDA started a sustained campaign for "recovery" of forest land that had been encroached upon. This triggered a crisis, forcing the then 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 about the alleged step-motherly treatment being meted out by various government agencies during the anti-encroachment drive.
For decades, there has been a rift between two regions of the state over the perceived sense of deprivation and discrimination by leaders of one region against the other. Jammu feels neglected by Kashmiri leaders and Kashmir blames Jammu for its underdevelopment. The communal sentiments feed into this perception. The narrative of predominance of one region over other has existed for decades, but there is hardly any institutional mechanisms to check it.
The alliance between the PDP and BJP was ostensibly meant to bring the two regions together, but it served to increase this divide. This year, things became worse after the Kathua rape and murder. On one hand, the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley sided with the victim while on the other, there was suspicion in Jammu that the people arrested in the case were booked on false charges.
Lawyer Ankur Sharma, who defended some of the accused in the case, openly called Mehbooba a "jihadi". Facebook journalists in Jammu peddled a communal narrative that was far removed from the reality and in some cases, ended up making things only worse. In recent years, the anti-Kashmir narrative has been transformed into a more open and brazen demonisation of Muslims.
As Hindu right-wing politicians and activists continuously fish in troubled waters in an increasingly polarised Jammu in the aftermath of the Kathua rape and murder, new characters are emerging on the scene and enforcing their writ in the run-up to the state and Lok Sabha elections. This 'lopsided' demographic character is at the heart of the poison that some leaders of BJP and other political parties are feeding the people of the region, thereby vitiating the atmosphere.
The communal polarisation in Jammu may have helped the BJP previously, but political analysts believe this may not be the case in the coming elections. Instead, the National Conference seems to have benefited in Chenab regions and some Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu. One of the leaders, who made a speech while being a minister in Kathua, is also against the BJP now. The party has suffered after its most prominent face from Jammu, Singh, floating his own political outfit which he says will work for 'Dogra Swabhiman and Sangathan' (Dogra dignity and unity).
Like Sajad Lone in Kashmir, Singh, in recent months, has been relying on the development plank and the so-called 'discrimination towards Jammu' at the cost of Kashmir, to garner more supporters. Whether his antics translate into votes remains to be seen but political analysts believe that he will badly hurt the BJP in the coming elections. With the Kathua case in its last stages, both the BJP and Singh will use the incident to further their communal politics that could set the whole state ablaze.
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