It Is Time To Move Away From the Absurd Narratives on Violence in J&K

Instead of asking who was the ‘killer’ and who was ‘killed’, the reality that a person was killed again needs to be recognised and mourned collectively by all the communities of Jammu and Kashmir.

The attack on civilians in the Dangri village of the Pir-Panjal borderland district of Rajouri on January 2 is the latest in a series of targeted killings in Jammu and Kashmir. Three of the four persons who lost their lives have been identified as Satish Kumar, Deepak Kumar and Pritam Lal, while a few others were injured. The next day, an IED blast within the cordoned area killed two children.

The Pir-Panjal belt is home to ethnic minorities (Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals) in Jammu and has been looked upon as a relatively peaceful belt with fewer occurrences of targeted killings in the past decade. But the region went through one a very violent period in the 90s, of which there are hundreds of stories told by local communities. But only a few documented accounts of the impact of militancy and terrorism on Poonch and Rajouri during those years exist. The work of Luv Puri, a former correspondent of The Hindu, is an exception. 

While the headlines state that there was “another round of civilian killings in Jammu and Kashmir”, another important question – related to identity – is also asked: Who was killed? Identifying victims and the victimiser through various identity markers is not new in the region. A simple Google search of ‘unknown gunmen’ reveals the importance of identification in killings across Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the Valley. 

Between the questions “Ab kaun maara gaya (Who got killed)” and “Kisne maara (Who’s the killer?)” lie bodies, bodies that have a history of living an uncertain life in uncertain zones that are alternatively homes and fronts. The narratives of life in the partitioned borderlands of Rajouri-Poonch vary a great deal when compared to other narratives of violence across Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Valley.

Along with the experiences of killings and violence at the hands of militants and terrorists, it is the experience of cross-border violence along the Line of Control that makes their stories different. The experiences of violence for these communities are not completely detached from what we know of the violence in the Valley or detached from the general subjectivity of violence on bodies and minds, but there is certainly a difference on many levels. Likewise, the experiences of militancy and terrorism differ as well, and this stands true vis-à-vis accounts of violence across Pir-Panjal when looked at in the light of violence experienced in the Valley.

File photo of Indian Army soldiers at the Line of Control. Photo: PTI

While the reasons for such differences are manifold, two stand out: one, the nature of these multiethnic homelands converted to hostile fronts in the aftermath of Partition; two, the ethnic(socio-cultural) differences, where the communities residing in these belts are minority cultural groups within Jammu and Kashmir, most of them territorial linguistic ethnic groups. Enshrouded in the discourse on violence here are the partition narratives and the episodes of violence therein. 

Thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs belonging primarily to prominent ethnic groups – the Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals – were displaced across the boundary lines in Pir-Panjal. The minority Hindus and Sikhs are generally Paharis, Mirpuris and Muzaffarabadis, who were displaced across the LoC and gradually resettled their lives on the Indian side. Dangri is one such village where the concentration of ‘refugees’ (as these displaced persons are known locally) is high. Therefore, any reading of another round of ‘civilian killing’ – particularly from the borderland belts in Jammu and Kashmir – cannot overlook the violence ensconced in a partitioned-post-partitioned reality of life here, where narratives of displacement, uncertainty, refugee-isation and rehabilitation form the core of survival and life for these communities.

Also Read: With India-Pakistan Ceasefire Pact, Focus Must Shift to Development in J&K Borderlands

The absurdity of narratives

When we recognise and read these layered identity narratives along with the question, “Ab kaun maara gaya?”, the absurdity that exists in Jammu and Kashmir around the narratives of violence becomes evident. 

The absurdity I am referring to is related to the identities of the killed and the killer, which varies across demographic, cultural, and of course, religious divides in Jammu and Kashmir. The killer and the killed keep shifting identities but they are prominently either the state (a much larger entity usually linked with ‘boots on the ground’, i.e. the military, or now the Hindutva-fuelled state); or militants, foreign terrorists from across the LoC, cross-border shelling, undiffused landmines, electric fencing, IEDs, etc.

People or communities label the killer and the killed from these identities, depending upon which side of the socio-cultural and political divide they belong. This is perhaps because experiences of violence differ: violence for border dwellers mostly emanates in the form of incessant border shelling (especially over the past two decades); and for those living in the Valley, it is espoused in everyday resistance. The experiences of militancy and terrorism – and even military – differ hugely across Jammu and Kashmir as well, clearly demonstrated in the accounts of Puri through his extensive field reports. 

The fact then is, the killer in Pir-Panjal might become the one who is killed in the Valley and vice-versa. The absurdity however is, even after decades of experiences of violence in multiple forms across the region, communities fail to acknowledge that they need to look beyond such binaries to recognise those who are killed as state subjects who are legitimate residents of Jammu and Kashmir. It does not matter what side of the cultural-religious divide one is, there should be an acknowledgement that citizens can have different political, social and cultural opinions and demands, and have different national and patriotic aspirations while being state subjects. Only then will the mutually intertwined histories of violence that weave citizens of this erstwhile princely state together be truly accepted. 

Also Read: Stories of Magical Saints Keep Up the Spirits of Villagers Along the Line of Control

Recognising this is important not only to move away from the binary view of life and survival in the region but also to see that the right to exist with differences is not lost in narratives that tend to hegemonise. The latter has always been a threat to the cultural and religious diversity in Jammu and Kashmir. The militancy-ridden 90s in the Pir-Panjal saw a heavy outmigration of minority Hindus and Sikhs from villages in Poonch and Rajouri districts to nearby towns. Puri’s reports showed that even several Muslims migrated towards district town centres. Ultimately, it is argued, the fall of militancy in the Pir-Panjal must be credited to the Muslims, who held their ground in far-flung villages and resisted the militants to claim their villages back.

The subjective experience of fear also differs in the ways in which the memory of the violent past hinges upon the lived present and the future. This is clearly visible in the migratory trends, particularly among the religious minorities of these minority cultural groups in the Pir-Panjal. The lower and upper middle classes always had been investing in ‘safe-havens’, buying properties in nearby cities like Jammu. Besides other economic push and pull factors, a few points cited in day-to-day conversations in these communities are the fear and threat of militancy, the likelihood of the experiences of partition, the possibility of militancy coming to life again, and the reality of surviving in a volatile border zone. 

It becomes pertinent to take these narratives into account while reading about violence and killings in this region. These belts already remain the lesser explored regions – in media, academia, and the development discourse at large. Understanding identities is thus crucial for a holistic understanding of alternate identities around the capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar. It is when we recognise these differences that we realise that the experiences of violence need not always be read in a Hindu-Muslim binary, or through the dichotomy of Kashmiri/Muslim vs Hindu/Jammu/Indian nationalism. 

Gujjars and Bakerwals are tribes living primarily in J&K and Himachal. Photo: Vishal Sharma

Appropriating these binaries and dichotomies deals the biggest blow to giving justice to the multiple narratives of violence, particularly that experienced by communities which do not fall into these categories. Who actually is a ‘refugee Pahari Hindu’ who was killed? Who is a Sikh refugee Pahari? Who were the two Hindu men killed at the military gates in the same district a month ago? Are we going to continue reading violence and its narratives through select identity markers? 

Identities are complex and have layered complicated histories. The absurdity of appropriating killed bodies in the name of religion, ethnicity and cultural solidarity is doing no good to the narrative of diversity in Jammu and Kashmir. Those who were killed in Dangri belonged to a family of refugees (displaced persons) who lost everything they owned to partition violence, displaced a few miles on this side of the line. They rebuilt their homes with the meagre rehabilitation they received, only to die again today as a consequence of the absurd lives that communities in Jammu and Kashmir live.

Can we stop asking, “Kaun maara gaya? Kisne maara?” and instead recognise the reality, which is, “Phirse koi maara gya (Someone was killed again) and collectively mourn their deaths as citizens of Jammu and Kashmir? 

Our collective grief demands mutual recognition of pain and suffering, a collective solidarity that demands a dignified peaceful life free of violence in our bruised, bisected and partitioned homelands. And for that, we need to shun the mental violence of our conscience, segregated along socio-religious-cultural lines. The absurdity around violence narratives is only adding to the old binary of a “Hindu Jammu” pitched against a “Muslim Valley”, and therein the cold inhumane identification of killed bodies as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or as Kashmiri, Gujjar, Pahari, Dogra, as well as the equally cold labelling of the killers. The narratives of violence in Jammu and Kashmir should be inclusive of all these individual narratives, even when they come from different political, social and religious spectrums.

Malvika Sharma writes on borderlands in Jammu and Kashmir.