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A dangerous polarisation in Jammu

As the world is horrified by the rape and death of an eight-year-old in Jammu’s Kathua district, and its subsequent politicisation, observers of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have again begun to comment on some long-term dynamics, particularly the regional differences in J&K.

For understandable reasons, the Kashmir Valley has been the focus of attention of policymakers and commentators. Till recently, to get the Valley-based Kashmiris to acknowledge the presence and aspirations of other ethnic and identity groups in the State was difficult. Given the State’s geography, history and the post-1947 conflict, nativist sentiment informs the politics of the Valley. Indeed, non-Kashmiri-speaking groups of the erstwhile State of J&K, even those claiming the moniker of ‘Kashmiri’ in India, Pakistan, or in the diaspora, express concern in private conversations about how Kashmiri speakers (both Muslims and Hindus/ Pandits) view themselves as the more cultured and articulate voice of the State. Most fear their marginalisation in an autonomous political set-up and are therefore keen on getting some institutional assurance of their recognition as groups separate from the Valley Kashmiris.

The hopeful prospect in this entire case is the acknowledgement by Kashmiris that other communities — in this case, the Gujjar-Bakherwals, who have been viewed with immense distrust for their seemingly ‘pro-Indian state’ inclinations — are also part of J&K. What, of course, is problematic is that groups sitting in the Valley have taken over the mantle of speaking for these communities. Looking beyond the Valley would explain why this gruesome incident became such a flashpoint.

Given the conflict in the Valley, and the lack of better educational and economic facilities in other regions of the State, Jammu city has become the focal point of migration over the last two decades, especially for young people looking for upward mobility. While most Kashmiris opt to study in the Valley, and those who can afford it move to Delhi or universities abroad, Jammu city is the place to migrate to for the people from the interiors of Jammu region. Even Ladakhis, who logically should go to the Valley given its geographical proximity, prefer Jammu for their higher education.

The Gujjar-Bakherwals are the third-largest ethnic group in the State. The Bakherwals have always lived on the margins of society because of their nomadic lifestyle. In recent years, with somewhat better access to education and creeping urbanisation, many of them are settling down, especially in Jammu city and its adjoining districts.

These are the areas in which there has historically been a distrust of the Kashmir Valley, because of the real and perceived neglect by the political leadership of the State which has always been Valley-based. These are also the areas in which the Hindu communal sentiment operating within the broader right-wing nationalist framework has been visible since the days of the PrajaParishad movement that aimed to get rid of Article 370, to bring the State under one flag and one Constitution. The sense of deprivation and discrimination at the hands of the Valley and the communal sentiment have fed into each other. With no institutional mechanisms to redress the former, the latter narrative has become predominant with the binary of a Hindu-Jammu being dispossessed of its rightful share of resources and political power by a Muslim-Kashmir. The broader national-level communal polarisation has fed into this in the last few years especially, with the binary now being further reduced to Hindu versus Muslim, in which any Muslim gets bracketed with the Kashmiris, even the Gujjar-Bakherwals, who ethnically, culturally, and linguistically would otherwise identify more with the Jammu region.

The interesting alliance between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP), ostensibly to bring the two regions together, has served to increase this divide as it resulted in a political vacuum in which there is no voice to speak for both regions and all communities. The Kashmir Valley and Muslim-majority areas have been left for the PDP to cater to, while the Hindu-majority areas for the BJP. So, when Kashmiri children are injured after street clashes, the BJP Health Minister does not see it fit to visit the hospital they are in — even for cynical reasons of better optics. And when a Bakherwal minor is raped and murdered in Jammu region, it is the BJP leaders who go to address rallies questioning the inquiry being made in the case. Those defending the accused, in turn, raise slogans against the PDP charging it with wanting to change the demography of the State by bringing in Muslims.

The argument of demographic change does not make much sense if looked at in the broader context of the whole State — people who are moving to the Jammu region are citizens of J&K itself. It makes sense only if Jammu city and its adjoining areas are seen as a political entity separate from the rest of the State. In fact, the feeling one gets is that the forces working towards the division of the State have become more proactive in the last few years, and so this heightened scaremongering on the question of demography. There is a discussion about the presence of the Rohingya in Jammu and how they are symptomatic of the attempt to Islamise the region. Again, the perception is flawed, as they are too small a number to make a difference, and legally (because of Article 370) can easily be moved outside the State.

The fact is that given the historical dynamics (especially the conflict in the Valley) and socio-economic dynamics (mobile communities settling down and the logic of upward mobility), it was inevitable that Jammu city would be where different groups would move. The nativist sentiment that it has engendered is fuelled by the already present communal fault lines in the region. (This sentiment has been used by entities like the Hindu EktaManch and the Jammu Bar Association to further their interests, bordering criminal in the former case and political in the latter.)
However, there is another truth beyond these divisions. The media has been highlighting the protests and candlelight vigils in India and abroad, forgetting that the first place where the issue was raised outside the Kathua region, and where there was a demand for an investigation, in January, was the University of Jammu, where students disrupted classes for nearly four days. Leaving aside the desirability of the mode of protest that the students adopted, the fact that young people could come together irrespective of faith, language, and geographical origin for a cause like this could not be possible without the diverse nature of the city. This diversity needs to be nurtured so that another child’s body is not used by different interests for their political and voyeuristic agendas. It needs to be moulded so that the inherent misogyny in our cultures is challenged and eliminated, and we do not have other bodies on which these vultures can feed.