[Reader-list] Living under the shadow of death-Kavita Suri

rashneek kher rashneek at gmail.com
Thu Aug 2 14:17:05 IST 2007

*Living under the shadow of death*

The 5th of January 1996 is a day that none in Barshalla, a village situated
on the left bank of of the Chenab river in Thathri tehsil of Doda, the home
district of the state chief minister, Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, can forget.
That cold and windy night eleven years ago, when the villagers were about to
go to sleep, a knock at the door of one of the villagers, changed their
lives. Dressed in army fatigues, few men posing as army officers and
equipped with highly sophisticated automatic weapons, knocked at the door of
a villager asking him to tell a few other young men of the village to gather
near the historic Lakshmi Narayan Temple (constructed by the great Dogra
warrior General Zorawar Singh around 1840), as their officer wanted to talk
to them about something urgent.
Though militancy had already erupted in the Kashmir valley, it was slow to
spread to the districts of Jammu. The only militancy-related incident having
occurred in Doda till then was the killing of minority community passengers
traveling in a bus near Sarthal in Doda two years ago (1994). Hence none of
the Barshalla villagers could think of terrorists swooping on their village
in the guise of army officers.
Many young men of the village got up and gathered near the temple, only to
find out death waiting for them. The stillness of that night was broken by
the clutter of automatic guns. Doda, for the first time, hit national and
international headlines as Barshalla lost 15 men, most of them youngsters,
in the first massacre of minority community members in the entire district.
Words fail Kanan Chand Sharma, a former employee of the state information
department when he starts talking about that fateful night which swallowed a
total of ten members of his clan including his grandson, his brother who was
a retired havaldar, his three sons and other relatives.
"We had read in the Mahabharata only that they would burn many bodies
together at the end of battle each day as they were short on fuel. We did
the same that day when we burnt many bodies on one single pyre," says Sharma
terming that night as one of the nightmares of his life.
As the entire village was shell-shocked, women and children were wailing and
the entire village was ready for the exodus, nobody from the state
administration visited them. Shrieks and cries rented the air the whole
night piercing through its once serene settings.
Today, even after 11 years, Barshalla doesn't go to sleep. The whole night,
the men of the village keep vigil by rotation. After the massacre, the first
village defence committee (VDC) to be set up in Doda was in this minority
village. The concept was to give arms to the villagers and train them so
they could defend themselves against terrorist attacks till reinforcements
could reach them. Some weapons were given to the Barshalla villagers, but it
hasn't helped them much.
"The obsolete .303 guns that have been given to us don't work properly. Not
only are our arms no match for the sophisticated weapons of the militants,
the 150 rounds of ammunition that is given to each member of the VDC is also
accounted for," says Naveen Kumar, a special police officer (SPO) attached
to the VDC here. Every VDC has 7-8 members with three special police
Since that fateful night, the village has come under terrorist fire 17
times, but retaliation by the villagers with their outdated guns has forced
them to retreat.
Though the VDC was set up to defend the village, problems associated with it
are manifold. If the militants attack the village and the VDC members
retaliate, each one of them has to collect the empty cartridges after the
firing as these have to be submitted to the district SSP as proof of having
actually fired the rounds. Besides, after every such incident when they take
on the militants, the VDC members have to go to Doda city to give details to
the police who "interrogate them like culprits and not protectors of the
What is more complicated is the fact that if the bullets do not hit the
terrorists, the villagers are scolded by the police "as they wasted the
"Does it mean that we should wait for the militant to come near us and
target us instead of stopping him on the outskirts of the village by
firing," asks Suresh Kumar, a villager.
Apathy on the part of the district administration could well be gauged from
the fact that the villagers who exhausted their ammunition retaliating
against militants in the past few months, have not been given fresh
ammunition by the police. At times, for lack of ammunition the Barshalla
villagers burst crackers to keep the militants away, but it seems that sound
hasn't reached the ears of the administration. Villagers here smell a
deep-rooted conspiracy for the exodus of minorities from the hills to
Also, the construction of the 2.5 km long Barshalla-Thathri road which was
sanctioned 15 years ago, hasn't seen the light of day, while the 7 km long
neighbouring Jangalwar-Thathri road, which was cleared a couple of years
ago, has been constructed. This, the villagers allege, is because their
village is a Hindu village while Jangalwar is Muslim-dominated.
Ask the Doda deputy commissioner, Mr Saurav Bhagat, about it and he says
that the delay is because this road will be constructed with Central funds.
"It will be taken up soon," he adds.
Barshalla villagers are so irritated that they now threaten to pick up the
gun and join militant ranks. At least then, they say, they will not have to
beg to the government for their safety.
Is anybody listening? Perhaps you Mr Azad, the son of the soil?

(The author is a Special Representative of The Statesman based in Jammu)
    *  *

Rashneek Kher

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