May 1: Snug in the comforting stirrings of normality in Kashmir, the country was today jolted out of bed by a grisly reminder of the price of peace.
Militants shot dead at least 22 people, including a nine-year-old girl, in a Jammu village late last night, shattering the recent calm days before the Prime Minister holds talks with Kashmiri separatists in Delhi and Srinagar.
“By singling out Hindus for such a major massacre, they (the militants) are sending a message to the entire Indian nation that this exercise (peace process) undertaken by the government is futile,” chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said.
The toll in Kulhan, Doda district, could rise with 10 others severely injured in the biggest massacre of Hindus in the state since 24 Pandits were gunned down near Shopian, Pulwama, in 2003.
The count for the night is already 35 with 13 Hindu shepherds being killed in the Lallan Galla forests of Udhampur district, where four bodies were found yesterday and nine more this morning.
Azad said the attack in Kulhan was meant to derail the upcoming peace talks. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to meet moderate Hurriyat leaders in Delhi on Wednesday for ice-breaking talks before he holds a wider, “round-table” conference in Srinagar later in the month.
Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, condemning the killings, confirmed that all six members of the grouping’s moderate faction would be in Delhi on Wednesday for the talks.
The Prime Minister said: “(The) people of Kashmir have rejected and rebuffed terrorists repeatedly.”
Union home secretary V.K. Duggal cited a second possible reason for the massacre: the militants’ frustration at the high turnout and peaceful polling in the recent bypolls, which included Bhaderwah in Doda that sent Azad to the Assembly by a record margin.
The attack also comes a day ahead of Tuesday’s meeting between Indian and Pakistani officials in Delhi to discuss new bus and truck services between the two Kashmirs and meeting points for families on the Line of Control.
The militants arrived shortly after midnight, one of the injured said from his hospital bed. Some of them wore combat dress, so when they asked all Hindu residents to gather outside headman Gopi Chand’s home, the villagers suspected nothing.
“As we were assembling there, they began shooting. People were screaming and running. I saw many die before my eyes,” Gian Chand said. “It lasted about five minutes.”
Most of the victims, dead or wounded, were hit in their chests while a few were shot in the back as they tried to flee the carnage.
Azad appealed to the state’s Muslim clerics to issue a “fatwa” against militants, citing how some imams in Hyderabad have criticised the Taliban for killing Indian telecom engineer K. Suryanarayana in Afghanistan.
The chief minister promised to deploy more forces in the mountains. “The people will be provided all sorts of protection. We will also strengthen the village defence committees and equip them with automatic weapons.”
Intelligence agencies fear that such attacks will rise in the run-up to the round-table conference and the Prime Minister’s possible Pakistan visit in late July-August.
Both military intelligence and internal security agencies say infiltration this April has been higher than that in the same month last year.
Inspector-general of police S.P. Vaid blamed the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba for the massacre, which has been disowned by the largest Kashmiri militant group, Hizb-ul Mujahideen.
“We strongly condemn these killings which seem to be a conspiracy of Indian security agencies to malign the ongoing freedom struggle,” a Hizb spokesman said.