A Day in Gandoh: Hindu-Muslim Relations in Doda

A Day in Gandoh: Hindu-Muslim Relations in Doda

Yoginder Sikand

The narrow road snaked its way through towering slopes, throwing up enormous clouds of dust. It passed by little hamlets, comprising a couple of houses built around pagoda-shaped mosques and box-like temples with sloping roofs made of corrugated iron. Tiny patches of wheat and mustard, like patchwork quilts, straddled the edge of the stream that rushed down from the snow-capped peaks in the distance with an irrepressible passion to merge into the Chenab beyond. Children played cricket on improvised pitches on patches of land left fallow or lazed around on conical haystacks. Weather-beaten Bakkarwal men, with their hennaed beards and loosely wound turbans, led flocks of hairy mountain goats. Their children and womenfolk followed after them, driving mules laden with pots, pans and bedding葉heir mobile homes. The perfect picture of serenity.

That picture is, however, frighteningly deceptive. Like the rest of Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda district, the Gandoh tehsil has been wracked by fifteen or more years of ongoing conflict. Gandoh is one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Doda. Straddling the border with Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, it has a Muslim majority, with a Hindu minority of a little more than a third of the population. Historically, relations between Hindus and Muslims here have been fairly cordial. Many of Gandoh’s Muslims are descendants of converts from various local castes, although a sizeable number are also ethnic Kashmiris. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to distinguish local Hindus from Muslims from their facial features, although sometimes it is possible through their dress, as in the case of Muslims associated with the Deobandi-inspired Tablighi Jamaat (a relatively new phenomenon in these parts), with their distinct way of wearing their shalwars above their ankles, their long, bushy beards and their shaven moustaches. In terms of economic conditions, too, Hindus and Muslims appear, on the whole, roughly equally poor, Gandoh being one of the most ‘backward’ parts of Doda. Most people here earn their livelihood through animal husbandry and tilling tiny patches of terraced land up in the mountains and in the narrow valleys between them.

It was a little after noon that we arrived in Bhatias, a settlement consisting of a row of houses and shops along the main road, some seven kilometers from Gandoh town. Exhausted and ravenous, we entered a tea-shop, whose amiable owner rustled up for us a sumptuous meal of rajma-chawal, standard fare in these parts.

We shared the single table with a friendly young Muslim man, a peasant from a village nearby. ‘Times are bad’, he said gravely. ‘Just the other day, a young man was killed in a village in this area’. He went on to speak about how a group of militants had stopped the vehicle of a local BJP activist, demanded that the Special Police Officer accompanying the man hand them his weapon, and then fled into the forest on the other side of the river. In retaliation, he said, a Hindu member of the local Village Defence Committee (VDC) had shot dead a Muslim lad in the village, the only son of his parents. The boy, he stressed, had nothing to do with militancy. The enraged Muslims of the village demanded that the VDC member be arrested and his weapon, provided to him by the state, be seized. Consequently, he went on, several Hindu families had left the village and were camping in Gandoh in order to prevent this from happening.

‘The situation in the village is still very tense’, the man said, when we asked him if we could go there to see things for ourselves.

The man shortly left us, and a short while later we were joined at the table by an elderly Hindu, a shopkeeper. His version of the recent events was quite different. According to him, the boy had been killed in cross-firing between militants and the VDC team and had not been deliberately killed by the latter. Fearing retaliation by militants, he said, several Hindu families had fled the village and had taken refuge in Gandoh.

Although we could no verify whose claim was correct, the two very different accounts of the same event brought home to us the sharp communal divide in Gandoh, a result of the many years of unrelenting conflict and violence the area has witnessed. At the same time, what was equally striking was how, despite the walls of suspicion that have come up between local Hindus and Muslims, the two communities continue to live together in the same towns and villages in relative peace, barring occasional incidents. While sporadic killings of civilians lead to further polarisation and mistrust, there are other forces that are at work that help maintain centuries’-old bonds between Hindus and Muslims in this area. And one of these was a Sufi we had come all the way from Doda town to meet, Haji Sahib of Akhiyarpur.

A two-hour walk up a steep slope brought us to Akhiyarpur, to Haji Saheb’s modestly furnished meeting chamber. We were accompanied half the way by two local Muslim youth, who, while they said they were the best of friends, were politically completely at odds. The older one was bitter about the militants, and insisted that most locals, Muslims, and, of course, Hindus, felt the same way. His cousin, he told us, had been kidnapped and killed by a group of militants because he had refused to pay them a certain sum that they had demanded or else provide them with one of his own sons as a recruit. ‘Earlier, many militants were in the movement for purely ideological reasons and that is why they enjoyed considerable support’, he stressed. ‘But now’, he said, ‘unemployed and illiterate youth have joined the movement. Wielding a gun gives them a sense of power, which some of them don’t hesitate to misuse to settle their own personal scores’.

The man’s friend shrugged off his comments. ‘Don’t listen to him’, he insisted. He made no effort to conceal his support for the militants and their cause. ‘Muslims continue to be persecuted in India. See what happened in Gujarat’, he said. ‘So, how can we ever willingly agree to live in a country where Muslims have no place?’, he wanted to know.

The men left us roughly half way up the mountain. For the rest of the strenuous walk ahead I juggled in my mind what they both had said, trying to imagine how I would have looked at the world if I were in their place. The thought was hardly comforting, for, clearly, like almost everyone else in the area, they had seen or else heard of death and destruction in their neighbourhood on an almost daily basis.

When we finally arrived at Akhiyarpur and entered Haji Sahib’s room, he was sitting in a corner on a mattress with a crowd of supplicants in rows in front of him. Most of them were Muslims, but some, I later discovered, were Hindus, too. A few of them had come from so far as Poonch and Kathua in the hope of a miraculous cure to their woes. One by one they narrated their troubles to Haji Sahib in hushed tones. He listened to each of them patiently, advising them on what to do.

After the last of his other visitors had left, Haji Saheb turned towards us. His eyes were soft, yet sad, gentle and the same time firm and determined. He looked considerably younger than the roughly seventy that we were told he was.

Haji Sahib, we had been told, was a Sufi who was held in considerable respect and reverence by many local Muslims as well as Hindus. He went on, on our asking him, to tell us about himself.

He had, he told us, taught for over four decades in various government schools in Gandoh tehsil and was now running the one of the area’s few private schools. In this relatively inaccessible and impoverished part of Doda, this was no mean achievement. The school is till the tenth grade and is affiliated to the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education. Most of the roughly 1000 students come from poor families, and the fees are relatively low. Numerous very poor children receive education free of cost. The school has a number of Hindu students, and almost a tenth of its teachers are Hindus, the rest being Muslims. In addition to the school, Haji Sahib has set up a madrasa, the Jamia Ganiatul Ulum, which has some fifty students training to become ulama or Islamic clerics. Most of these children are from impoverished families, and in the madrasa they receive free education, boarding and lodging as well as the possibility of a job as a religious specialist once they graduate.

Our conversation turned to the ongoing conflict in the region. Hindus and Muslims, Haji Sahib assured us, had traditionally lived harmoniously in the area, even in the tumultuous days of the Partition. Killing an innocent person, he referred to the Qur’an as saying, is tantamount to slaying the whole of humankind. That principle applied in every case, he stressed, when I asked him about the atrocities committed both by militants as well as Indian soldiers, which were not few in number. ‘May God grant the world His blessings’, he cryptically replied in response to my query about the possibility of a realistic resolution to the Kashmir conflict.

The Haji Saheb insisted we spend the night in the village. In any case, we had missed the last vehicle to Doda and it was simply too dangerous to trek back to the main road after sunset. And so we were directed to the house of a friend of the Haji Sahib, a steep ascent ahead.

An hour later we found ourselves snuggled under layers of thick cotton quilts, tucking into a sumptuous meal in the house of the principal of Haji Sahib’s school. The principal and his son were impeccable hosts, and despite the fact that we were complete strangers and uninvited guests we were treated like some long-lost friends.

We talked late into the night, mostly on the ongoing conflict and the impact this had had on Hindu-Muslim relations. Before we finally retired for the night, the principal read out to us a letter written by him and recently published in a Jammu-based Urdu newspaper.

To protest the deadly massacre of more than two dozen Hindus in Kulhand,  a hamlet near Doda, this May, the letter stated, Jammu town observed a complete shut-down. That very morning the principal’s grandson, a student in Jammu University, had to appear for an important examination. He assumed that because of the strike the examination had been postponed. In the afternoon, he rang up a Hindu friend of his, who told him, to his shock, that the examination was actually on schedule and that he had just entered the examination hall. No vehicles were plying in the streets that day and the principal’s son had no way out to reach the university. However, his friend magnanimously rushed out of the examination hall and sped on his motorcycle all the way to his house and picked him. They arrived in the examination hall just in time to write their paper.

‘Such examples of Hindu-Muslim harmony and friendship must be regularly highlighted in the press’, the letter stressed. It concluded with a line in which the principal revealed that he had sent an appeal to the Chief Minister to announce a reward to his grandson’s Hindu friend for having ‘served as a model of communal harmony’.

The next morning, after a heavy breakfast which we had to accept after much protest, we trudged down the mountain back to the main road to head back to Doda town. And as the principal hugged me in farewell, I promised him that I would, in my own modest way, do what he had advised in his letter: to highlight this instance of love and friendship beyond communal boundaries as a lesson that others could emulate.