Thu, 27 Apr 2000

Sikh try to heal massacre wounds

By Surinder Oberoi

CHATISINGHPORA, India (AFP): Life is cautiously returning to normal in the picturesque Kashmir village of Chatisinghpora, where 36 Sikh men were massacred by unidentified gunmen more than one month ago.

The massacre marked the first time Sikhs had been targeted in the decade-old Muslim insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and sent shock waves through their close knit community that were felt across the country.

The killings, which the Indian government blamed on Pakistan- based Islamic militant groups, tested the traditionally peaceful co-existence of Sikhs and Muslims in India's only Muslim-majority state.

In Chatisingphora that test appears to have been withstood, although the mental wounds inflicted by the March 20 massacre are far from healed.

Sikh children, many of them now fatherless, have returned to the local school where they play with their Muslim classmates.

"For the first three weeks, the children of Sikh community were reluctant and obviously a little fearful of attending the school, but now they have returned," said principal Abdul Rehman Itoo.

Their parents, some of whom had wanted to flee Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, have also gone back to tending their fields and orchards.

"We have to come out and work. How long we can mourn the dead?" said villager Ravinder Singh.

Militant groups and separatist leaders in Kashmir have denied any involvement in the Chatisinghpora killings, saying they were carried out by Indian security forces bent on undermining the secessionist movement in the state.

Muslims in and around the village have sought to reassure Sikhs that they are valued members of the community and prevent them from moving away.

"Whoever killed the Sikhs will face the same fate," said Zooni Begum, a 70-year-old Muslim woman who stressed the long history of close Muslim-Sikh relations in the state.

Nissar Ahmed, a soldier spending his leave with his family in Chatisinghpora, said Muslims had a responsibility to look after their Sikh neighbors.

"In Kashmir, nobody is sure what will happen from day to day. But it is the duty of the majority community to give protection to the minority," Ahmed said.

Mohammed Abdullah Bhat, a Muslim wood contractor, said he had refused payment for the wood he supplied Sikh families to cremate their dead.

"How can I accept the money? I have lost 36 Kashmiris and this is the only service through which I can share the pain of the families," Abdullah said.

Meanwhile, Muslim tailor Mohammed Ramzan is relieved that his Sikh customers have continued to send him orders.

"There was a lot of fear and mistrust just after the killings, and I was worried that they would stay away for good," Ramzan said.

Karan Singh, a Sikh from neighboring Ranbirpora village, was back ploughing his fields with the same Muslim laborers he has always used.

"How can you think that we should leave our orchards, fields and property to live on footpaths somewhere else?" Singh said. "We are Kashmiris."

Munir Khan, the police chief of Anantnag district where Chatisinghpora is located, said tensions that were all too evident in the first weeks after the massacre, were slowly easing.

"The situation is under control and we have provided security pickets at every vulnerable village or wherever they (Sikhs) have demanded."

Underlining his point, a scooter passes by with a Sikh driver and Muslim pillion rider, while on nearby patch of grass members of both communities mix together in a game of cricket.