Wed, 05 Apr 2000

Sikhs determined to stay in Kashmir

By Izhar Wani

CHATISINGHPORA, India (AFP): The tiny Sikh community in India's Kashmir state is determined to stay in the troubled region, despite being shattered by a massacre of Sikh villagers last month.

"I will continue to live in Kashmir with my Muslim brothers," said Raju Singh of Chatisinghpora -- the village in southern Kashmir where unidentified gunmen shot dead 36 Sikhs on March 20.

India blamed the killings on two Pakistan-based Muslim militant groups, while Kashmiri separatist leaders said they were carried out by Indian security forces bent on tarnishing the image of their secessionist movement.

Since the massacre, which came on the eve of U.S. President Bill Clinton's state visit to India, leaders of the Sikh and Muslim communities in Muslim-majority Kashmir have sought to head off any panicked exodus.

"Initially I was adamant to leave Kashmir, but the sympathy of the majority community leaders made me change my mind," said Raju Singh, who lost four close friends in the massacre.

"For the moment, the general feeling among Sikhs is that they want to stay," said Kanwaljeet Singh, a government employee.

"But if there is another incident like Chatisinghpora, Sikhs will have no other choice but to leave."

Since the massacre, Sikh leaders have rejected government offers to help arm their community and set up "self-defense" groups in Sikh-dominated villages.

"The guns only look good in the hands of the security forces," says Charan Singh Bali, spokesman for the influential Sikh forum, Kashmir Sikh Joint Action Committee. "The majority community is our best protection."

Bali said there were Sikh and Muslim "miscreants" bent on driving a wedge between the two communities.

"But we will not give in to their designs. We are totally against any Sikh migration and our forum has succeeded in restoring confidence to the shell-shocked community."

The March massacre was the first such attack on Sikhs in Kashmir, who make up just over one percent of the state's eight million population. Previously they had remained untouched by the 10-year Muslim separatist insurgency in the region.

Hindus have been the main target of sectarian attacks in Kashmir, and some 200,000 Hindus have fled the Kashmir valley since the insurgency began in 1989.

"Having guns would only make us more vulnerable," said hotelier Joginder Singh, who advised Sikhs to try to put the massacre behind them in the continued belief that "our future is in Kashmir."

Sikh leaders held a meeting following a collective prayer ceremony in Chatisinghpora last Friday, during which they endorsed a three-point memorandum.

The memorandum stated that Sikhs should continue to live in Kashmir, appealed to Sikhs both inside and outside the state to maintain communal harmony, and demanded a judicial probe into the massacre.

The chief minister of the Sikh majority state of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, has added his voice to those warning against a knee-jerk migration.

Badal recalled the Sikh migration to Punjab from various parts of India in the wake of a wave of anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

"Initially the migrants were welcomed, but after some time they were left to fend for themselves."

"Please do not take a hasty decision regarding migration," Badal said.

Kashmir police chief Gurbachan Jagat said that some 100 police posts had already been set-up in Sikh villages across Kashmir to help restore the community's confidence.

But for all the appeals and promises of improved security, many Sikhs here are finding it difficult to accept that the Chatisinghpora massacre was simply a temporary aberration.

"The massacre has shattered our confidence," said Preeti Oberoi, a schoolteacher in the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar. "Who knows what is in store for us."