After an Attack on a Bus of Hindu Pilgrims in India, a Muslim Driver Saves Lives and a Politician Saves Government Dignity Seven people died, but the fallout could have been much worse in a country tense with religious violence.

24, Jul 2017 | Teesta Setalvad

Two things will be remembered about the responses to the attack in India on a bus full of Hindu pilgrims returning from the Amarnath shrine late on Monday, July 10: The heroism of the bus driver and the unexpectedly reasonable statement made by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Home Minister Rajnath Singh (it was one of condolence, without jumping to villainizing/generalizing about India’s Kashmir Muslims).

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As the bus was on its way from Baltal to Jammu (in the conflict-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir) on July 10, militants opened fire and seven pilgrims unfortunately lost their lives. The first thing that will be remembered about the incident is the exemplary courage shown by Salim Mirza Shaikh, the driver of the bus, a Muslim from the western Indian state of Gujarat who drove the pilgrims and the bus to safety even as terrorists in uniform showered bullets in the dark of the night. It could have been the scene of a ghastly action movie, the dangerous mountainous roads, the bus riding past in the night (as pilgrim buses are normally prohibited from doing), and then the dastardly attack clearly meant to fuel the communal poison and polarization that has overtaken all of India. But no; according to the Indian Express, egged on by his colleagues who also took bullets, “Salim drove for nearly two kilometers on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway before he reached an army camp. …as [Salim] stepped out of an IAF [Indian Air Force] plane that brought the deceased as well as those injured in the attack to Surat, Gujarat, Tuesday afternoon,” he told the Indian Express:

It was about 8 pm when the bus was surrounded by terrorists. They first fired from the front with the intention to eliminate the driver. I ducked sideways to escape the bullets and drove ahead. I do not know how I got the strength to go on at that time. Maybe Allah helped me and gave me strength.”

It was all due to Baba Amarnath’s blessings that I got the strength despite guns blazing around me,” added Salim, in an emotional quote invoking Hinduism to the Indian media even though he is Muslim, in an example of India’s unique religious syncretism.

Salim’s hometown of Gujarat is embedded with a politically inspired hard-line Hindu identity. (Gujarat has been an experiment for the Hindutva right wing for three decades, also remembered also for a reprisal of the pogrom of Muslims, following arson on the coach of a train at Godhra, carrying, among others, political-religious activists.) Salim said he escaped unharmed in the incident while another passenger seated beside him was injured. As a result, 50 others who potentially could have lost lives remained unharmed. The families of those who lost their lives will forever mourn the day, but the rest will remember it with horror for what might have been, and then, with gratitude for the role that Salim played. It was a small silver lining for India. By early afternoon on Tuesday, July 12, Salim was a hero, and social media had, for once, done an exemplary job, silencing bitterness and hatred expressed through paid trolls. The pilgrims had come under attack late Monday after they were traveling to Jammu in a Gujarat vehicle, bearing the registration number GJ09Z 9976, on National Highway 1A, the only route connecting the valley to rest of the country, after completing the Amarnath pilgrimage.

The Amarnath pilgrimage itself, while having a long history, has been carefully promoted by the Indian state, especially those aligned to a hard-line Hindutva model of it, since the 1980s, exacerbated in 2008-2010 when state land was handed over to the Shrine Board.

According to Jammu and Kashmir police, the July 10 terror attack was aimed at the police post. The police said the terrorists had initially attacked a police bulletproof bunker near the Botengo village, reports the Indian Express. “The fire was retaliated and there was no report of injuries,” a police official said. The official added thereafter the terrorists fired on a police post near Khanabal locality in District Anantnag. “The fire was retaliated and a tourist bus was hit by bullets,” he said.

As the day (Tuesday, July 11) wore on and condemnations on the attack poured in, the high office of India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, provided another such dignified silver lining. “All Kashmiris are not terrorists,” Rajnath Singh tweeted, shutting down one such troll. Singh saluted the people of Jammu and Kashmir who had condemned the attack on Amarnath pilgrims and kept the spirit of Kashmiriyat alive. Describing the attack that killed seven pilgrims returning from Amarnath as a “cowardly act of terror,” Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that Tuesday that all sections in Kashmir had condemned the attack, which “shows the spirit of Kashmiriyat is also very much alive.”

According to the Indian Express, the home minister, in a gesture that is being widely welcomed as salutary:

took to Twitter to react strongly to a tweet from @shuchikalra, who responded to his remark on Kashmiriyat by posting: ‘Who gives a f*** about the spirit of Kashmiriyat at this moment? It is not your job to placate. Just drag those cowards out and cull them.’

Singh, whose official handle was tagged in that tweet, posted: ‘Ms Kalra I certainly do. It is absolutely my job to ensure peace and tranquility in all parts of the country. All Kashmiris are not terrorists.’ Following this, the Twitter account, listed under the name Shuchi Singh Kalra, was found deleted.”

Screengrab of Kalra’s tweet, which has now been deleted. The Indian Express

After a long time, the office of the Home Minister of India was restored to its intended dignity.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has announced a monetary award (a total of Rs 3 lakhs) to Salim for his exemplary bravery, and the chief minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, even said that he would recommend Salim Shaikh’s name for a special award for bravery. That providentially, Salim, the bus driver who drove the rest of the Hindu pilgrims to safety, was a Muslim, put a cap on the hate and vitriol (inevitably against Indian Muslims) likely to have been otherwise let loose or legitimized by the terror attack.

Bomb terror has the ugly potential of polarizing neighborhoods and evoking stark reactions from those affected by grief. When this is fueled by a cynical politics, that thrives—bread and butter—on hatred and communal polarization, India, through Salim and Rajnath Singh, rose above this, hopefully and decisively. The recent #NotInMyName protests organized in Delhi at India Gate, the Mumbai protests at Mira Road and another protest by Muslim and other civil rights organizations at 4 p.m. at Azad Maidan on Wednesday, July 12, all again united Indians in their grief and outrage—this time against bomb terror. 

Condemnations poured in from all quarters even while the Jammu and Kashmir government had to, unfortunately, resort to shutting down the internet services in the state to avoid any flaring up of the communal situation; traders observed a protest shut down in Jammu, the state’s winter capital, against the attack on pilgrims in the valley. The authorities also closed all educational institutions in Jammu region as a precautionary measure.

Politicians of all hues condemned the militant attack on the pilgrims and expressed sorrow over the killings. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, otherwise criticized of her handling of the rights violations against her own people over the past 18 months, even said, “Yatris (pilgrims) were esteemed guests of Kashmir and perpetrators of this crime have done a death blow to the ethos and culture of the state.”

The Communist Party of India Marxist issued a press statement condemning the attack. “The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) denounces the dastardly attack on Amarnath pilgrims in Anantnag district in Jammu and Kashmir. Seven people, mostly women, were killed and 19 injured in a terrorist attack while returning from the pilgrimage,” the statement said. The general secretary of the party, Sitaram Yechury, had earlier in the day tweeted a query: “How come the last time that the Amarnath yatris (pilgrims) were attacked it was during the BJP-led NDA rule in 2000?” That attack had been even more brutal than the one that took place on July 10, 2017. In the year 2000 attack, 80 lives were lost, including pilgrims and jawaans who tried to save them.

The 2017 terror attack on pilgrims was equally strongly condemned by others as well, including former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah of National Conference and Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, calling it a “crime against humanity.” Prominent citizens and bureaucrats also issued a statement strongly condemning the killing. Clearly for large sections of Indians, the potential of an intracommunity flare-up, resulting in innocent lives lost, drove the prompt and concerned reactions.

The only discordant notes predictably came from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—the VHP president, Pravin Togadia, called for a boycott of Kashmiri products and Muslimsincluding “urging the Indian government not to give ‘them’ jobs in the Army and security forces and Shiv Sena chief in Mumbai asked ‘for gau rakshaks’ (cow vigilantes) to be sent to fight terrorists.” Togadia even “demanded” that any or all Kashmiri Muslims serving in the Indian armed forces at present should be “immediately dismissed.” But then, that is probably to be expected, given that their (as in, hard-line Hindutva outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shiv Sena) political “USP,” or “currency,” is a barter of division and hatred. Togadia has consistently played out his revenge politics in his home state of Gujarat. When a strikingly similar, attack in 2000 had taken place against Hindu pilgrims to Amarnath, killing 80, he held a press conference, over 1,000 kilometers away, in Ahmedabad (Gujarat) on August 1, 2000, where he said, loud and clear, “Wahan ka jawaab yahan denge.” (We will respond to this attack, here.)Over the next three days, in nine to twelve city and rural centers in that state, from Surat in the south of Gujarat to Khed Bharma in the north, attacks on minority properties were engineered, with VHP and Bajrang Dal men at the forefront. Loss of property worth Rs 3-4 crores of rupees had been carefully documented in a collective Citizen’s Report, Saffron on the Rampage.

There are some other interesting details to the entire story, including why an Amarnath Yatra, ill advised due to the severe situation in the valley, was allowed at the last minute and the fact, also that, as reported by the Hindustan Times, the Jammu and Kashmir police on that Monday had arrested an Uttar Pradesh man who allegedly helped Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack army convoys, snatch weapons and loot lakhs of rupees. The man named Sandeep Kumar Sharma moved to Kashmir in 2012 for work and would travel to Punjab during the winter for alternative employment.

Brinda Karat, polit bureau of the CPI9M, in her regular blog on NDTV.com, took the argument raised by the general secretary of the party, Yechury, further. “There have not been such direct attacks on the Yatra for the last fifteen years,” she said. “The last time such horrific attacks took place on the Amarnath Yatra were in the three consecutive years of 2000, 2001 and 2002 when the Vajpayee Government was ruling at the centre and its then ally, the National Conference, was ruling the state.”

Also important as the question of why the pilgrimage was allowed in the first place, when the normally much-maligned Indian intelligence services had, about ten days before warned of such a brute attack. On June 28, NDTV.com had carried this story, clearly echoing the warning:

The annual Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir which begins today is facing a terror threat, according to an intelligence warning which has prompted the authorities to mobilise the ‘highest level’ of security measures, including satellite tracking system…. Over 2.30 lakh pilgrims have registered for the yatra and the first batch of over 4,000 pilgrims will be flagged off by Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh for the twin base-camps of Pahalgam and Baltal in Anantnag and Ganderbal  districts… Intelligence input received from SSP Anantnag reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 pilgrims and about 100 police officers and officials,” according to a letter sent by Inspector General of Police (Kashmir Zone) Muneer Khan to the Army, the CRPF, and range DIGs in the state… At this stage, the possibility of a sensational attack by a terrorist outfit cannot be ruled out… The attack may be in the form of stand-off fire on yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tensions throughout the nation.”

Other sections of the Indian media, including the Hindustan Times, maintained a balance by also raising serious and sharp questions on the legal and procedural norms followed by the bus (whether it was registered or not), whether it had been registered by the Amarnath Board (a quasi-government authority set up to handle the logistical and other issues related to this pilgrimage) or not, questions about how it had managed to drive through several ‘security’ check posts and was driving through without being ‘checked’; why was it allowed to travel after sunset, etc. The questions are serious, and the hyped-up atmosphere around ‘terror’ attacks in India and the particularly hard-line approach of the present Indian government, in Kashmir, are unlikely to get provide any reasonable, and properly investigated, answers.

It is just as crucial to appreciate where India stands in terms of terms of the Indian public discourse at present. When, after months of studied silence, the response of the Indian Home Minister, belonging to the same party as the ruling BJP, prompted hate on Twitter, the followers of his own ideology, the faithful behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi trolled him, viciously. The influence that hate-ridden targeting plays in swaying Indian public discourse today, is staggering.

But, for now, it is worth our while, to savor the day and the victory of the sheer power of decency—displayed in the actions of Salim Mirza and India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

 

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