JAMMU: The men slipped into the village of Prankot at night, silently moving from house to house, hacking residents to death with axes and scythes. A teenage girl managed to rouse her two younger sisters and sneak away, hiding with them deep in the mountain forest. Their parents did not escape.
At dawn the next morning, the girl left her sisters in hiding and returned to Prankot, where she saw her home and others ablaze. The attackers spotted the girl. They raped her and then set fire to her clothing, sending the teenager in a desperate rush to a neighbor for help.
"They've burned me now and they've killed my parents," the neighbor, Kicho Devi, later quoted the frantic girl, named Bitto, as saying before she died. "What can I tell you about that morning?" a saddened Devi said.
In the attack on Prankot two months ago, 27 people were killed, including 11 children, according to survivors. All victims were Hindus, who constituted a small minority in the mostly Muslim village about 90 miles north of Jammu City, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only state with a Muslim majority. Hindu survivors identified the attackers as armed Muslim separatists who periodically came to Prankot to buy chickens.
That attack followed another massacre of Hindus in January, when 23 were shot in Wandhama, a village about 20 miles north of Srinagar, the state's largest city and summer capital.
Partly because of such massacres of Hindus, a coalition government dominated by Hindu nationalists has vowed to launch tough counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir state, a threat that has heightened tensions with neighboring Pakistan and, if carried out, could bring the newly declared nuclear powers to the brink of war.
India's new leaders have taken those risks to signal they are fed up after nearly a decade of Pakistan's sending armed Muslim insurgents -- possibly including those who attacked Prankot -- across the unrecognized border into India's portion of the broader Kashmir region, which each nation claims as its own.
Soon after India last month conducted its first nuclear tests in 24 years, two cabinet ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) initially threatened war with Pakistan. One of them, Home Minister L.K. Advani, a BJP hard-liner, went so far as to suggest that India's nuclear capabilities had some bearing on how the 51-year dispute over Kashmir might be settled.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, stemming from a dispute that is more about territory and national identity than religion. When British colonial India was carved into constitutionally secular but predominantly Hindu India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947, the fate of the princely state of Kashmir was not formally resolved. Today, aside from a portion China forcibly annexed in 1962, two-thirds of pre-independence Kashmir is the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and one-third comprises Pakistan's Northern Areas and Azad (Free) Kashmir.
Since late 1989, tens of thousands of Jammu and Kashmir's Hindus, who account for a third of that state's 9 million people, have been displaced during a separatist insurrection. Initially a spontaneous reaction to a blatantly rigged election, the uprising was later supported by Pakistan, which, despite official denials, appears to have armed and trained some Muslim militants there.
The separatist violence has forced virtually all Hindu residents in Srinagar and the lush Kashmir Valley around it to abandon their property and flee. Many have migrated south to the Jammu region, where Hindus predominate, or New Delhi.
The plight of migrant Kashmiri Hindus has been a major political issue for the BJP, which has accused previous governments and human rights groups of ignoring their problems. While the party has officially jettisoned its most strident positions on Kashmir, such as "reclaiming" the portion controlled by Pakistan and repealing the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, it has held on to the Hindu migrant issue.
During Parliament's debate on India's nuclear tests last month, Advani accused Pakistan of having orchestrated the expulsion of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley and, more recently, trying to do the same in the Jammu area.
"The militants and their mentors abroad decided upon a new strategy," Advani said. "Earlier . . . they attacked and killed people in the valley so that the minority Hindus flee. Now they are thinking, let us go to the Jammu region and try to drive out the Hindus from there."
However, the BJP's rhetoric comes at a time when the strife in Kashmir appears to be on the wane. Tough counterinsurgency operations conducted by previous governments decimated the ranks of armed militants and flushed them from the Srinagar area, forcing most of the few thousand left to retreat into mountainous areas of the Jammu region. During the past two years, the number of reported incidents of separatist violence has fallen, and the state has been able to hold three elections and make tentative moves to revive what once was a thriving tourism industry.
Mohammad Amin, a spokesman for the Jammu and Kashmir government, described the state as "limping back" toward normality.
But in threatening war with Pakistan, Advani and Tourism Minister Madan Lal Khurana have painted a grimmer picture of the state's security situation and blamed the residual insurgency solely on "foreign mercenaries" sponsored by Pakistan. The state's chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, also joined the war cries.
Faced with a wave of international criticism, Indian officials in recent weeks have backed away from talk of war and "hot pursuit" of insurgents across the unrecognized border into Pakistan's side of Kashmir.
Advani and other BJP leaders have continued to discuss undisclosed plans for a crackdown on what they estimate to be between 700 and 800 Muslim insurgents from foreign countries, primarily Pakistanis and Afghans committed to waging a "holy war" in Kashmir. "We will kill them all, and we're going to do it quickly, ruthlessly," said Mohan Guruswamy, a BJP adviser on national security issues.
A senior Indian security officer, who asked not to be named, raised doubts that such a crackdown would be swift or successful, especially "cordon and search" operations that would require insertion of large numbers of forces into remote, mountainous areas.
"Cordon and search is not possible at the heights," the officer said. "When you move in, they go somewhere else. They watch the movement of the security forces."
A crackdown also could reignite regional tensions. Pakistan has cited human rights violations allegedly committed during prior counterinsurgency operations to justify both its claim to the Indian side of Kashmir and its national identity as a Muslim haven.
Human rights groups also have expressed concern about a resurgence of killings and disappearances of Muslim sympathizers.
"The human rights community is conscious there has been improvement in the human rights situation in 1996 and 1997," said Ravi Nair, director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. "All the signs are that there could be a regression. One hopes there isn't."
The BJP-dominated coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has focused on the killing of Hindus, but the vast majority of civilians slain have been Muslims. Nair said more than 25,000 people have been killed, a count based on newspaper reports. Home Minister Advani put death toll at 18,000.
Closer to the conflict, the surviving Hindus who fled after the nighttime attack on Prankot expressed no bitterness toward their Muslim neighbors.
The 50 Hindu migrants walked 30 miles to the town of Riasi, where they now live in a run-down boarding school dormitory.
Men who spoke on behalf of the migrants said they doubted that another war with Pakistan -- conventional or nuclear -- would help them return to their mountain homes and fields of wheat and maize any sooner.
"I don't think war can solve anything, but who knows?" Balak Ram, 60, said.
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