Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Struggle for Kashmir

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference in Indian-administered Kashmir, was placed under house arrest today in India's latest move in its long colonial adventure there. I interviewed him in 2007 while reporting from the region and, at the request of a Kashmiri friend, repost my article from that time here today. To anyone who may read this, Kashmir remains the most beautiful place I have seen on this earth, and the story there is not at all what we have been lead to believe. Visit it soon, if you can. MD

The Struggle for Kashmir

By Michael Deibert

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the World Policy Journal.

In the bloody annals of the struggle for the Kashmir Valley, few chapters are as wrenching as that of the “disappeared.” Some 8,000 persons have been arrested or seized, the majority by Indian army and police units, never to be seen again. The conflict has thus far claimed at least 40,000 lives (local human rights groups put the number much higher), left tens of thousands wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced, and pitted the Indian state against Islamist militants, historically aided by India’s nuclear rival Pakistan. Amid this bitter conflict, another dark chapter has begun to surface, after nearly two decades of international silence and official denial.

In Ganderbal, a town in the heart of India’s Kashmir Valley, a visitor superficially encounters a winter idyll: rushing mountain streams ringed with snow-covered hills. But the sensation is fleeting.

“We have so many cases of people who have been disappeared, who have been killed, whose names are never known,” says Abdul Aziz, a 26 year-old merchant, standing with a group of men under a gray sky, garbed like the rest, in the region’s distinctive gown-like shirt, called a pheran. As he speaks, a horse-drawn cart pulls fire wood and produce down the road. “They are killed as militants, but they were not militants.” Steps away from the storefront where Aziz and a dozen others are gathered, there are three rises of freshly turned earth. These graves hold the bodies of three unknown men, say Aziz and the villagers, buried there by Indian security forces.

“Police or military arrest an innocent person and they label him as a Pakistani militant, as a foreign militant, as a local militant, and then they kill him,” says Gulam Hassan, a 50-year-old shopkeeper, as he observes the scene. “This is against the constitution, against the law, and against all humanity.”

When India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, vowed “zero tolerance” for the killing of suspected rebels in government custody while attending a May 2006 conference with local political leaders in Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, many hoped a new day had dawned for human rights in the region. India has engaged in intermittent peace talks with Pakistan since 2003, and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in late 2006 proposed a four-point formula which, he said, could form the basis of a solution of the Kashmir dispute. (Most salient among them, for the first time there would be no Pakistani claim to Indian-controlled Kashmir or a demand for full independence for the region.) These moves seemed to augur a more peaceful future.

This January, in what many interpreted as another hopeful sign, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Sunni Muslims and chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, which has historically advocated autonomy for the region, told a crowd in Islamabad, Pakistan, that he was calling for an end to armed struggle as a means of ending Indian rule of the region. “We are not prepared to sacrifice any more of our loved ones,” he announced

After a similar declaration five years ago, Abdul Ghani Lone, then leader of the Hurriyat Conference, was gunned down by unknown assailants. Mr. Farooq’s own father, Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq, was slain in a similar manner in May 1990. But the politicians’ words have yet to filter to ground-level. A special investigating team sent by the Indian government has thus far arrested 11 policemen from Ganderbal—including the senior superintendent and deputy superintendent—for the alleged killings of civilians in staged gun battles with the security forces, here described as “encounters.” At least four bodies have been exhumed from graves as part of the investigation.

Police officers in Ganderbal said that they thought the stories of disappearances were exaggerated. “That’s not the entire police force, only one or two people may have done it,” said A. M. Reshi, the on-duty Ganderbal police station house officer. “I am of the opinion that the police, on the whole, are working on a good way, as per procedure, as per of the law of the land, as per the constitution.” A. R. Khan, the new police superintendent of Ganderbal, declined to be interviewed for this report.

How It Began

The roots of the Kashmir crisis stretch back to the twilight of Great Britain’s colonial rule and partition of India and Pakistan, when a Hindu Maharaja, Hari Singh, pleaded for Indian assistance to fend off an invasion of Pakistan-backed tribesmen entering Kashmir in 1947. He allowed Indian troops to rush to his aid, and signed a document agreeing to become part of the Indian state. Kashmiris, 12 million of whom make up the only Muslim-majority state in India, where a promised a referendum on the status of the region which was never held. A 1948 United Nations Security Council resolution posited that in a plebiscite, Kashmiris should only have the option to accede to either India or Pakistan, denying Kashmiris a vote for independence, the long-cherished goal of many. Despite later wars, the 1947 armistice border between Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir has remained largely along the contours one sees today, and is know as the Line of Control.

Though demarcating separate sections controlled by two separate armies, the Line of Control has never been recognized as an international border. India and Pakistan have fought successive wars along the frontier, the most recent in 1999. The Indian government refers to its portion of the territory as Jammu and Kashmir, referring as well to neighboring Jammu state, which falls within Indian territory, while the other side of the Line of Control is dubbed Pakistani Occupied Kashmir (POK ). The Pakistani government refers to its portion of the captured territory as Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir.

When 1987 legislative elections seemed likely to result in a victory for a coalition of Islamic and secessionist parties under the umbrella of the Muslim United Front (MUF), the Indian authorities responded with mass arrests of MUF candidates and party workers. This was followed by credible and pervasive allegations of vote rigging, and the awarding of the election to a rival, less radical, coalition. Many Kashmiri youths who had previously sought to change the status quo through electoral means felt they had no alternative but to turn to the gun, with Pakistan’s intelligence services—particularly the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency—more than happy to provide training and weapons. The dispute flared into open insurrection.

The Indian government faced large-scale protests and a sustained campaign of terrorism, including the murder of political leaders and mass-casualty civilian attacks, on a scale not seen before. In two incidents in 1990 alone, Indian police shot and killed at least 35 demonstrators attempting to cross Srinagar’s Gawakadal Bridge, and then opened fire and killed at least 21 at the funeral of Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. Three years later, 37 people were killed when India’s 74th Battalion Border Security Force opened fire on a crowd estimated at 10,000 marching to protest extrajudicial killings in the town of Beijbehara. For their part, Kashmiri militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), which India has long accused Pakistan of supporting, retaliated with the December 2000 attack on the 17th century Red Fort in India’s capital, New Delhi, in which three died; a 2001 suicide attack on India’s parliament which left 14 dead; and, the Indian government charges, last summer’s bomb attacks on commuter trains in India’s economic capital, Mumbai, in which 187 people were killed. Fatal attacks by Islamic militants against members of the local Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference Party (NCP) because of their participation in Indian electoral politics are now routine. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, called Pandits, have been driven from their homes.

Many fear that if the opportunity for a lasting settlement to the Kashmir problem is not seized during the present era of relative détente, the region will have lost its last, best chance for peace. “This is a golden opportunity which needs to be taken now, it should not take years,” says Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP. Mufti’s party came to power as part of an elected coalition government in Kashmir in 2002. The post of chief minister (the Indian equivalent of governor) currently resides with Ghulam Nabi Azad, of the ruling national Congress party, which favors resolving the crisis in Kashmir within the Indian constitutional framework. “So many people have been martyred, so many people have lost their lives, so many homes have been destroyed, they would like to have something out of it,” Mufti contends. “If we don’t give the Kashmiris something today, this problem is manifest again into some type of

Though India, a dynamic, hopeful country, is undergoing an economic boom that is the envy of other emergent nations, Kashmir remains a shaming stain. “The Indian government has ended some practices such as indiscriminate firing upon unarmed protesters,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But they have begun this system where soldiers just kill suspected militants, completely against the laws of war.”

In a September 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report condemning what it called “patterns of impunity” in Kashmir and neighboring Jammu state, and called for a “credible and independent” investigation into all disappearances and staged killings since the conflict began. Part of the problem, according to Ganguly, is a system of payouts and promotions whereby soldiers are rewarded for killing suspected insurgents.

Likewise, human rights monitors have pointed to Section 45 of India’s criminal procedure code, which protects any member of the armed forces from arrest for “anything done or purported to be done by him in the discharge of his official duties except after obtaining the consent of the Central government.“ Section 197(2) of the same code makes it mandatory for prosecutors to obtain permission from the federal government to initiate criminal proceedings against any public servant, including armed forces personnel.

The fate of Kashmir remains an intensely divisive issue in modernizing India. Facile political definitions become blurred as Indians talk about the fate of the restive region. “Kashmir could be solved tomorrow. If the Kashmiris wanted to join the Indian union, they would prosper like never before,” says Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian and author of the just-published
India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. “Independence or joining Pakistan are no solutions...and chasing this fantasy of independence will lead to the sacrifice of another generation of young men.”

Many Kashmiris, however, find such arguments unpersuasive. “For me, that’s a colonial way of looking at things,” says Idrees Kanth, a 28-year-old Kashmiri graduate student in New Delhi. “That was precisely how the British rationalized their rule in India.” Ideas like nationalism are “very penetrative,” Kanth believes, even to the Left and the intellectual class. “But, watching them during an India-Pakistan cricket match, you should see how they cheer.”

The Voices Seldom Heard

This past February, in the Lal Chowk neighborhood of Srinagar, a once-lovely city on Dal Lake now ringed with barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers, hundreds of Kashmiris stage a sit-in protest for three days against the human rights situation in the region. Beneath a tent, festooned with images of the dead and Urdu script quoting the Koran, is Yasin Malik, a secessionist rebel who underwent a transformation while in prison and now leads a non-violent, Ghandian movement called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF ). He lies on a mat during the second day of a hunger strike.

He threatens to fast “unto death” if the human rights situation in Kashmir does not improve. “The mothers and sisters want to know where their children are," said Malik. "If they have been killed, give us their bodies.” Nearby, sit relatives of the disappeared, many holding photos.

“I joined this organization because my son, Javid Ahmed Ahanger, was taken by national security personnel in August 1990,” says Parmina Ahanger, the 47-year-old head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based organization. “I sent a complaint into the court and to the police. They established that he had been taken, but they pleaded their inability to act as the officers involved in my son’s abduction were of very high- ranking positions.”

Another woman, 50-year-old Rahti Razak, speaking through her tears, held up a photo of a young man with an impressive mane of black locks. “My son was taken from his bedroom when he was sleeping with his one-year-old son and wife in 1997. They came into his room, dragged him out by his hair and took him away,” she says. “He was abducted by the Special Operations Group (army and local police). I have been going all over this valley, to Uttar Pradesh and other places, but I have not been able to locate him.”

There are many such stories. Safiya Azad, whose haunting dark eyes are visible beneath her black burqa, tells the story of her husband, Himaynu Azad. “My husband was about 29 when he was arrested by Special Battalion 137 in 1993,” she says. “He was a political activist, and was connected with the militants. But even if he was a militant, they have punished the whole family. We’ve gone everywhere, to all authorities, we have put in reports with several police stations. They say that he escaped from their custody. We have a right to know what happened to him.”

As another family member of one of Kashmir's disappeared takes to the microphone and begins yet another impassioned appeal for justice, Yasin Malik rises wearily from beneath his blanket to say some final words to a visitor. "In Kashmir, there is no democracy," said Malik. "The government of India in Kashmir is existing in bunkers, and they're running their democracy through the barrel of a gun."

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

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