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Kashmir: unsettling questions

Kashmir
India
15.07.09-Kashmir-590x393.jpg

Indian Soldiers, Kashmir flowcomm under a Creative Commons Licence

A teenage boy’s voice echoes against the prison walls at a police station in Srinagar’s Old City in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The 14-year-old boy, imprisoned on charges of stone pelting, is singing hymns, remembering the creator. A journalist friend who was at the police station recalls that he traced the rebellious voice resonating in the corridor to a dingy room; he peeked in to find the boy singing in the fellowship of walls decked with graffiti in charcoal. Despite unabated state repression, the season of rebellion is perennial in Kashmir.

The region is coping with a series of ‘mysterious’ killings in north Kashmir’s Sopore. In 22 days, 6 people were killed by ‘unidentified’ gunmen, leaving behind orphans, widows and unsettling questions. The killing spree began in May – a series of attacks targeted telecom infrastructure in north Kashmir, hitting the communication services.

Some reports suggest that militants were reacting to the loss of their own communication equipment from a mobile tower which had assisted them in evading state surveillance. Reports also suggest that these attacks, carried out by the militants, are aimed at crushing the Indian intelligence agencies and their counter-insurgency operations. In recent years, these operations have been responsible for eliminating militant commanders. Contradicting these claims, however, other reports argue that just like the state, insurgents are dependent on telecom infrastructure for their operations. Rebel leaders and others allege that these attacks are tactics of the Indian agencies to tarnish the resistance movement.

Amidst these conflicting versions, Sopore, Kashmir’s ‘apple town’, is mourning the loss of lives, truth and trust – which the Indian state has been targeting over the years.

On 25 May, Rafiq Ahmed – a telecommunications sales representative – was shot dead in his cabin. The next day, Ghulam Hassan Dar, a fruit trader, was killed at his home. A cell-phone tower at the compound of his house stands defunct after his death. On 9 June, Sheikh Altaf ur Rehman, a pro-freedom activist, was murdered while returning home. Days before, he was detained by the police’s Special Operation Group. Mehraj-ud-din, an ex-militant, was killed on 14 June at his chicken shop near his home. Aijaz Ahmed – arrested in 2006 on militancy charges – was shot dead on 12 June, the day he had to attend a court hearing. The killers remain the same – ‘unidentified’ gunmen.

While police say that Lashkar e Islam, ‘a splinter group of Hizbul Mujahideen’, are responsible for the killings, residents of Sopore believe that militants aren’t behind the killings at all. Resistance leaders and activists attribute the killings to the Indian defence minister’s remarks that: ‘terrorists should be used to eliminate terrorists’. For many, this statement evoked the horrors of ‘Ikhwan’ (which ironically means brotherhood) – a renegade group of the 1990s created by the state and accused of human rights violations.

While several families have fled the town, others live under a constant fear of further attacks. After a long silence, the government, as its modus operandi, has ordered a ‘time bound’ inquiry. The police also released posters of suspects, but a photo of the ‘most wanted militant’ turned out to be an entrepreneur from another district who was shocked to see his picture. Government forces have intensified search operations in the town; residents allege they face harassment and restriction on their mobility, especially in the month of Ramadan, which ends on 17 July.

While Sopore mourned the mysterious deaths, in Kulgam, south Kashmir, families of 2 militants – killed in a gun battle with Indian troops – celebrated their ‘martyrdom’. The father of one of the militants said, ‘We are ready to sacrifice our lives to break the shackles of slavery.’ A kilometre away from the gun battle site, troops shot dead 24-year-old Asif Ahmed, amid protests. His family alleges that he wasn’t part of the protests and was shot just a few steps away from his home. People also alleged that the troops ransacked their shops, assaulted them and destroyed public property. A resistance leader termed this as an open display of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’.

As Narendra Modi – the Indian prime minister accused of complicity in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat – was gearing up for ‘unity of mind and body’ ahead of ‘International Yoga Day’ on 21 June, India’s crackdown on dissent in Kashmir was unabated. Resistance leaders were detained and put under house arrest. A seminar, ‘Indian State Fascism and Our Response’, hosted by a senior resistance leader, was banned; Indian rights activists and three Sikh leaders were arrested.

A mammoth gathering of boys and girls protested against the arrest of a university student on 22 June. Eyewitnesses say police resorted to baton charges and aerial firing inside the university campus. Days later, while chasing protesters in the Old City, police officers entered the city’s grand mosque, firing teargas shells inside the premises. The resistance leaders had called for a shutdown on the Saturday against the ‘desecration’ of the mosque. And yet another boy – severely hit by pellets and undergoing treatment – risks losing vision in his left-eye.

While these are the everyday workings of a military occupation of the ‘world’s biggest democracy’, Kashmir remains the anthem-singing prisoner.

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