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Arrest, harass… and counsel?

Soldier in Kashmir

Kashmir Global under a Creative Commons Licence

Uzma Falak questions police tactics in Kashmir. 

It is 10.30 pm. The winter dark is impenetrable. Shahzada and her daughters lie huddled in her modest house in Srinagar’s old city in Indian-controlled Kashmir. She is worried for her son, Mushtaq Sheikh, who hasn’t returned from work. Suddenly, loud noises, sirens and swearing interrupt the stillness outside. Flashlights scan Shahzada’s room. Outside, men in uniform have cordoned off the house. A posse of police have gathered for the raid to arrest Mushtaq, a young man in his twenties, who is the family’s sole breadwinner.

‘There were so many police vans, as if they had to catch a big fish,’ says Urooj, one of Mushtaq’s sisters. They smashed the front wooden door, barged in and went on a rampage. ‘They abused and assaulted us,’ she recalls. Accompanied by an informer in a mask, the police asked for Mushtaq and became annoyed when he wasn’t there. A day later, government forces in civvies asked the family to hand over Mushtaq’s father in his place. Mushtaq is on the run. His father isn’t able to come home either, if he is to evade arrest.

Meanwhile, in south Kashmir, a protester remains underground for a second week. Last week, when police couldn’t trace him, his friend was arrested and harassed instead. He fears he might be charged under Public Safety Act for the second time.

In early November, police launched a massive crackdown on youth for involvement in anti-India protests, marked with arrests, night raids and extortion. Many of the protesters have since gone underground; some have left the Kashmir Valley entirely to evade the police dragnet and protect their families and close associates. The police have been using CCTV footage from Kashmir’s streets in their hunt for the protesters.

In Palhalan, north Kashmir, police have reopened old cases and resorted to massive ‘random’ arrests under different sections of Indian law.

Though protests and arrests are not unusual in Kashmir, the recent spate of arrests began after Indian armed forces killed a 22-year-old man on the outskirts of Srinagar during protests on the day of Narendra Modi’s visit, at which the Indian prime minister announced his much-touted economic package for the area. Modi, who has been accused of complicity in the Gujrat pogrom against Muslims in 2002, failed to sell his neoliberal development rhetoric to the people of Kashmir and delivered his speech at a fortified venue amid a strict clampdown on protests.  

Though the exact number of detainees is unknown, police officials put the figure at 40 in Srinagar alone, including minors. Police told the press that they had identified those involved in the stone-pelting, and that regular protesters would be booked, while ‘first-time offenders’ would be released after ‘counselling’.

The police use various tactics to humiliate and subjugate the young people they arrest. ‘One young stone-pelter was asked to recite the English alphabet and numbers,’ recalls a dissenter from his prison days. The police also patronize the protesters, using assumed religious superiority – often asking them to recite verses of the Qu’ran. If they are unable to do so, their commitment to their struggle and the protest is questioned, making them feel guilty.

The assumed moral, class, educational and religious superiority adopted by the police suggests the deeper ethical corruption and perversity of the state apparatus. Brainwashing, encouraging the youth to join the police, threatening, blackmailing, promising power and green pastures are usually the key elements of such ‘counselling’ sessions. ‘When their tactics fail, they tend to play “good cop, bad cop”,’ a protester reveals. He says the police promote specific literature to ‘de-radicalize’ the youth.

Detainees have in the past also accused the police of sexual torture, including rape, and of supplying drugs as a way to weaken them and, as a result, the resistance movement. Ironically, the police have opened drug rehabilitation centres, usually near to military garrisons, which also increases the dependence of Kashmir’s young people on the state.

In 2014, a police counselling programme included sessions with ‘experts’ who attempted to assess protesters from a ‘sociological’ perspective and understand why stone-pelters resort to ‘violence’, giving them space to vent their ‘emotions’ and providing them with information on ‘employment’ schemes. The police have also claimed that they ‘dissuaded’ some young men from joining the armed groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, by ‘providing an Islamic perspective on how their decision to join the militancy was un-Islamic’.

However, the police have failed to curb the anti-India protests or the stone-pelting, which have tapped intensive police resources. The struggle on the streets and in the forests of Kashmir continues to shake the pillars of the establishment, even while it ‘counsels’ the Kashmir people, asking them, Why do you protest?

‘Non-lethal’ weapon hospitalizes Kashmir boy

Police fire in Kashmir

The state defends its use of 'non-lethal' weapons on the streets of Kashmir, despite the many deaths and injuries that result. Kashmir Global under a Creative Commons Licence

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, the brutality of the state’s vocabulary evolves every day, just like the brutality itself. What doesn’t evolve is the violent logic in the way the Indian state operates: an act of brutality is followed by an act of erasure and denial.

‘Flash-bang’ or ‘stun grenade’ is a recent addition to this vocabulary. For India’s thriving defence industry, the laboratory for such experiments is Kashmir; the most recent ‘subject’ is a 9-year-old boy.

Aamir Ahmed Ahanger, a primary-school student, lies on a hospital bed, his arm burnt and fractured. His cornea is lacerated. His face is disfigured and swollen, scarred with severe burn injuries. According to his family, he had gone out to fetch milk when police began firing on protesters in Srinagar’s Old City.

The protesters were demonstrating against the implementation of an 83-year-old law banning beef in Kashmir. The strict implementation of the ban, announced days before the Muslim festival of Eid, was followed by the state imposing an 82-hour internet blackout. The blackout coincided with the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (accused of complicity in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat) to the Silicon Valley, where he vouched to ‘transform India into a digitally-empowered society’. The announcement of the beef ban was marked by arrests, shutdown and widespread protests. On 9 October, Muslim truckers in the Udhampur district in the Jammu region suffered serious burns when rightwing Hindu activists attacked a Kashmir-bound truck with petrol bombs.

On 11 October, people were out on the road in the Old City protesting against the attack on truckers when Aamir was injured. While some reports says that his injury was caused by a teargas canister exploding near him, doctors termed it a rare case; other reports maintained that the injury was caused by the use of a flash-bang grenade.

A dissenter and activist following Aamir’s case explains: ‘It is unlikely a simple teargas canister is capable of inflicting such damage, even if it catches fire. If it had been a simple teargas canister, then we would have seen many such cases in the last 25 years.

‘Aamir recalled that a rapid fire hit his face. He tried to protect his face with his arm, which also got burnt,’ he says. Aamir told the press that a blast and flash of light hit him suddenly and he experienced a blackout. His medical reports reveal that the burn injuries are concenerated in his head region and his right arm, with some marks on the left arm. Amir will need to undergo plastic surgery.

Flash-bangs, on explosion, create a bright burst of light and an intensely loud noise, temporarily numbing the senses. Touted as ‘non-lethal’, these grenades can cause severe injury or death if targeted at a human body from close range.

A police officer, denying that such weapons can be lethal, told the local press that ‘sometimes these kids fiddle with teargas shells and that may cause an injury.’ However, sources have revealed that police uses new grenades which ‘explode with a bang and there is a fire’; the source said that these grenades cannot be held in hand and ‘thrown back on police as the protesters used to do with traditional teargas grenades.’ He revealed these ‘stun grenades, along with some innovative grenades like triple-smoke grenades, are new additions to the police’s anti-riot arsenal.’

‘Non-lethal’ weapons such as pepper guns, pump guns and tasers were used in Kashmir prominently in 2010 for ‘crowd control’ and to quell protests. However, this resulted in a large number of deaths; treatment of the injured was also complicated because of the nature of the wounds. Reports have shown that such weaponry is targeted above the waist and from a very close range. About 700 people have been disabled by pellet guns since 2010, with 70% of them having lost their sight in one or both eyes. The frequency of such cases is also alarming. Each week there are fresh cases of injuries due to pellets and teargas. Owing to considerable police presence in major hospitals, the injured may fear going to hospital for proper treatment in case they are arrested or detained.

Justifying the use of pellet guns, a senior police official said: ‘How can a deterrent be set, otherwise? How are stone-throwers to be stopped?’ The state has used carrot-and-stick methods in their crackdown on protesters. Yet despite the unhealed scars left by the violence, protesters haven’t stopped demonstrating against the state.

Beyond carefully crafted vocabulary of lethal and non-lethal, the Indian state must learn to call a spade a spade if it is ever to recover from its ethical bankruptcy.

Kashmir’s wave of ‘quality militancy’

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A soldier guards the roadside checkpoint outside Srinagar International Airport (SXR) in Jammu and Kashmir. (January 2009) Jrapczak under a Creative Commons Licence

Are new generations of armed youth challenging India’s dominance? Uzma Falak reports from the region.

As the taxi drives through landscapes interrupted by vast Indian military garrisons and settlements in Shopian, south of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the driver remarks: 'This is like Kandahar: the air is different.'

We drive by the Rambiar rivulet where 2 women were found raped and murdered by Indian troops in 2009. The old city market buzzes with life and with stories of oppression and resistance. While the ‘everyday’ continues, somewhere amid the encircling dense alpines, young boys – the mujahed or mujahideen – have taken up arms, declaring a war against India’s rule in Kashmir; marking a ‘new wave’ of armed rebellion with south Kashmir as the turf for an indigenous movement.

Desolate terrain unfurls as we drive towards Mughal Road through the mountainous Pir Panjal range. Later, Shopian’s residents reveal how a few days ago the mujahideen had crossed this terrain, ‘miraculously escaping’ an attack from Indian forces.

The region is abuzz with stories of ‘miracles’ and valour. Incidents like young boys snatching guns from government forces are part of an evolving folklore. Strong support exists for the mujahideen, their resistance rooted in faith and ideological commitment derived from the teachings of Islam. In an unprecedented act, they released via social media a video and photos in which they are donned in combat gear in the forests. The video and photos were widely shared and have garnered huge public support; sympathizers keep tabs on new releases. Audio recordings of the mujahideen’s phone calls to family members have also been circulated widely. These recordings expressed strong commitment to the struggle, and the fact they have been shared so widely suggests a warm and strategic support from the people as well.

‘This new wave of armed struggle led by youth can be seen as a resistance to all hegemonies aimed at maintaining the status quo, even within the resistance leadership,’ says a Srinagar-based resistance lawyer. The police census of militants puts their strength at 142.

Reports are abuzz with how these young boys are well educated and from financially sound families, countering the state narrative about who takes part in resistance movements. While institutional education, especially in Kashmir where curriculum is strategically designed to erase a people’s history, is no indicator for a robust resistance movement and cannot be posed as an essential difference between earlier phases and the current wave of armed struggle, this discourse can be understood as counter-hegemonic to the state discourse portraying militants and dissenters as ‘uneducated’ and ‘unemployed’; diagnosing the desire for liberation, as replaceable and a ‘problem’ particularly of this ‘misguided’ youth.

As part of its counter-insurgency tactics, India is pumping huge money into ‘welfare’ projects such as establishing ‘goodwill’ schools, which are set up and run by the Indian army. (Ironically, the army had previously occupied many local schools, turning them into garrisons.) However, such ‘goodwill’ projects have visibly failed to ‘mould’ its target youth. The state, which has also been boasting about its police and army recruits in the region, has attempted to hide the emerging rebellion within.

And the battle runs deeper. The state is creating new ‘youth icons’ to replace ‘deviants in society’ fighting for liberation, such as young Burhan, who heads south Kashmir’s armed group. But even high-school children, of a politically astute generation, identify with Burhan. ‘He is our life, our light. I pray for him and his fellows every morning,’ says a 15-year-old high-schooler.

North Kashmir too hosts a ‘splinter’ armed group. The state believes there is a divide between 2 groups, north and south. However, many assert that there is no such divide. They argue that the rebels’ motivation is rooted in faith, not group politics. Others believe the division is part of the local groups’ strategy and that both are unified in their goal.

‘The division should hinder any movement, but the opposite is happening here. More recruits. Increased activity,’ says a young scholar from south Kashmir. There is ‘no perceived rift between the 2 groups on the ground. This movement is different from earlier phases and can be explained more as global phenomena of Muslim mobilizing against various hegemonies,’ he explains.

Harmeet Singh, a senior police official hailing from Tral, calls this phase of armed insurgency ‘quality militancy’. ‘Their dedication is rich and [they] are highly radicalized,’ he remarks.

‘Before, people picked up guns in great numbers. This generation of militants is aware of how militancy was crushed, its huge social consequence. They have witnessed killings, militants’ surrender and how the families of militants suffered. Despite all these factors, they still take up arms, though in small numbers; so I would call it quality militancy,’ Singh explains.

The mother of a 13-year-old boy killed by Indian troops in 2010 remarks that ‘we have seen enough. [The] gun is the only solution.’ A Shopian entrepreneur says that a few teenagers had gone to join the militant ranks but were sent back ‘because they were too young’. ‘There are more people and few resources. We need more guns,’ he remarks smilingly.

A young lawyer, pointing towards Shopian’s old graveyard of foreign militants who fought for Kashmir’s liberation in 1990s, says: ‘The first grave is of a Sudanese mujahid.’

Some histories refuse to settle as sediment. Dark begins to descend on surreal landscapes as we drive back and an uncertainty looms as thick black clouds gather in Kashmir skies.

Kashmir: unsettling questions

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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.

Blinded in ‘paradise’

Hamid

Hamid lost the sight in his right eye after being hit by pellets from a gun shot by Indian police. © Shahid Tantray

It is summer in Indian-controlled Kashmir and stewards of ‘manufactured peace’ have swooped down here again with their glib ideas of ‘change’. Michael Steiner, the German ambassador to India, recently met Kashmir’s chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, offering his co-operation to change the ‘negative perception’ about this ‘paradise on Earth’. A week later, Hamid Nazir, a 16-year-old boy, lies unconscious in the hospital with a visually impaired right eye; his disfigured, swollen face – a present from the custodians of ‘paradise’ – a reminder of India’s brutal desires.

Hamid, a 10th-grade student, was, according to his family, on his way to a tutorial in Palhalan, northern Kashmir, when he was hit by scores of pellets in his skull and face. Indian troops were firing indiscriminately at protesters commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hawal Massacre of 21 May 1990, when over 60 mourners in a funeral procession of a religious leader were killed by troops. One particularly haunting image from that massacre was the sight of hundreds of slippers on the bloodied street left behind by the dead mourners.

Hamid was rushed to a nearby hospital but troops had blocked the road. After an hour, the family managed to take him to another hospital, but his condition was continuing to worsen, and twice he had to be moved to other infirmaries in the city. More than 100 pellets were lodged in his skull, with at least two in his brain; doctors reported a ‘cornea-limbal’ tear in his right eye. Though they operated on him, they were unable to restore his vision.

A senior Kashmir resistance leader remarked that the use of pellet guns in Kashmir resembles Israel’s brutality in Gaza.  

Pellet guns, also used for hunting, were introduced in Kashmir in 2010 and were touted as ‘non-lethal weapons’ for crowd control. That year, Indian forces killed over 120 people. Doctors say that pellet guns are deadlier than bullets and lead to high morbidity. ‘Entry wounds, invisible or small, are not localized but diffused, making treatment difficult,’ explains surgeon Ajaz Baba.

Pellet or pump-action guns use a compressed air mechanism, pushing out scores of high-velocity metal pellets, like ball bearings, which can target lots of people, or lots of parts of someone’s body, at the same time.

According to a report, some 700 people have been disabled by pellet guns since 2010, with 70 per cent of them having lost their sight in one or both eyes. The report mentions that the police flout their own ‘written directives’ by using a grade of pellets not permitted ‘officially’.

Beyond the maze of statistics and jargon lies a grim reality. Local infirmaries aren’t equipped to treat such injuries. Some patients are referred to hospitals outside of Kashmir, which only a few can afford, but even that doesn’t guarantee complete recovery. Moreover, due to a considerable police presence in major hospitals, many injured boys avoid going there, fearing arrests and harassment.

The state systematically kills, maims and represses the people. It also desperately tries to create a façade of normality, by bringing in international diplomats who eye up potential investments as the Indian government pushes for rigorous corporatization. Bollywood’s portrayal has reinforced the stereotypical ‘exoticized’ iconography and images nourishing Indian hyper-nationalism. For India and its puppet regime, both tactics work together organically

The German envoy, who was here to ‘celebrate his wife’s birthday’, informed Kashmir chief Sayeed that ‘Germany officially recommends its citizens to travel to Kashmir’.

Discussing issues of ‘mutual interest’, Sayeed disclosed his plans of organizing a ‘tourist-mart’ and a ‘mini-Davos’ economic forum in Kashmir, similar to Switzerland’s WEF, inviting India’s prime minster Narendra Modi ‘to host the country’s top corporate heads’.

Such attempts have always drawn flak from people here, and triggered intense protests.

In 2013, Steiner and his wife hosted a controversial event in Kashmir sponsored by corporate czars, in which Zubin Mehta – a pro-Israel Music Director for Life of Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, who helped Israel improve its global image – played to an ‘invitee-only’ audience. While he was playing for ‘hope and peace’, four youth were killed by troops in the region.  The German envoy also ‘orchestrated the end of isolation among EU countries’ for Narendra Modi, before his coming to power. Modi is accused of complicity in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat.

While the chief minister, who is busy organizing ‘tourist marts’, is silent on the use of pellet guns, the education minister is concerned about the image – ‘It does not show us in a good light’. He said: ‘We cannot really force them to stop using the pellets. We hope it will be curbed soon.’

Away from this talk, Hamid’s father plans to shell out his savings and take a bank loan to afford his son’s treatment in New Delhi. Hamid still has pellets lodged in his eyes and needs to undergo further surgeries.

But everything is ‘normal’ in Kashmir and Hamid’s disfigured face is a portrait of that normality.

Dilemma of justice under Indian rule in Kashmir

Kashmir view

The people of Kashmir struggle to find justice under the Indian administration. Irfan Ahmed under a Creative Commons Licence

On a cold November night in 2005, Muhammad Rafiq was abducted by Indian forces from his home in Kashmir and implicated in the New Delhi blasts of the previous month. Records reveal that Rafiq – a student at a Kashmir university – was present in the classroom on the day of blasts, but he continues to languish in India’s Tihar jail. In 2012, his mother and friends filed an online petition to the Indian prime minister seeking his release. But upon learning about the appeal to the Indian state, Rafiq was ‘disquieted’. ‘He broke down and expressed his dismay to his family,’ reveals his former fellow-inmate. The campaign was halted soon after.

India’s war on Kashmir is not only a military war, but also one of narratives and words: a war waged to control desires and choices. Living here doesn’t only mean being prepared for disappearances, rapes, torture, massacres, funerals and mourning; it also means living the wounds of various predicaments that the all-permeating occupation entails. One of these quandaries is the question of justice under Indian rule.

Thousands of cases against the Indian state take up time in its civil and military courts and the people of Kashmir are left to fight these prolonged and exhausting legal battles. But what does it mean to seek ‘justice’ from the perpetrators? Is the occupier capable of delivering justice? The people of Kashmir grapple with an acute dilemma over these questions; the existence of this complexity testifies to the presence of a coercive authority.                        

Creating situations which compel people to seek ‘justice’ from the very apparatus which institutionalizes or perpetrates injustice reveals the state’s desire to control an individual’s choice – creating a sense of powerlessness within the subjugated masses. In places like Kashmir, such choices are strategically made difficult.

‘When the occupier poses as the saviour, it reinforces the helplessness of the powerless,’ says Krishna Swamy Dara, a Delhi-based Political Science professor.

Be it the legal battle against the Indian military by the mass-rape survivors in Kunan and Poshpur villages, which has been going on for two decades, or accusing a dead teenager of ‘attempting to murder’ police officers, or numerous futile probes and false apologies to the masses, people here are aware of the pockmarked road of the Indian legal system.

Kashmiris living under Indian occupation are forced to rely on Indian judicial procedures. But there is no expectation of justice in an oppressed-oppressor relationship. People’s legal battles are not an exercise in hope or justice but a continuation of a long struggle to expose the rot. A system which is in place to annihilate an aspiration cannot be expected to deliver a justice based on that very aspiration.

The state’s intervention in the sphere of justice is ironic in Kashmir, where institutions such as the courts and the police are extensions of India’s militarist state, which enjoys a monopoly in devising the justice vocabulary, making the people its passive recipients. India’s ‘justice’ vocabulary is in itself problematic. One of the notions it relies heavily on is compensation.

Gopal Guru, a professor of social and political theory, notes that compensation has become a dominant mode of responding to the justice concern in India. The state’s anxiety, stemming from the possibility of people’s subversion, leads to such responses, he argues.

Compensation is a point of debate and dilemma for the Kunan-Poshpur mass-rape survivors, who were compelled to accept state compensation as a proof of its acknowledgment of the crime which it otherwise repeatedly denied.

After teenager Faisal’s killing, the army issued an apology and offered blood money, further victimizing the family. ‘The blood of my 14-year-old son is not so cheap that I could barter it… In return I will pay Rs 20 lakh [2 million rupees, or roughly $30,000] to the army if it hands over the killers to us,’ responded the slain youth’s father.

Major discourses in Kashmir over the question of justice are narrow, portraying it either as a law-and-order or a human rights problem. The human rights question is also narrowed down to exclude the right to self-determination or choosing to live freely. While India carries out gross human rights violations in Kashmir and the perpetrators enjoy impunity under its law, the question of justice, insaaf, and fight against oppression, zulm, extends beyond the human rights question or enforcement of ‘unjust laws’ such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or the Public Safety Act (PSA). The bedrock of the Kashmir people’s idea of justice is Azaadi (Freedom) and bringing out truth, and they have articulated it through resistance against India’s rule.

In a place where histories and memories are assaulted and justice is a utopian legend, people often derive consolation from the idea of ‘divine justice’ and God as a witness.

Corn can’t expect justice from a court composed of chickens, an African proverb commonly used in Nigeria, wittily embodies the justice scenario in Indian-administered Kashmir. But the corn knows how to grow and stand against the wind.

Kashmir to acquire ‘Israel-style settlements’

Homes in Srinagar

Homes in Srinagar, Kashmir. Returning Pandits should move back into their old homes, not be put in 'ghettos', say opponents to the Indian government's plans. Varun Shiv Kapur under a Creative Commons Licence

I spent my childhood amid the presence of many absences. In the intimate and warm neighbourhood of my home in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, stood a few beautiful but abandoned houses. As children we believed they were haunted and grew accustomed to this desolation. These houses belonged to Kashmiri Pandits (or Batte) – Hindus who had fled amidst armed insurgency against India’s rule in the region.

The ‘clandestine’ migration of Pandits in January 1990 raised many questions. Why was an emergency Governor’s rule imposed in the Valley on 19 January preceded and followed by curfews? Why did Pandits leave on that wintry night? There are many who offered answers to these questions. But, as is true of Kashmir’s many tragedies, the answers offer no sense of closure. The massacres of 21, 22 and 25 January 1990, in which more than 80 Muslims were killed and many more injured, are further disquieting.

The mainstream Indian narrative propounds that Pandits faced persecution from the ‘radical Islamists’, who, in their eyes, were targeting the minorities. This narrative was embraced by many migrant Hindus and influenced by rightwing Hindu ideology, along with New Delhi’s strategy aimed at crushing Kashmir’s resistance movement.

But if the Mujahideen, who were fighting for Kashmir’s freedom from India, were targeting minorities, why didn’t Sikhs and Christians leave, too? And why did thousands of Hindus stay behind?

Jagmohan Malhotra, then governor of the region, who looked at Kashmir from a communal prism, is accused of orchestrating the ‘planned’ migration of Pandits in January 1990 which was followed by a massive crackdown on Kashmir’s Muslims – curfews, search operations, killings, arbitrary arrests.

After more than two decades, the government in New Delhi, led by the Hindu Right and its regional coalition, has announced a plan to return Pandits to ‘separate zones’ in the Kashmir Valley. While the government calls these separate clusters ‘composite townships’, the pro-freedom camps and various dissenting groups, including Hindus who live here, oppose the announcement, arguing that ‘composite township’ is a euphemism for ‘ghettos’, ‘fortified zones’, ‘Israel-style settlements’ and ‘townships of hatred’.

New Delhi revealed that the Kashmir government will start, as soon as possible, to ‘acquire’ land for these townships, which are to be built on ‘land acquired from farmers’.

Resistance leaders welcomed the return of migrant Pandits, but maintained that they should return to their native places rather than demarcated zones created on religious lines. ‘In the garb of the return of Kashmiri Pandits, a state within a state is being created,’ says a senior resistance leader. He alleges that in the pretext of rehabilitation, New Delhi plans to change the demographics of the Valley, settling ‘non-residents’ and ‘rightwing armed activists’ in these ‘isolated’ zones. The pro-freedom camps called it a rightwing ploy to turn ‘Kashmir into Palestine’ and ‘rob the people of their land’.

Hizbul Mujahideen, an indigenous insurgent outfit, said that creating a ‘separate homeland for Kashmir Pandits’ is an ‘agenda of fascist forces in India’.

On 10 April, various resistance camps took to streets, joined by educationists, businesspeople, and social workers from the Hindu community, rallying together against New Delhi’s decision. The protesters shouted: ‘We will not accept the separate colonies’. The government resorted to teargas and batons, which resulted in disruption of the protests and left many injured.

Many Kashmiri Hindus living outside the Valley termed the plans to create composite townships as ‘cosmetic’ and accused the government of using the ‘community for political expediency’.

‘It’s a dummy move which will marginalize the community already coming to terms with their exile. The communities should live like they used to, without ghettoization,’ says Ritika, a young Pandit girl living in Delhi.

A group representing the interests of Kashmiri Pandits who never migrated from the Valley believes that the government is using the community to further their interests and that ‘this will benefit none but the state itself’. They termed the plan as ‘unfeasible’ and ‘the mode of execution dangerous’.  

Many activists see this move as a tactic of ‘undermining the Kashmir freedom struggle’, while others also raised concern over possible Muslim migrations over this period.

A shutdown in opposition to the proposed townships, called by the Kashmir resistance leadership, was observed in the region on 11 April.

Amid the strike, I walked up to Trilok’s grocery shop, near a Hindu temple, a few metres away from my house. Trilok – a Kashmiri Hindu from south Kashmir, who is in the city to earn his living, never left the Valley. Whenever he visits his village, he gets beans and lentils from his farm for his Muslim neighbours in the city. He says his relatives who live outside Kashmir visit him every year. In his soft voice, but with a mild smirk, he questions India’s plan to create separate zones for Pandits: ‘Who will live in those ghost towns?’ he asks.

Curfew and killings in Kashmir

Funeral procession in Kashmir

© Yawar Nazir

Two teenage friends have just been buried next to each other in a martyrs’ graveyard in the city outskirts of Nowgam, in Indian-administered Kashmir. The cold autumn wind rattles against the windows but hundreds joined the funeral of the dead teens. Later, there were street protests. Dissenting voices echoed: we want freedom, go, India, go back! Srinagar, the capital city, remains under curfew.

It is the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, which commemorates the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, symbolic of sacrifice and fighting against tyranny. While huge processions take place across the world, in Srinagar, the day is marked by curfews, denying religious freedom to its people.

Fourteen-year-old Faisal Ahmad was at a cloth merchant’s shop when three of his friends persuaded him to join them to witness the annual Muharram processions in Chattergam, in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The four friends set out in a car to see the processions. En route were various checkpoints and blockades put up by the Indian army after it had received information ‘about the movement of suspected militants’. According to witness and family accounts, the car skidded at a one of the checkpoints and hit an electric pole before coming to a halt. But the trigger-happy troops opened indiscriminate fire, killing Faisal and his friend Mehraj-ud-din Dar.

A lawmaker of the main opposition party in Kashmir, who happened to be near to where the incident took place, says the troops fired between 50-60 bullets. ‘I heard three bursts of fire… I was shocked to see scores of bullet-marks on the car. I reached the spot and saw scores of bullets had been pumped into the bodies of these youth,’ he recalls.

Two others in the car, Shakir Ahmad and Zahid Ahmad, were severely injured and remain in a critical condition. A newspaper report mentions that the injured boys were taken into custody before being sent to one of the army hospitals. Contrary to the army’s claims that the car hadn’t stopped at the checkpoint, witness accounts maintain the vehicle had stopped a few metres ahead of the checkpoint, after which the army had opened fire.

After the killings, anti-India and pro-freedom protests broke out in Nowgam and other adjoining areas. Government forces resorted to heavy teargas shelling. Government authorities decided to impose further curfews in parts of Srinagar and the Budgam district.

Lack of accountability is rife in this war-torn region, with the state resorting to rhetoric and buying time instead of punishing the perpetrators. Kashmir has a history of a culture of impunity enjoyed by the army.

Instead of taking action, Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was concerned over the forthcoming elections in the region. ‘These deaths have served to vitiate the poll atmosphere already strained by the post-flood reconstruction challenge that people face,’ he said.

Police have filed a First Information Report against the army. A senior police official said: ‘Nothing incriminating was found [on] the slain or injured youth.’ The Indian army issued a statement saying it ‘regretted the loss of lives’ and that it had ordered a ‘court of inquiry’; police authorities claimed that ‘necessary action [would] be taken according to law’. But ironically it is the law which guarantees carte blanche powers to the army in Kashmir. The law doesn’t allow the civil government to try troops in public courts and the decisions of military courts are seldom made public.

Ordering a futile series of probes or enquiries has become a mere ritual, in which the people of Kashmir do not believe. It buys time and exhausts people, while acting as a PR technique for the state. In Kashmir, institutions such as the courts and police act as extensions of India’s militarist state.

The families of the dead boys have rejected the army’s investigations. The brother of one of them explained: ‘This isn’t the first such episode…[they] order a probe which doesn’t yield anything. They [the army] are the judge, they are the culprits. What should we expect?’

Not surprisingly, the Indian media called the schoolchildren ‘terrorists’ and attempted to gloss over the army’s crimes.

The battle of Karbala may have taken place hundreds of years ago, but memories of unabated repression are seldom recounted without an allusion to it. In the words of the noted Kashmiri-American poet Aga Shahid Ali: Only Karbala could frame our grief.

Kashmiris rise up in the fight against the floods

Floods in Kashmir

Srinagar has been devastated by the recent floods. © Ieshan Wani

The picture-perfect Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir was left stripped and in tatters within hours after devastating floods hit the Himalayan region last month. The Indian government, which has long proclaimed the beauty of Kashmir in the hope of strengthening the façade of normality and development in the region, was, ironically, the first to be hit, as its regional offices and state buildings were flooded. Now, the city stands naked. Heaps of rubble and stinking garbage dot the streets. As well as the damage to government offices and the state museum, shops lie broken and abandoned. People walk with drooping shoulders and slack jaws, anxiety looming large on their faces. Even the military camps and garrisons look rickety. Displaced people have taken refuge in tents pitched on footpaths and roadsides. Schools and hospitals are deserted. Phone networks, the internet and electricity are yet to be restored in many parts. It looks like a scene of war.

Jhelum, the river flowing through the city, was brimming with brownish waters after days of incessant rain. Despite a flood warning by experts years ago, the state did nothing to prepare. It ignored the prediction of ‘heavy to very heavy rainfall’ and did not alert the people. Most parts of the city were flooded within hours and the government was crippled. Officials fled to safety and hid in a fortified building – an erstwhile torture centre. The 700,000 Indian troops based in Kashmir were conspicuous by their absence. Military and officials hovered aimlessly in helicopters.

With the state sinking in its own non-action, the people’s strength, solidarity and resistance floated to the surface. The people of Srinagar's old city, a city of burgeoning military pickets, a city dotted with anti-India graffiti whose liberation-seeking youth have fallen prey to draconian laws and are labelled ‘unruly’, ‘druggies’ and ‘trouble-makers’ by India, became the major recourse in the fight against the floods. They reclaimed the roads; using foam sheets, baby bath tubs, tin, tyres and other makeshift tools, they sailed to submerged areas – including maternity hospitals and other medical facilities – and rescued the stranded. Many volunteers lost their lives. Impromptu medical camps, numerous community kitchens and other relief efforts by various people’s groups sprang up, transcending religious divides. Shrines and mosques became asylums. Considerable relief and rescue efforts were also made by people from villages on the outskirts of the city, and the Kashmir diaspora chipped in, setting up relief collection centres.

When the Indian army finally started its rescue operations, priority was given to airlifting military personnel, bureaucrats, tourists and other non-local workers out of the area. There were lots of complaints that the army was air-dropping in stale and expired food packets.

Youngsters hoisted black flags and protested against the Indian army’s aid operations. One banner, held by a volunteer-rescuer, read: ‘No government; people for people!’ On humanitarian grounds, the young people sometimes even provided aid to members of the military.

The rise of a grassroots movement for humanitarian aid, and the failure of the government to take control of the rescue efforts, made the government in New Delhi uncomfortable. It resorted to strategic information control. Communication networks were frozen, even in areas unaffected by the flood. The media manufactured lies and hyperbolized the role of army, portraying it as sole saviour of the people and ignoring the stories of grassroots action. The army’s selective rescue measures were played up in an attempt to whitewash its gross human rights violations in Kashmir. One TV news channel proclaimed: ‘Indian army stands vindicated…

On 27 September, at the UN General Assembly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the priority ‘should be talking about relief to flood-ravaged Kashmir’. Yet perversely, he had rejected the UN’s offer of aid soon after witnessing the destruction for himself during a helicopter flight above Kashmir. International aid has in the past been accepted following similar calamities in Indian states, ‘but Kashmir is not India and never will be,’ a relief co-ordinator remarked.

Non-local aid groups have been asked to route donations via the Indian Prime Minister’s relief account, which will involve red tape and therefore delay the relief process. New Delhi is blocking aid from non-state actors, thus making Kashmir’s people dependent on aid from the state and the army, institutions that locals have been protesting against for over 60 years.

The floods took over 300 lives, left thousands homeless, and took an enormous psychological toll. But, well versed in the ploys of Indian state, the people of Kashmir remain out on the streets, cleaning the rot and slowly readying their community for the approaching harsh Himalayan winter.

Kashmir-Palestine: the bond of solidarity

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Resistance and solidarity can make borders porous. © Ieshan Wani

A gritty black and white photograph shows a students’ protest rally in Indian-administered Kashmir’s capital Srinagar. It is winter of 1988. The marching students of Islamic Students League (ISL), a dissenting group formed in the 1980s, which revived student activism after a hiatus, head towards the office of the United Nations’ mission in Kashmir.

Clad in pherans (a traditional closed-cloak), they are marching for Palestine amid intense state surveillance. ‘It was raining and snowing, 29 February,’ recollects Shakeel Bakshi, an erstwhile ISL leader, who is now in his early fifties. Pointing to the photo, he recalls they were all wearing black and blue berets with union logos. ‘We called them Maqbool Bhat caps [named after a pro-independence leader who was killed in an Indian jail in 1984]’

In the photo, Bakshi – then a young man – is seen managing queues of marching youth. Armed struggle, as a mass movement, against Indian rule in the region is only a few months away. Some of the marchers went underground shortly afterwards and took to arms for Kashmir’s independence.

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It is the summer of 2014. A queue of vehicles, with young boys atop and inside, crosses Srinagar city in Kashmir. Tri-colour Palestinian flags flutter over cars, electric poles and shops. A teenage boy, surrounded by others atop a car, pierces the summer air with his Down with Israel slogan. In the same breath, he cries: ‘Go India! Go back’.

Kashmir children taking to the streets, protesting against Israel’s brutality and facing Indian armed forces cannot be baffling for the state. Resistance and solidarity can make borders porous; a source of paranoia for aligned oppressive states, India and Israel.

The Kashmir region has witnessed a series of spontaneous pro-Palestine protests and shutdowns since early July. India, like Israel, exhibited its military might – it opened fire on civilians, killing teenager Suhail Ahmad in southern Kashmir. Amid teargas shelling, firing, baton charges and pepper spray, youngsters pelted stones at government forces armed with sophisticated gear. Suhail is just another number for the state, which has ordered an investigation into his death to buy time.

Students from various academic institutions across the Himalayan region came out onto the streets in large numbers against Israel’s offensive. The Red Square in the summer capital city of Srinagar reverberated with ‘O warriors of Gaza, we are with you’ slogans.

A mammoth gathering of girls took to the streets expressing solidarity. Nineteen-year-old Munaza says she and her fellow students decided on a silent protest in her college. ‘We wrote slogans on sheets of paper and 16 of us gathered. Gradually, the crowd swelled.’ After a disagreement over the silent protest, girls began pro-Gaza chants and marched on the roads.

‘Demonstrations can’t stop the killings, but it reflects our belief… shows on what side we stand,’ says Munaza. The Indian government, fearing this solidarity, ordered educational institutions to shut for an untimely summer break. However, protests for Gaza continued.

On 28 July, during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr, congregations in different parts of the region said prayers for Gaza before government forces barred them from marching. There were clashes, and protesters torched Israel and Indian flags. Several resistance leaders were put under house arrest.

An amalgam of Kashmir entrepreneurs decided to boycott Israeli products and appealed to people to join them. The anti-Israel protests were not restricted to youths. Associations of lawyers, employees, and other groups also rallied for Palestine.

The government in response swooped down on young demonstrators and maintained tight surveillance using high-end technology. Police admitted using CCTV to track protesters. Several boys have been on the run for the past month; police raided their homes arresting their parents or relatives as intimidation tactics.

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The Kashmir and Palestine conflicts are over half a century old. India continues its military control over Kashmir; Israel continues its war on Palestine. There is a growing defence co-operation and strategic relationship between the two countries, with India becoming the largest buyer of Israel’s defence equipment. Tel Aviv has provided high-end defence and surveillance equipment, expertise in ‘counterinsurgency’ and intelligence to India.

On 15 July, as a show of support, India, led by the pro-Israel Hindu right, refused to pass a resolution condemning the Gaza offensive. While these two countries are related by a common desire of domination, Kashmir and Palestine share a bond of solidarity.

Pro-Palestine protests in Kashmir in recent years have a history. In the 1960s, protests rocked the region over the desecration of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, resulting in deaths and an unrelenting curfew.                                   

According to Dr Sheikh Showkat, a law professor in Kashmir, it is not a one-sided solidarity. ‘Resistance groups working at grassroots levels in Palestine have always supported the Kashmir cause’, he says.

Hajj Amin el-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921 and an important Muslim leader during the Second World War, was a key figure of the Palestinian movement; he was also vocal against India’s stance on Kashmir.

A Palestinian man called Mahmoud travelled to Kashmir at the onset of insurgency in 1987 and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group to fight India. He was arrested in 1993 and died of an illness while in prison.

Save Gaza graffiti dots walls in Kashmir and thousands of miles away a wall in Gaza speaks loudly: Save Kashmir.

This article is part of our mini-series on Palestine.

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