A soldier’s story

In the crossfire of daily violence between militants and state forces, the picturesque northern Indian state of Kashmir has known no peace for decades.

Gopal Mitra

Major Gopal Mitra had realized that India’s militarization of Kashmir was no long-term solution before he was blown up in Kupwara in 2000. An informer had guided his unit to a booby-trapped militant hide-out. During the ensuing gun-battle, 17 kilos of RDX explosive went up. Airlifted to hospital in Srinagar, Gopal needed 150 stitches to his face and body. He lost his eyes and had to undergo facial reconstruction.

In and out of hospital for two years, he had time to reflect, both on his injuries and what he was doing in Kashmir. Now in his late thirties, he is without rancour or bitterness. He works for an international disability charity, and says the loss of his eyes has been compensated by the insights gained.

‘As a soldier, you have to believe that terrorism is bad for your country. But when you see it close up, you realize there is a reason for resistance – usually a result of some earlier failing by the State. When violence starts – in the North East or in Kashmir – it begins as a way of redressing grievances. But over time, the just objective is overtaken, and conflict soon generates its own reasons for continuing. When public opinion is met by oppression, there is bound to be violence. In Kashmir, when the State installs puppet governments with no mandate to act on behalf of the people, how can they accept it?

‘Kashmir is seen as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, a cause for international concern. This doesn’t address the issue of how conflict is sustained on the ground. The whole society is drawn into prolonging war. The search for justice is overwhelmed by other priorities, including the self-interest of those who gain some advantage from it. There are four parties to the conflict – militants, civil administration, army and local population. All operate and live in the area. The best houses in any village, although far beyond their legitimate means, are always occupied by Government officials. Social structures, accountability, civil administration have all broken down. Transparency International says that after Bihar, Kashmir is the most corrupt state in India. It receives huge funds from central government.

‘The whole economy is distorted because basic social norms have collapsed. Most stolen cars in India are traded in Kashmir.

Life in the hot zone

‘Many militants believe passionately in their cause and take up arms. This also creates commercial pressures: arms-suppliers who have an interest in continuing conflict. After the snowmelt in April-May till November, militants cross the passes. They get high rates and bonuses for killing members of the security forces. The security forces have all the militants’ radio-intercepts: it is known they inflate the numbers killed when reporting to their bosses, because this increases their bonuses.

‘There is no adequate rehabilitation package for militants. There is no thought-out strategy to absorb them back into society.

‘It is in the nature of prolonged armed operations to alienate people, no matter how disciplined the army. You search houses, knock on doors in the middle of the night; people are under siege. Some find serving as informers to the army a viable way of making a living. This is how the neutrality of civilians is compromised, both by the army and the militants. It polarizes people. The army has an incentive to perpetuate the crisis, because this vindicates its reason for existence and ensures resources are allocated to the area.

‘I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can become a better place’

‘The initial objectives take second place to conflict for its own sake. The idea that an Indo-Pak solution is the only answer places it in a different sphere from the violence on the ground. Simple one-dimensional solutions don’t work. Societies, easy to divide, are harder to re-unite. In Kashmir, if I had a grievance against you, I’d have fought it out with you. But now I’ll get two militants to attack you. Personal vendettas feed into the wider conflict; private animosities get involved, the whole community is distorted.

‘When you see daily violence, you ask yourself: “Is this what we are fighting for?” Before I was injured, I knew armed operations would not lead to a solution. But the support system in the army is very robust. It helps you not to feel troubled, to concentrate on your duty. The camaraderie is strong, and the common danger a consolidating force.

‘North Kashmir was known as a ‘hot zone’. We were involved in search and destroy missions. Militants from Pakistan were servicing bases in the forest, stocks of ammunition and guns in camps hidden underground. We flushed out and captured arms and personnel. I was leading my company when I was injured. I remember only floating in and out of consciousness. The speed of evacuation saved my life.

‘Initially I felt anger and uncertainty. The doctor said: “Look, Gopal, I’ll have to take out your eye – if I don’t your brain may become infected.” My destiny, which I thought I had taken into my hands, took another turn. In hospital I met my wife. Her father had also been in the army, and he, too, had been blinded. She was doing a Social Work MA and it was through her I came to development work. We were married in 2003.

‘I never hated Kashmir, and afterwards had nothing against the militant who deprived me of sight. He was also doing his job. My wife and I took our honeymoon in Kashmir. We went as civilians on a houseboat. The people we met had no idea I was ex-army. We talked to them. They all hated violence. I wanted to remember the beauty of Kashmir. Personally, I do not care whether Kashmir is part of India or Pakistan. The referendum on Kashmir which never took place after Independence [in 1947] can only happen when people are in a position to make reasoned choices. Kashmir has been so tainted that such a choice is not possible. People need a period of normal life. A generation of children have been traumatized; growing in the shadow of violence, their childhood play is a mimicry of adult wars.

Window of opportunity

‘For any solution, the grievances that hardened into incentives to persist in conflict need to be unravelled. After the loss of 80,000 lives, the Government says: “We have shed blood in Kashmir, and therefore nothing can change.” I say: “I lost my blood, but I don’t care that much.” Public opinion is manipulated by political parties. I can speak with a certain authority, because I actually fought, unlike intransigent armchair politicians. If I say India should take a less hard line, this is because I have seen the damage hard lines can do.

‘I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can become a better place. If they don’t do things right, thousands more will die. Kashmir remains one of the most militarized places on earth. It is often said that ethnicity creates violence; but I think violence creates ethnicity – people who have lived in amity for centuries are moved by injustice, and the divisiveness of that injustice focuses on ethnicity or religion.

‘If violence has declined at present, this is not because India is doing the right thing. The militants turned their attention to Kashmir in 1989, when the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. Today, the militants have more urgent priorities, again in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border. Because the Indian state failed to grant autonomy to Kashmir, the social contract between people and State was breached. It is easy to explain why the conflict started, but that doesn’t account for the way it assumed a life of its own, and its prolongation over so many years.

‘There is no overnight solution. But there is a window of opportunity, now the pressure has lessened on Kashmir by the removal of militants to other parts of Asia. There is a chance for everyday life to be restored, where people will not have their door hammered in at two in the morning, or stopped at four roadblocks on the way to the market. Indian soldiers will not have instructions during elections to coerce 70 per cent of people to vote, just to ‘prove’ they support the democratic process.

‘It is painful to say this as a Hindu army officer and an Indian patriot, but truth is truth. I see an opportunity in Kashmir right now, especially since Pakistan is troubled by its own internal conflict. If we don’t seize it, India will be the loser.’