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A Dirge for Kashmir

Meena Menon (meenamenon@gmail.com) is an independent journalist and author based in Mumbai.

Kashmir’s summer of 2016—and since—has been marked by events that will not be easily forgotten: the killing of Burhan Wani; the intensified people’s resistance that it triggered; the killing of over a hundred people by state forces; the indiscriminate use of the Public Safety Act; and, above all, what is being called “the world’s first mass blinding.” This is the gist of a recently-released report by a fact-finding team.

Over two months after the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in July 2016, a 11-year-old boy went missing and did not return from his prayers in New Theed village in Kashmir. There had been stone-throwing outside a mosque and shelling by security forces. The young boy, running away from the commotion, was chased by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), according to eyewitnesses. Later that evening he was found dead near a waterhole for animals.

He was beaten all over; his right arm was broken and his head was injured. He was fired upon with pellets. There were footprints on his body, as though he had been trampled upon. Blood had trickled down from his nose and out of his mouth.1

The police told his family that the boy had been attacked by a bear. No post-mortem was carried out and since that day, 16 September 2016, Friday protests have stopped in the village.

In many ways, the killing of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016 was portentous for Kashmir. The government proclaimed he was a Pakistani terrorist; the people in Kashmir hailed him as a freedom fighter. His killing sparked off a fresh wave of protest and sympathy—for the young Hizbul Mujahideen commander and his two companions, Sartaj Sheikh and Pervaiz Lashkari, also shot dead, and for the cause they were fighting for. The retribution from the state security forces for that spontaneous show of protest has been deadly.

The police and army actions since then, which have exceeded all bounds of restraint and humanity, have been widely condemned. For Kashmiris in the Valley, their right to freedom of expression has never before been crushed with so much brutality. As violence in the valley continues, a new report published in May 2017, “Why Are People Protesting in Kashmir? A Citizen’s Report on the Violation of Democratic Rights in the Kashmir Valley in 2016,” brings first-hand accounts of the targets and survivors of the government’s attempt to subdue a people in violation of all existing laws.2

The report says:

The impunity of the Indian state and its armed forces has cornered Kashmiris in terms of their forms of resistance. Several people across the districts said that those who picked up arms to struggle for independence did not do so willingly. They had been forced to do so due to circumstances created by the Indian state, where even peaceful resistances were responded [to] with bullets, pellets and PAVA shells (Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide, an organic compound found in natural chilli pepper). Peaceful protests like those of the APDP have fallen on deaf ears.

In the first three months of 2017, there was an increase in violence, compared to the same period last year. There was a rise in the number of deaths of civilians, militants and armed forces personnel. As many as eight civilians have been killed by security forces at “encounter sites” when locals threw stones against the paramilitary/police cordons around ongoing encounters with militants, the report noted.

Since 8 July 2016, more than 15,000 civilians have been injured, one-third of whom were shot at with pellets. More than a thousand people have lost their vision, partially or fully, it stated.

The summer of 2016 in Kashmir will be remembered for many things: Hizbul Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani’s killing, the peoples’ resistance that ensued, the killing of more than 100 civilians, the indiscriminate use of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, the blatant state repression of human rights and freedoms of Kashmiri peoples, curfews, bans and protest calendars. But above all, it will be remembered for what is being called the world’s first mass blinding. Since 8 July, the Indian Army, the CRPF and the J&K Police have fired more than a million pellets at unarmed protestors [in protests] that broke out all across the Kashmir Valley to maim and blind a generation of Kashmiri people.

The spontaneity of the protests was confirmed by youth in Tral in Pulwama district. Even if it was difficult to sustain a shutdown and people’s livelihoods were affected, they did not want to give up. “The Hurriyat did not order people to go for the movement. It was spontaneous and a non-violent resistance. The Hurriyat only manages it by announcing the calendar and the time for dheel (relaxation), etc,” they said.

Denying Medical Aid to the Injured

There have been instances in which the police and security forces maimed people and then denied them medical aid, which sometimes resulted in their death. The team has documented several chilling and murderous actions by the security forces. On 13 July 2016, a student of Delhi University, who had come home for the summer holidays, was shot at by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police. While he was taken to the community health centre, the Bijbehara Station House Officer (SHO) came in and broke the equipment at the health centre. He then stuck his baton into the bullet wound of the student, who died the next day at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar. When the family was bringing back the student’s body, the police forced the ambulance to change direction inexplicably and kept the body in Bijbehara police station for a few days.

Similarly, in Baramulla district, on 14 August, two women who sustained bullet injuries were not allowed to go to the hospital for treatment. One of them had to be carried some distance to hospital and while she was there, security forces vandalised her house in Delina village. Her four daughters, who were witness to the raid, were physically abused.

The team heard horror stories in almost every village they visited about how difficult it was to get medical aid to the injured. Sometimes people waited for a day or two, or avoided the main roads, and often travelled at night. They were scared of the police, who were making the rounds to pick up people.

The Public Safety Act, 1978

The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA) has been used to indict potential “troublemakers;” lawyers in Kashmir told the team that it has been used indiscriminately. Even little boys know of PSA and how it can be used against them. The report narrates the story of a 25-year-old man from Shopian town who, as the report says grimly, “has spent more time in incarceration than at home” (p 32). He was only 13 when he was picked up by the army in 2004, and later again in 2008 for inciting people to throw stones, “spreading hatred” and organising public meetings for the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. After repeated arrests over the next few years, the district magistrate labelled him a “chronic stone-pelter” in 2013 and said he was a threat “‘for security, integrity, sovereignty, peace and tranquillity in the state’, and that his detention under the Public Safety Act (1978) was ‘imperative’.” Even though in jail since 2013, he has been booked for instigating protests in Shopian in 2014 and 2015. In November 2015, the district magistrate felt that the “normal law may not be sufficient to curb the activities of the subject” and recommended his detention for the maximum period under PSA.

PSA has been used illegally to detain a minor. The team visited Delina village, in Baramulla district, where the army picked up two boys on 14 August 2016. When women came out to prevent the army from taking away the boys, the army fired upon them, injuring two women. A month later, on 15 September, a 17-year-old boy from the same family was shot at with pellets by the police and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), and charged under the PSA. But since he was a minor, he could not actually be detained under PSA; the court ordered him to be placed in a juvenile home. In response, the police put his father in jail. According to a lawyer the team spoke to, this family has been repeatedly targeted over the years because they were fighting for justice over the enforced disappearance of another family member in 2003.

Since July 2016, a staggering 16,000 people have been taken into custody, a majority of them in preventive detention. More than 650 cases of PSA have been admitted in the J&K High Court in Srinagar. Cases are delayed and counter-first information reports (FIRs) are filed. The report recounts such a case in Nadihal village, Baramulla, where the team examined a counter-FIR filed in the killing of an 18-year-old Class 12 student, on 31 August 2016. On his way to the Sopore fruit market to look for his younger brother, he was shot dead by the army, Special Task Force (STF) and Border Security Force (BSF). The family tried to file an FIR at the police station, but the army had already filed a counter-FIR on the same day he was killed.

The army FIR said there was “an adverse internal security” situation in Nadihal and Ladoora villages and mobs had gathered at Nadihal and later Ladoora and thrown stones (“heavy stone pelting”) at security forces on the highway which became “life-threatening,” injuring four security personnel. The police, says the counter-FIR, fired blank rounds in the air to ward off this threat. It has no mention of civilian injuries or deaths. Five people were arrested at night for injuring the security personnel. The citizens’ report noted that the format of this counter-FIR was similar to other cases in which innocent civilians have been killed or injured by security forces with pellets and bullets.

Students and youth have been targeted as potential troublemakers and often their end has been summary. The Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has documented cases of 122 students who have been killed in the Valley since 2008, 31 of them in the 2016 protests between 8 July and 4 November. Some of them killed in 2016 were as young as 12 and the oldest 23. The report recorded the case of a prospective MCom student who was to attend Delhi University, killed by the CRPF in Anantnag district. A 19-year-old first year student of the Government Degree Boys College at Anantnag, who had planned to go to Delhi to study hotel management, was shot at by the CRPF and police with pellet guns and later thrown over a bridge down a 20-foot nullah.

“Curfew schools” have come up in these troubled times, set up by local communities to help students. Up to 800 students were taught in Srinagar for three months in these schools. Government teachers who taught in these schools have been arrested and face threats by government forces, prohibiting them from participating in such schools. Several hundred students managed to give their annual examinations because of these community schools.

The report says,

Children walk in empty grounds collecting remains of tear gas shells, PAVA shells, hand-held shells and other such remnants left behind from attacks by government forces. In such a context, it may be safely said that every student in the Valley has been deprived of his and her educational right to be able to study and learn in a free and safe environment, essential conditions for education to be meaningful.

Impact on the Economy

A huge and significant impact of state repression in 2016 in the Kashmir Valley has been on the local economy and livelihoods of people. Public and private property has been destroyed at will. The report says:

Workers engaged in economic activities were attacked, creating unsafe working conditions. The report highlights a new means of repression used by the Army and CRPF for the first time during this phase of conflict: the burning of standing paddy crops in several districts, including Kulgam, Baramulla, Budgam and Anantnag, where fields as well as orchards of resistance leaders were particularly attacked and destroyed. The targeting of food crops appears to be strategic, to hit not only the local economy but also food sustenance that is crucial to survival during months of curfews and strikes, when mobility is also severely restricted.

In September in Pulwama district, the army allegedly looted boxes of apples and are said to have driven their vehicles over 650 boxes of apples worth ₹3 lakh. In the same district, the army destroyed cartons of apples lying on the road, in readiness for being transported.

Extortion was another repressive tactic people had to deal with. In Kulgam district, the team heard about how young men had been picked by the police, who then demanded a ransom of ₹50,000 from their families. It had “become a common practice of the police to harass Kashmiri youth and their families, and make money out of this condition of violence and militarisation.” In Budgam district, in one village that saw a high degree of violence with over 300 people injured by pellets and about 40 boys arrested, the local SHO is known to have released several of the arrested for payments between ₹40,00 and ₹60,000.

The security forces—including the army and STF—also resorted to burning electricity transformers in 2016 in Anantnag, Baramulla, Srinagar and Budgam. In some villages in these districts, people have continued to live without electricity. In other places, two to four transformers were blown up in the middle of the night. The J&K Assembly was informed, in response to a question raised in the House, that 368 transformers had been damaged during the protests. The report says:

Given the repeated use of the same strategy on a large-scale in different villages across the Valley, it appears to have been a consistent strategy of the state armed forces to pointedly attack essential public services such as electricity, amounting to a violation of the right to life. This was further done in areas where protests were taking place, in order to plunge these parts into darkness. Besides transformers, other public infrastructure such as water pipes was also broken.

Destruction of Property

The report found that during raids or “crackdowns” conducted by the security forces, houses were attacked in Pulwama district, cash was looted and even a dog shot dead. In Budgam, the CRPF and police entered people’s homes, and destroyed household furniture and food rations. It said,

The old city area of Baramulla that is very familiar with the cordon-and-search routine saw at least two massive crackdowns in the first five months of the protests, one on 15 October and another on 21 October. On the night of 21 October, the whole of the old town was sealed off and the Army and police barged into people’s homes, broke household items like refrigerators and ransacked rooms. Similarly, “search raids” are also a regular feature, when state armed forces forcibly enter people’s homes, destroy household property, pour chilli powder into sacks of foodgrain and take embers from their kangris and pour them over the stored rice used by families to last through winter.

One of the worst fallouts of the violence in 2016 was the ban on a Kashmiri newspaper, Kashmir Reader, on 2 October, till 27 December. The paper was made a target for refusing to use the words “jawans” or “security forces,” or “separatists.” The Kashmir Reader prefers “soldiers,” “government forces,” and “pro-freedom.” In the dossier presented by the police to the courts, the paper was accused of publishing content “that could incite violence and disturb public tranquillity.”

The parliamentary by-elections to the Srinagar constituency on 9 April 2017 was marked by state violence, widespread protests, an almost total boycott of the polls, curfews, a clampdown on the internet, and the killing of nine civilians (with one person succumbing to injuries on 19 April 2017) by state forces firing at protestors, the report said. It also witnessed the now infamous incident in which Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi tied up Farooq Ahmed Dar to the front of his jeep as a human shield, and drove him for 27 kilometres, to supposedly rescue security and election personnel on duty in Budgam from a mob. Dar was going for a condolence meeting after casting his vote when the army stopped him. On 22 May, the Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat awarded Major Gogoi with a commendation card for his “sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operation.”

About people’s participation in elections, the report states,

Often Kashmiri participation in elections is presented as an outcome of a plebiscite. However several people challenged this reading to state that participation in the election is for the purpose of local governance and for basic facilities like electricity, water, etc, and that these parties cannot decide the fate of Kashmir. The people of Tral called Mehbooba Mufti’s famous healing touch to be a “hating touch”.

The report has an interview with a J&K Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member, Nizamuddin Bhat, who dismissed the popular support for Azaadi and called such people liars. On the high degree of militarisation, he said, Kahaan militarisation? (Where is the militarisation?)... For the first time there is no dialogue, no appeasement from the Government of India. This is the right approach,” echoing what seems to be the ruling PDP–Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government line.

Over 9,000 mosques in Kashmir have been identified for fomenting anti-India protests and Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid was closed after Burhan Wani’s death for 19 weeks. The last time it was shut was nearly two centuries ago, in 1821. The report pointed out that the army has increased the number of its bunkers so it could reach anywhere in the Valley within 15 minutes. As colleges and universities continue to remain shut and students’ protests rage across the Valley, the writers of the report feel it is time for civil society and lawmakers to stand up and take note of the situation.

The report demands that the Indian government: recognise the Kashmir dispute and accept that its resolution can only come through a political solution, not through military intervention and a suppression of human and democratic rights; withdraw the army and other paramilitary forces from civilian areas of J&K; repeal the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990; release all political prisoners, in particular all prisoners arrested under the PSA; grant access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for a UN fact-finding mission in J&K; establish a judicial tribunal under the supervision of the Supreme Court to examine all cases of extrajudicial killings, including that of Burhan Wani; enter into an open and transparent dialogue, without preconditions, with all sections of the Kashmiri people and their representatives in order to bring about a resolution of the Kashmir dispute that recognises the aspirations of the people to determine their own destiny through demonstrably democratic means.

It calls on Indian citizens to recognise that the

actions of the Indian state in the Kashmir Valley are far-removed from the values of a democratic republic and beyond the pale by any acceptable norms of a civilised society in the 21st century. We call upon all Indian peoples to ensure that the injustices against Kashmir’s peoples are brought to an end and their democratic aspirations addressed.

Notes

1 Why Are People Protesting in Kashmir? A Citizen’s Report on the Violation of Democratic Rights in the Kashmir Valley in 2016, New Delhi, May 2017, p 59.

2 The 25-member team that prepared the report visited several districts in the Kashmir Valley over 10 days in November 2016, to examine the situation and the reason for the protests. Its members represent people’s movements, democratic rights groups, women’s organisations, youth organisations, trade unions—and also included journalists, writers and film-makers—from the states of Delhi, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Nagaland, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana.

The team went to the districts of Anantnag, Bandipora, Baramulla, Budgam, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Kupwara, Pulwama, Shopian and Srinagar. The members met with the families of those who had been killed by the Indian Army, the Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the J&K Police (JKP), including the Special Operations Group (SOG) and Special Task Forces (STF). It also met families of those who have disappeared or been jailed, including human rights defenders and those injured and blinded by pellet gunfire and PAVA shell fire. It met lawyers, including the leadership of the J&K Bar Association, trading and business communities, members of the Kashmir Fruit Growers and Dealers Association, and state government employees and their unions. It also met representatives of political organisations and parties, including the JKLF, PDP, the Muslim League, and members of the Kashmiri Pandit community, including the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti.

Updated On : 17th Jul, 2017

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