The hidden occupation

June 11, 2010

Yasmin Qureshi grew up as a member of India's Muslim minority before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a social justice activist who traveled to Palestine in 2007 and to Kashmir last year. This article is a reflection on her trip to Kashmir.

I WANTED to go to Kashmir ever since I visited Palestine in 2007. There are many similarities in the nature of the occupation as well as the struggles, both being nearly 63 years old.

One difference is that while Israel is seen as an external occupying force in Palestine, the Kashmir issue is considered an "internal" matter or a conflict between Pakistan and India, and the voice of Kashmiris is often lost. As a result, there are fewer international organizations monitoring the region, and little information about the extent and impact of the occupation gets out.

A layoff from my company in August 2009 gave me the opportunity to visit the region, called "a paradise on earth" by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The unanimous message I heard as I traveled and spoke to journalists, taxi drivers, pony riders, waiters, students and teachers was that they want "azadi," independence from the occupation by India.

GROWING UP as a member of India's Muslim minority, it took me some years to take a position on the Kashmir issue. My visit to Palestine forced me to analyze why I could show solidarity with Palestinians, but remain unsure about Kashmir. I was also falling into the trap that many Indian Muslims do: If only Kashmiris would give up their struggle against the Indian government, there would be peace for Muslims in the rest of India, and the scars of partition would be gone.

An Indian soldier on patrol in the Srinagar province of Kashmir
An Indian soldier on patrol in the Srinagar province of Kashmir

The first striking view of the capital city Srinagar from the airplane was the breathtaking beauty of the magnificent Himalayas as the backdrop to a long expanse of army tents and buildings along the runway. Six soldiers with guns stood guard around the plane. I wanted to take a picture, but was advised against it by my neighbor.

The extent of militarization is appalling. There are 700,000 troops and 70,000 police for a population of roughly 10 million. The Indian military has been conducting "training sessions" with Israel to curb the resistance in Kashmir. Checkpoints and detention centers (which also turn into torture centers) are all over the valley.

"There are more soldiers here than in Afghanistan or Iraq," said Qazi Mir, my taxi driver who often drives journalists to cover news stories. "How do Indians expect us to be part of their country? Do they know what it is like to live surrounded by armed men?" he asked. In March, the combined number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was roughly 250,000.

A senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer admitted that, unless the longstanding grievances of injustice and suppression of civil liberties are addressed in a fair manner, there will never be peace. "Things are better now," he said, as we chatted during iftaar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, at an old family friend's place. "Our forces have been reduced, but we are still very distant from a healing process." Tired of the violence, some members of his family had moved to Delhi during the 1990s.

The nature of the struggle has changed over the years. Nonviolent protests and isolated incidents of violence had been taking place for some years, but in 1987, a rigged election that led to massive protests was a turning point. Images of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the same year were an inspiration.

However, the fraudulent elections led to frustration that evolved into a violent insurgency throughout the 1990s. Kashmiris felt that democratic and peaceful means of resistance had been choked off.

With the rise in arrests, torture, killings and rape by Indian soldiers, young men started taking up arms. Pakistan took advantage of the frustrations of the Kashmiris and started arming groups like Lashkar-i-Taiba and Harkatul Mujahideen. The U.S.-led mujahideen resistance movement in Afghanistan against the USSR also had an influence in shaping the 1990s resistance. More than 300,000 Kashmiris, mostly Hindu Pandits, were displaced.

Jawed Bukhari had been part of the armed resistance until he gave up arms some years ago. He now works on documenting cases of torture and the missing. "Some years ago, we were worried about whether the next generation would continue our struggle," he said. "Now we have no worries. We don't need an armed struggle anymore. The civil society has taken on the resistance through nonviolent actions like strikes and protests."

The last 20 years of oppression, torture and humiliation have given rise to a more mature, sustained and united resistance movement. Massive protests in July-August 2008 against the state government's decision to transfer 100 acres of land to the Amaranth Shrine Board are the best example of this new form of uprising.

The state said that the land would be used to build toilets and huts for Hindu pilgrims visiting a cave in the mountain ranges in the state. Thousands of acres of land, including forests, hills, orchards and schools, had already been taken over by the armed forces over the years. Kashmiris perceived this as occupation of their land, similar to Israel's tactic of settlement building in the West Bank. Thousands of people, young and old, men and women, poured into the streets all across the valley in cities and villages.

THE ONLY company on the road to Gulmarg, a beautiful city that I had pleasant memories of from my visit as a young girl in 1984, was a trail of military trucks. Sadly, a lot of the best land there has been turned into an army camp.

As we drove through the lush green rolling mountains, Mir pointed to a hut where the Hindi film Bobby was shot. I could visualize Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia singing, "Hum tum ek kamre mein band hon." Prior to the late 1980s, Indian films often depicted Kashmir as a romantic and exotic place for Indians, masking the lives and tribulations of Kashmiris.

"How can we forget what the army did to our women?" said an old pony owner as we rode towards a glacier. "One day we will be independent, Insh'allah [God willing]. We know that." When he pointed to a far-off mountain range on the Pakistani border, I asked him if he would want to be part of Pakistan. "We just want an independent Kashmir," he said. "What has Pakistan done for us?"

I was lucky to be in Srinagar at a time when two important conferences were taking place. The first was conducted by a delegation of women from Delhi to investigate the Shopian case [the May 2009 rape and murder of two women in Kashmir's Shopian district]. The other addressed the plight of half-widows and half-orphans and took place on the international Day of the Disappeared organized by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).

Half-widows are women whose husbands are missing, but have not been officially declared dead, thus they are unable to collect pensions or to remarry. Desperately hoping that one day their husbands will return, these women lead lives of immense stress and hardship. They often don't qualify for support from NGOs, since there is no policy or clause addressing the needs of half-widows.

I was stopped at a checkpoint a few meters before the venue for the APDP conference. It reminded me of the checkpoints in West Bank. The policemen let me go after asking where I had come from, what I was doing there, and where I was going. It was an important conference, and the police were keeping a close eye on the event.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives authorities the ability to search and arrest without a warrant. Everyone qualifies as a suspect. "This is what leads to large-scale human rights violations and torture," explained Parvez Imroze, a human rights activist and the founder of APDP as well as the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). His organization also monitors elections.

The act has been in place in the northeastern states since 1958 and was introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. State authorities have the right to detain persons without charge or judicial review for as long as two years. During this time, family members do not have access to detainees, and detainees do not have access to legal counsel.

"There have been only 15 cases of militants abducting civilians and military men in 20 years," explained Imroze. "In contrast, armed forces are responsible for 10,000 missing persons. Families of missing persons struggle for justice for years. This is a failure of the judicial system." Imroze's life has often come under threat, and he is closely monitored by the Indian state.

"The Shopian case is another example of the failure of the state and its judicial system," Imroze said. On May 29, 2009, relatives and police discovered the bodies of two women in a stream in Shopian. Local residents and forensic specialists alleged that Indian security forces committed gang rape before killing them.

Uproar and protests by local residents brought attention to the case, which could have easily have fallen into a black hole. "A few years ago, only a few would come out to protest," noted Imroze. "Now thousands are out on the streets."

THIS IS by no means an isolated incident. There are thousands of cases of rape, torture, abuse and disappearances by the Indian armed forces. Most have not received any justice. Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir documents 2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing more than 2,943 bodies, across 55 villages in Kashmir.

Such reports are often invisible in global and Indian media. The 2009 report was published by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, a rare collaborative effort of Kashmiris and non-Kashmiri Indians.

The Delhi delegation from the Independent Women's Initiative for Justice held a press conference after visiting Shopian. They made a powerful statement about the failure of the state government to conduct a fair investigation, pointing out that the water was too shallow to drown in, and highlighted the plight of women in the valley. It should be noted that an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) later that year ruled out rape.

During the press conference, a woman stood up and said that normal dreams and aspirations have been made impossible. Another man asked why it had taken the delegation three months to pay a visit and what they would do after going back to Delhi. Quite often, fact-finding delegations from India frame such abuses as human rights issues, but avoid addressing them in a larger political context.

The delegation laid emphasis on the fact that the armed forces were there to protect and ensure justice, but were not doing their job properly. But the truth is that Kashmiris don't see the armed forces as protectors at all. They perceive their presence as an occupation.

The investigative report published later gave a very detailed and candid account of persistent abuse of power, injustice and violation of human rights, but seemed to make a distinction between the Indian political system and the military.

A journalist friend who has years of experience reporting from the valley explained the complex and institutionalized nature of the occupation. "Kashmir is given subsidies by India to make it more dependent on India," he informed me. Historically, Kashmir has been rich in natural resources and is world renowned for its dried fruits, carpets and papier-mâché products. "Subsidies destroy the local economy," he explained.

He also highlighted the psychological impact and the internalization of violence on the social fabric of the society. Mothers live in anxiety, not knowing when their sons or husbands may end up on the "missing" list. Families are scared to send their daughters to universities.

Saleem Dar, a shopkeeper I bought phirans and shawls from, told me that he had sent his daughter to Nepal to study because it was safer and cheaper there. He used to export carpets, but his business has declined significantly in the past decade since 9/11. He was in favor of autonomy instead of independence but wanted the military forces to be withdrawn.

"The Indian government will not do a plebiscite because they know the outcome will not be favorable to them," he noted, referring back to the 1949 UN Security Council resolutions that were passed after Pakistan attacked India, which led to one third of Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan.

The plebiscite, which hasn't taken place because of political disagreements between India and Pakistan, was supposed to allow Kashmiris the right to self-determination.

After talking to local residents, I realized that many Kashmiris in the valley considered the rule of independent India an extension of the rule of Hari Singh, a Hindu Maharaja, known for oppressing the majority Muslim community. Singh acceded to India's demands in 1947 against the wishes of the majority population. This belief about India's oppressive treatment of Muslims only solidified as the Indian government used brutal military tactics to curb the Kashmiri insurgency in the 1990s.

Without understanding the situation in the valley, it is difficult for an Indian to face the reality of the aspirations of Kashmiris for an independent state. An open debate on the issue is avoided because Kashmir is considered an integral part of India. Kashmiris, however, address India as a different country. When I said "I am from Delhi," they replied back saying, "Oh, you have come from India!" "But are you a Muslim?" they questioned on hearing my name.

Perhaps being a Muslim made it easy to gain their trust and enabled me to openly discuss their struggles and aspirations. Ameena Hussain, a school teacher, asked me what it was like to live as an oppressed minority in India. "Why would Kashmiris want to be part of India given what it has been doing to minorities there?" she asked. "You know, Kashmir is the only state with a Muslim majority."

She reminded me of the riots in Bombay (called Mumbai now) following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the massacres of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. I was living in India when the two tragic events unfolded.

It was an interesting perspective from the other side. Kashmir is often used as fuel to ignite anti-communal feelings. As an Indian Muslim, I partly blamed Kashmir for our problems. After talking to the local residents of the valley, I realized Muslims in the rest of India have to fight their own battle for justice and equality. Having visited Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on the same trip, I acknowledge it is easy for me to say this sitting in the U.S.

Kashmir is not the only place where India is exercising its might. As the war against the poor tribals in eastern and central India escalates, the question is how long India, proud to call itself the world's largest democracy, will continue oppressing its own people.

Can democracy at gunpoint truly be called democracy?

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