India’s new crackdown in Kashmir

July 13, 2010

Snehal Shingavi looks at the background to India's new round of bloody repression in Kashmir--and the consequences for Indian politics.

FOR THE last several weeks, the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has been the setting for an immense crackdown by the Indian central government against the civilian population.

The most recent escalation began June 11, when soldiers attacked protesters in the state capital of Srinagar. The protesters were chanting slogans calling for independence for Kashmir, a longstanding demand of many of the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.

During the protest, a 17-year-old student, Tufail Ahmad Matoo, was killed by the police, who allege that he accidentally died when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister. A postmortem autopsy revealed that he was killed by a bullet to the head.

As journalist John Elliott reported, "That triggered a cycle of events with protests, shootings, lathi [wooden club] charges and firing of tear gas shells, plus curfews, bandhs (political strikes that close down whole cities) and local leaders being put under house arrest."

A nine-year-old boy was killed during a police shooting in the Delina area of Baramulla District in Jammu and Kashmir. A few days later, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) killed another young protester, Bilal Ahmad Wani. In the southern Kashmiri district of Anantnag, three teenaged boys were also killed by the CRPF. In each of these instances, people had come out to protest injustices at the hands of the CRPF, only to come under fire and then launch into more protests.

Indian security forces rush a crowd during efforts to contain protests in Kashmir
Indian security forces rush a crowd during efforts to contain protests in Kashmir

In Srinagar, more than 100 young men were rounded up for participating in the protesting. This was merely the most recent in a long line of police killings and "disappearings" of young Muslim men in Kashmir.

What we are witnessing in Kashmir is a repeated drama: Protesters come out onto the streets in response to killings by the often-poorly trained police forces, who then react by shooting protesters.

But more than that, what is playing out in Kashmir is the most recent incarnation of the struggle for national self-determination, now in the hands of young men, largely independent from the various parties and organizations that are involved in Kashmir. As John Elliot put it:

The Kashmir police and India's paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are behaving as though they are still dealing with the Pakistan-backed insurgency and terrorism that hit Kashmir 20 years ago and died away towards the end of the last decade. They have received no training in how to deal with civilian street protests, and thus treat them as threats that can be eliminated.

INDEPENDENCE IS not a new slogan in street protests in Kashmir. Kashmiris have been advocating for their independence from both India and Pakistan since 1947 and have used protests and their limited political voice to organize the movement for freedom.

The Indian government, in particular, has historically used deadly force to put down the movement for independence--and this memory in many ways fuels the current street agitation. Sopore, for instance, was also the site of a massacre committed by the Indian Army. In 1993, the army invaded the town and conducted house-to-house searches and open firefights in the street for over a month, leaving more than 54 people dead and 350 homes wrecked. Ever since, the town has been a central player in the movement for Kashmiri independence.

The civilian authority in Kashmir, led by the Jammu and Kashmir National Council's Omar Abdullah, is widely seen as discredited by its ties to the Indian government and does very little to hold the Indian military accountable for its actions.

Added to this is the sheer scale of the military and police presence in Kashmir, as the Times of India reported:

Much of the anger on the streets is directed against the CRPF, which has been at the forefront of the administration's efforts to quell the recent violence. At least seven of the 11 deaths in June, all of young boys, with one just nine years old, were the handiwork of the CRPF.

There are 70,000 CRPF men in [Jammu and Kashmir], with 30,000 of them posted in Srinagar alone. And these figures do not include the local police, the Rashtriya Rifles and various other security forces milling around in the state. The army may have pulled out of cities and towns to border areas, but khaki remains an overwhelming presence, reinforcing the widespread local perception of an occupation force.

In response to the popular anger against the CRPF, the Indian government sent in the army on June 7--the first time this has been done in more than 20 years. Despite claims that the army would only guard the periphery of the state, leaving the major urban areas untouched, the Indian Army held a flag-waving parade through the streets of Srinagar as a provocation to the young men who have been protesting by throwing stones.

The army will likely only add fuel to the fire--and the only way it knows to put out such fires is to drown them in blood.

At the root of both the military occupation and the civilian protests is actually a longstanding problem that was left unresolved when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947 following their independence from Britain.

The people of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, were supposed to be allowed to choose which state they wanted to join, but its Hindu ruler, Hari Singh, opted for India, overriding any democratic process. In the confusing treaties and conflicts that followed, India and Pakistan both captured part of the territory for themselves. In 1956, China, too, got a piece of the action when it captured what is now called Aksai Chin from India.

For the past 63 years, then, the people of Kashmir have never been allowed to determine their own fate. Instead, the various major powers have exploited the real grievances and ethnic divisions that exist in Kashmir in order to further their own short-term agendas.

Kashmir has been turned into a powder keg by the regional rivalry between India and Pakistan. Both countries are using the movement for independence in the valley to their advantage while leaving the real issues which face Kashmiris untouched.

For instance, the Indian right routinely uses the Kashmiri Pundits, a Hindu group in Jammu and Kashmir, to justify continuing the military crackdown and create a client class in Kashmir. For its part, Pakistan has cynically funded and trained militant outfits to conduct cross-border operations inside the valley. In both instances, ordinary Kashmiris have lost.

THE RESULTING economic and social devastation have ruined the lives of an entire generation. Rates of depression and suicide among young people in Kashmir are astonishingly high. As the Times of India wrote:

Today, as Kashmir teeters on the edge of despair, old wounds have reopened. Anger and frustration are seething out of every pore of the young boys, now idly playing carrom [a board game] on the deserted, curfew-bound streets of Srinagar. Azadi [independence] is the mood of the moment. And khaki [the police uniform] the proverbial red flag.

"We want to be free. We want the Indian army out. Why are they killing us? What have we done?'' The words poured out in a burst from 18-year-old Younis, a Class 12 student living in Lal Chowk. He hasn't been to school for almost a week now because of hartals [strikes], bandhs [shop-closures] and the fear of violence, which have brought life to a standstill in the Kashmir capital....

There should be, if there isn't already, concern about the paradigm shift in the manner of recent violence in the valley. Gun-wielding militants have given way to unarmed street protests with stone-pelting mobs taking on security forces in a stunning display of misplaced bravado.

Analysts point out that these are all youth who have grown up in the shadow of the gun. "They are not frightened by arms and weapons. They have seen their families and friends killed, both by militants and security forces. It's worrying to see the way they jump in front of policemen, bare their chests and dare the cops to shoot them,'' said one analyst.

One of the main reasons that conflict has become so bloody is that since 1990, Jammu and Kashmir have come under the purview of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which allows, among other things, any soldier or officer to fire upon any group of five or more people or anyone suspected of having a weapon, arrest anyone without a warrant and conduct home invasions. It also gives military personnel full immunity from prosecution for their actions.

The act has also produced an enormous number of "encounter killings" (what critical observers call "fake encounters"), in which the military fires on individuals and then either finds or manufactures evidence against them after the fact.

In Kashmir, the consequences of AFSPA have been horrifying. As the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir reported:

Between January-June 2010, reportedly 40 civilians have been killed (25 of whom were killed by security forces), 107 persons identified as militants have been killed, and 57 soldiers have been killed (of the 57, 28 soldiers were killed by militants, 14 committed suicide, two died in fratricidal killings, seven died in grenade/mine explosions, and six were killed by unidentified gunmen). Those killed by the Central Reserve Police Force and police were all young men, all Muslim.

Over 20 persons have been killed in "encounters" in just April and May 2010; each reported as three "infiltrating" militants. Only four deaths have been investigated, all found to be fake encounter killings. Reportedly, 335 militants were killed in 2008, and 236 militants were killed in 2009. There are no systematic investigations into alleged "encounter" killings.

Promises made about inquiries and commissions are not honored, as, for example, in Machil, where, after the three fake encounter killings, a Divisional Inquiry was promised but not authorized. In 2008, 367 Habeas Corpus Petitions were filed in the High Court at Srinagar, 272 petitions filed in 2009, and 159 petitions filed between January and mid-May 2010. International human rights law argues that a state must respect the right to life. The Indian Armed Forces repeatedly break this covenant in Kashmir.

KASHMIR IS not only one of the world's most heavily militarized places, it has also seen its economy wracked by war. The consequences have been devastating, especially for young men. Without access to jobs or a decent education, many of them have grown frustrated at their lack of opportunities and begun challenging the 63-year long military occupation of their homes.

This has sparked a debate inside of the Indian political establishment about how to deal with the "Kashmiri Intifada"--so-called because the young men have been mimicking protesters in Palestine who used slingshots to fire stones at occupation forces. On the one hand, most of the political establishment seems to agree that a serious crackdown is necessary in order to regain control over the region.

In order to make this argument, the Indian authorities have been attempting to link the violence in the region to both the armed Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as the Naxalites, a Maoist-inspired movement of mostly tribal peoples--the Adivasis--for control over their land in the central part of India. Instead of responding to the democratic demands of the people, the Indian state continues to criminalize all Kashmiris and sees a Pakistani-backed terrorist in every Muslim face.

On the other hand, there is much dramatic handwringing by the likes of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose ruling Congress Party actually ordered the troops in. But if Singh attempts to be the avuncular face of the Indian National Congress, he is also joined by the venomous Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has advocated for a tougher military option in Kashmir.

Chidambaram wasted little time in pointing the finger at Lashkar-e-Taiba (Militia of the Righteous), the group that also the main culprit in the attack on Mumbai that took place on November 26, 2007, as well as Pakistan, as responsible for the new wave of anti-Indian sentiment in Kashmir. In fact, Chidambaram has repeatedly made such accusations against every separatist movement in India, often times with very little evidence.

However, Chidambaram has been able to use the supposed involvement of Lashkar and Pakistan in Kashmir to justify India's hard line. As a result, many of the leaders of the separatist parties, including high-ranking members of the All Party Hurriyat Conference and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front have been rounded up.

And as long as the primary response to protesters is gunfire and imprisonment, it's unlikely that the conflict will die down any time soon.

The Kashmir protests also come as India and Pakistan are once again opening up serious peace talks under substantial pressure from Washington to reach an agreement so that the war in Afghanistan can be conducted more effectively. The terrible irony is that in many ways the new conflict in Kashmir has been made worse by the American war on terror, as both Pakistan and India have been using the war to jockey for their own advantage regionally.

The danger now is that U.S. pressure to produce a fast solution in Kashmir will involve yet another brutal attack against the civilian population.

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