Time to heal Kashmir

Indian paramilitary soldiers stop a Kashmiri family in Srinagar (AFP/Getty)

Rifat Andrabi knows the name of her husband’s killer, though it never did her much good.

In 1996, she and her husband, Jalil, a well-known human rights lawyer, were stopped at a military roadblock in Srinagar, Kashmir. Ms Andrabi says an Indian army officer, Major Avtar Singh, took Jalil into custody. Three weeks later, his mutilated body turned up on a river bank in a burlap sack. Despite court orders for Major Singh’s arrest, he was a free man for 16 years until last June, when he apparently committed suicide in his California home after murdering his wife and two of their children.

More than 200 cases like Rifat Andrabi’s make up a new report from a well-respected human rights group in Srinagar which used official documents and witness testimony to detail torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings and more during 20 years of conflict in Kashmir. The report names 500 “alleged perpetrators”, from low-ranking soldiers to high-level officers in the Indian armed forces. It’s a devastating reminder that the legacy of violence in this war-torn region will not be put to rest until there is an honest reckoning of the crimes.

Born in conflict

When Britain’s former colony on the Asian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, both nations claimed the largely Muslim Kashmir – a region legendary for its natural beauty. After armed attacks by tribesmen from what had become Pakistan, the ruler of Kashmir ultimately signed an agreement to join with India. Indian troops occupied about two-thirds of the region, Pakistan seized the rest to the north and west, and China later took over eastern areas. Today, the population in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir is more than 60% Muslim, and many Kashmiris don’t view themselves as part of predominantly Hindu India.

Neither India nor Pakistan was ever happy with this arrangement, and the two countries went to war over Kashmir in 1947-48, in 1965 and in 1999. The so-called Line of Control between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir became the de facto, heavily militarised border and has remained so since.

In 1989, an insurgency erupted among Kashmiri Muslims, backed by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Demonstrations were common, and bombings and shootings spread across the territory.

In response, India passed an emergency law giving its armed forces extraordinary powers to detain and interrogate suspected insurgents. Thousands of civilians paid the price – police and military forces routinely tortured and killed anyone suspected of being an insurgent. On the other side, militants intimidated locals and sometimes killed suspected “spies”. Scores of unmarked graves have been found containing hundreds of bullet-riddled bodies dumped by the Indian military and police. For most of the 1990s, the conflict flared: tens of thousands died.

Pandora’s box

After flare-ups in 2001 – when Muslim terrorists attacked the Indian parliament, and again in 2008, when another terror attack by militants backed by Pakistan’s intelligence agency killed 166 people in Mumbai – tensions have somewhat eased in Kashmir. While none of the underlying conflicts have really been resolved – for now – both sides seem to prefer relative peace to the warfare that has scarred the land and the people for decades. Some transport and communications links have been opened up, and India and Pakistan have taken a number of actions meant to build trust between the countries, including an Indian amnesty for Kashmiri fighters and a Pakistani pledge to cut off funding to militant groups.

But mutual distrust, and the conflict’s violent legacy, live on. Fearing the power of its neighbour, Pakistan for decades cultivated Islamic insurgent groups to use as proxies to fight India. And there is evidence this policy still exists, despite repeated Pakistani government assurances that it does not.

By arming, training and supporting militants to promote its interests in India, Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere, Pakistan has helped create a culture of militancy that it can no longer control. Take, for example, elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan who have helped to keep the country weak (something which has long suited Pakistan’s rulers). Yet the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated jihadist groups havewreaked havoc at home. Sometimes it can seem that Pakistan is fighting “bad” terrorists while simultaneously tolerating or even aiding arbitrarily-defined “good” militants groups that support its agenda – a policy which has devastatingly undermined the country’s stability, its relations with its neighbours; even its basic ability to function as a state.

No more impunity

There is no quick fix to decades of distrust, abuse and death, but with the heat of the conflict waning in Kashmir, the time to confront the brutal past is now. And paramount to reconciliation and justice is an end to impunity.

The law that gives the Indian army impunity in Kashmir is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in so-called “disturbed areas”. On the one hand, the Indian government often claims that Kashmir is now calm and the situation is under control. Yet it refuses to roll back the “disturbed area” status from parts of Kashmir. These flagrant double-standards cannot continue.

Of course, Pakistan must follow through on its commitments to confront violent fundamentalism where it can – its record on this is appalling. But if there is to be any healing in Kashmir, the Indian government must be willing to admit its horrific excesses and allow killers and torturers to be brought to justice, too. The new report out of Srinagar (published by the International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir) lays the groundwork for that to happen, by meticulously investigating specific cases of human rights abuses and laying out the violations of international law. It’s going to take a major shift on the part of the world’s largest democracy to stand up to its dark past – the time for this to happen is long overdue.

Courtesy: Awaaz.org  


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