Civilian Deaths Shatter a Lull in Kashmir: Choudhury

The uneasy peace in Jammu and Kashmir, India's northernmost state and its only Muslim-majority one, was broken this month by two separate killings of civilians by security forces. The state, which borders both Pakistan and China, has been a tinderbox since India and Pakistan became independent in 1947. It contains the strife-torn Kashmir Valley, which is administered by India and claimed by Pakistan, and has been the target of repeated incursions by Pakistani militants for over two decades. It also hosts a powerful indigenous movement for independence. The deaths of the civilians were the latest in a long series of human-rights violations in the state and revived memories of the violence last June that erupted after a 17-year-old student was killed by a police tear-gas canister. The event sparked a cycle of protests and reprisals that lasted three months and claimed more than 100 lives.

One of the civilian deaths occurred in police custody, the other was the result of an "encounter" between the police and an alleged militant. They happened even as Indian forces engaged in skirmishes with militants in the district of Kupwara in northern Kashmir. The incidents were indicative of the nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the lives of civilians in the state, where more than 300,000 Indian troops are charged with keeping the peace and flushing out militants. Nazim Rashid, a shopkeeper in his twenties who also went by the name Anjum, was the first casualty. The incident took place on July 30 in Sopore, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the state capital Srinagar.

NDTV reported:

Nazim Rashid, 28, died in a police camp in Sopore on Saturday, hours after the police picked him up, to question him about his alleged role in the killing of a civilian.

The police have registered a case of murder and a magisterial inquiry has been ordered. Thousands of troops were deployed with a curfew-like situation in the town.

But none of it could stop the clashes in Krankshan Colony - where Nazim Rashid's parents live - after police initially refused to hand over Rashid's body saying, they were waiting to carry out the post-mortem. The body has subsequently been handed over to the family.

And a few days later The Telegraph reported another death:

A special police officer and a Territorial Army jawan landed in custody today for a fake encounter death after residents of a Jammu village refused to bury an “uncircumcised militant” security forces had claimed was a top Lashkar-e-Toiba commander.

A red-faced police conceded the slain man was a mentally deranged person, the embarrassing admission coming a day after a joint claim by the army and the police that they had eliminated the dreaded Abu Usman in a Saturday-night encounter.

Usman is said to be the Lashkar divisional commander for Jammu’s Poonch and Rajouri districts. The forces also claimed to have seized a pistol and some ammunition.

Poonch police chief Ashkoor Wani said he had ordered his men to send the body for an autopsy after the villagers in Surankote refused to bury the man. “During investigations we found the pistol was rusted and could not fire, which increased our suspicion,” the SSP added.

The state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, was quick to respond to the Sopore killing, saying on his Twitter page: "The death of Anjum Rashid in police custody is a gross human right (sic) violation & inexcusable. Things like this CANNOT be allowed to happen.

He promised "Swift & exemplary action. No delays, no cover ups, no excuses. "

A few days later, reported that two policemen had been arrested for their roles in Rashid's death. But Abdullah also inflamed the situation by using the incident as an excuse to take a swipe at Mehbooba Mufti, head of the opposition People's Democratic Party, whose legislators were pelted with stones when they visited Rashid's family.

But the reality of Kashmir belies Abdullah's avowed intention to change the relationship between the state and its citizenry. In a long and unsettling piece called “Murder By Torture” that described the circumstances of Rashid's death, the journalist Majid Maqbool wrote:

Custodial killings and extra judicial executions have been a recurring feature of all governments in Kashmir, more so after 1989. Despite claims of normalcy by the ruling NC led coalition government, there have been eight custodial killings so far since it took over the reins on Jan 5, 2009.

[...] Last year confidential cables released by Wikileaks had revealed widespread torture by the government forces in Kashmir. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had sent evidence to US diplomats about widespread torture by government forces in Kashmir. Visits to detention centres by ICRC in the region (from 2002-04) revealed cases of beatings, electric shocks, sexual abuse and other types of ill-treatment.

According to the cables, ICRC interviewed 1,296 detainees in Kashmir, of whom more than half said they had been tortured. Out of 681 detainees, 498 claimed to have been electrocuted, 381 said they were suspended from the ceiling, and 304 cases were described as “sexual.” A total of 294 described a procedure in which guards crushed their legs by putting a bar across their thighs and sitting on it, while 181 said their legs had been pulled apart into the splits.

The protests against Rashid's death continued for several days across the valley, especially in Srinagar. On Aug. 8, the Kashmir Observer reported: "Nearly a dozen youth have been arrested by the police over the past four days to quell a fresh wave of stone-pelting in Srinagar. The police has conducted a number of raids to collar youth it says are involved in renewed brick-batting and clashes that have left many injured who, according to authorities, include 23 police and paramilitary personnel wounded last Friday alone."

Andin a New Indian Express piece called "Ongoing Saga of Betrayals," Firdous Syed, who was intriguingly described as "formerly a separatist," wrote:

A single incident of custodial killing in Sopore in north Kashmir has shattered the myth of superficial peace.

[...] Since last year’s unrest, in which more than 110 innocents lost their lives, the government has adopted extremely harsh measures. To create a semblance of peace, the people of the Valley are denied all means of peaceful, democratic protests. Teenagers are booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), for even hurling a stone; the draconian law allows the administration to keep anybody behind bars continuously for two years. People are not allowed to protest against grave human rights violations. Clampdown has become the standard response of the Omar Abdullah regime; it has become a routine to place under house arrest the separatist leaders at the drop of a hat.

[...] It’s a vicious circle. A police atrocity triggers protest and protests may cause more deaths leading to an unending cycle of protests, resulting in more deaths. The civilian unrest is not the only apprehension that can disturb the eerie calm; increased militant activity is also a worrisome factor. For the last fortnight an increase in militant activity has been witnessed in the border belt of Kupwara, adjoining Sopore. Fresh bids of successful infiltration have taken place in Kupwara and the army claims to have killed 11 militants in the past fortnight.

[...] Custodial killings are barbarian and condemnable acts. In the absence of meaningful political processes, the security forces are left alone to deal with the situation with bullets and batons. In volatile conditions third degree methods are applied to contain the violence, little knowing that fake encounters and custodial killings will only add to the fire. This action-reaction cycle eventually pushes people to the brink. The hard measures may momentarily calm down the situation but heavy jackboots can never usher in an era of sustainable peace.

Not all is grim in Kashmir, though. In a piece published on the Reuters Website called "In dark Kashmir valley, a ray of light from India's economic surge," Sanjeev Miglani described the region’s potential, which he saw firsthand after touring new businesses and meeting with young entrepreneurs in Kashmir:

In a cheerful hall humming with voices, rows of young men and women handle calls from irate cellphone subscribers in eastern India in perfect Hindi.

It could be an outsourcing centre in Bangalore or Hyderabad. But this is insurgency-scarred Kashmir, where association with India has always been regarded with suspicion.

As call centres go, the 230-seat office in a run-down industrial quarter of Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, is small compared with offices that pack in up to 3,000 workers in India's big cities.

But if the steady stream of 25 to 30 youth who show up at the office each day looking for jobs is any gauge, the rapid growth of India's giant economy is finally exerting a pull on the troubled Kashmir Valley, the heartland of a 22-year revolt.

[...] Indeed, planeloads of India's upwardly mobile middle classes have visited the picture postcard-perfect Kashmir Valley this summer, making it the busiest tourist season since the armed revolt began in 1989.

Hotels and the famed houseboats on the mirror-calm Dal lake framed by snowcapped mountains are booked for weeks even though new ones such as the Taj chain's luxurious Vivanta have opened.

The streets are blocked with traffic, the shops are filled with customers bargaining for everything from carpets to walnuts, and you could for a moment think you are in a city with its babel of languages from Bengali to Gujarati rather than a disputed region at the heart of 60 years of unremitting hostility between India and Pakistan.

Kashmir, still sullen and deeply alienated from India, cannot, it seems, escape the power of India's $1.6 trillion economy growing at 8 percent despite severe problems of governance that have taken the shine off the country as an investment destination.

What happens in Kashmir in the days and weeks to come depends on how successfully the government manages to restore public order and regain a semblance of trust. But in the longer run, the state's future depends not just on political solutions but on whether the energies and ambitions of its youth can be channeled productively both by the state and by a more engaged Indian society.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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