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July 30, 2010

AFSPA may be pious, but India is not a theocracy Lt. Gen Jaswal!

The Kashmir valley in India has witnessed more than 15 deaths in June alone, all of them caused by Indian security forces firing upon the protesting crowds. These crowds were comprised largely of teenagers pelting stones at the security forces especially in and around areas of old Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Most of these deaths occurred when security forces opened fire on crowds protesting similar murderous firings unleashed on common citizens by the security forces. The list of the dead includes minors, the youngest being just nine year old.

The vicious cycle of death started when security forces, purportedly in self-defense, opened fire on these teenagers claiming that pelting of stones caused grave danger to their lives. The first death caused by the security forces led to large scale protests by the common citizenry when the security forces fired again killing more people and inciting more protests as a consequence. Since then it has spiraled into a cycle of stone pelting, firing causing death, protests and more stone pelting and security forces causing many more deaths.

Quite understandably, the provincial and central government have been trying to justify these firings by claiming that the security forces were compelled to fire in self-defense. A laughable claim on the face of it indeed, that stone pelting teenagers can cause any serious threat to the members of Indian security forces wielding state of the art weaponry including assault rifles like AK47s and armored vehicles.

The claim stood exposed further by the fact that in one of the very first incidents of security forces firing over stone-pelting protesters R. K. Birdi, a senior officer of the Border Security Force, a paramilitary organization of India, was found guilty of ordering his subordinate to shoot at unarmed children and was subsequently arrested. In fact, Mr. P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister of the Government of India has cited the arrest as evidence for the Indian government's commitment towards no tolerance for human rights violations.

The question if the protesters caused any serious threat to the forces has been thoroughly debated in the Indian as well as international media. The discussions seem, however, to have missed a crucial point. The point that it is not the perceived levels of threat, or the intensity of the provocations that makes the security personnel fire upon their fellow citizens. It is far more than that. It is the mindset and the prejudices that pervade in the members of the security forces manning Kashmir. The mindset that the Kashmir is a 'different' territory, belonging to 'others', which they have to secure and guard, and not protect. Apparently, the most important thing for the government and the security forces is the territorial integrity of India and not the life and liberty of the people they claim to represent.

And that is why it is not about protests themselves. The existence of space for showing dissent, for protesting, is a central characteristic that defines a democracy, which India so proudly claims to be. Precisely for the reason, India has witnessed many protests. Protests over all forms of real or perceived injustices keep taking place across the length and breadth of country.

Many of them have been violent, very violent. Even a cursory glance at the recent past will bear this fact out. The movement for creation of a new state of Telangana, bifurcating Andhra Pradesh was a violent one. The movement opposing that was equally, if not any less, violent. But the same security forces rushed to contain these protests did not take recourse to indiscriminate firing even once.

Further, a few rightwing political outfits like Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in Maharashtra are notorious for using violence as a political tool. The members of MNS have attacked everyone, from the poor taxi driver on the streets to legislators within Maharashtra assembly, inviting, unfortunately though, not much wrath of the provincial and the Indian government. Security forces as well as the state governments have shown similar leniency to very violent protests organized by the likes of the Sri Ram Sena and the Bajrang Dal.

Leaving the protests in these 'mainstream' and 'peaceful' parts of the Indian territories aside, the security forces, in fact, have shown great restraint while dealing with protests in Jammu, the other half of the province of the Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the security forces refrained from shooting at protesters in Jammu in 2008 when angry masses blockaded all traffic to the Kashmir valley protesting against the state government for backing down on transferring forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Trust. They did not take recourse to the guns even when the protests turned really violent, resulting in the killings of at least two policemen.

This fact raises a very disturbing question, a question which has bearings on the very basic nature of Indian democracy. The question that what makes these restrained, well-meaning protectors of the law of the land go trigger-happy in Kashmir as well as other such 'disturbed' areas like Manipur.

The answers, though tough and troubling, begin with the 'otherness' imposed on Kashmir is not a bit heartening. That in most of the cases where security forces did not fire even the crowds who launched a fatal assault on other people and security men alike belonged to the majority religion, and when they shot to kill teenagers pelting stones belonged to the minorities is a fact which we can ignore only at very high costs. And this fact does not reflect well either on the 'secular' or 'democratic' republic India claims to be.

Neither does the fact that Kashmiris seem to be more than willing to come to these protests risking their lives. Human beings are not known to put their lives at stake without sufficient reasons and without having exhausted all other alternatives. They do it only in extreme conditions. And conditions, in Kashmir, are extreme.

After all, untimely and unnatural deaths are not new to the residents of the valley. Neither are the tragic ways they come in. A whole generation of Kashmiris has grown up seeing unprecedented levels of violence, killings, abductions and all other forms of human rights violations. They have, also, seen the utmost disregard shown by the state to their grievances.

It would not be too much to compare their situation with that of Palestinians, who encounter uniformed police/paramilitary or military personnel dominating all aspects of their lives. They have witnessed the khaki, the colour of the uniforms of almost all major Indian security agency becoming the most dominant and ubiquitous colour in a valley known for white snow, lush green chinars and saffron. They have seen their dignity and dreams getting trampled over by these boots in khaki day in and day out.

They have witnessed at least 40000 deaths as per the most conservative estimates, and more than 70000 as borne out by the independent and impartial human rights groups. Needless is to say that the numbers of forcibly disappeared, arrested and tortured Kashmiris are bound to be many times more than this. The civilians dominate the list, ordinary innocent non-combatants citizens killed both by the armed insurgents and the security forces. Further, the members of the Indian armed forces have been accused of raping Kashmir women very frequently, a few of which has also been convicted by the courts. Is not this enough to alienate a population?

The governments, both at the state and the central levels, have done precious little to address the problem and ensure justice to the victims. This would had been, and still is, a basic prerequisite of restoring law and order, a euphemism the government uses way to often to suppress the people, to Jammu and Kashmir. What the governments did was exact opposite of this.

The government have overworked to save the officers guilty of killing, maiming, abducting and torturing common citizens by using the worst provisions of the notorious Armed forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) imposed in the area since July 1990. The state has clinically and systemically foiled any attempts made by the civil society members to bring the question of grave injustices and human rights violations committed by the security forces in Kashmir.

The recent cases bear an eerie resemblance to the grimmest days of the life in the valley. A reminder of the calamities inflicted on the people since the beginning of the insurgency in the by the very people who are mandated to protect it. Civilian populations fired at by the security forces started becoming frequent since 1990. Like the incident of 20 January 1990, when security forces fired on unarmed protesters at Gawakadal bridge killing at least 100 people. The incident filled ordinary residents of Kashmir, aloof to the warring parties till then, with indignation and hatred towards the regime. They took to the secessionist movement and insurgency became a popular mass movement for the first time. The incident was followed soon by the unprovoked firing on mourners grieving for their dead leader Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq killing another 100 the same year in May.

Needless is to say that the killings did not get probed and no officers or political leaders guilty behind the shootings were ever brought to the book, leave the question of delivering justice. Even more futile is to say that the suppression did not bring any peace or calm to the valley. Rather, the impact was exact opposite. Every single killing by the security forces added exponentially to the numbers of active armed insurgents and their supporters. And the violence became the single most defining feature of the Kashmir valley.

Only change is that Indian state engaged in a shadow war with heavily armed and a well-trained militant outfit is thus waging a war with stone pelting teenagers now. And its security forces are apparently scared, very scared. What else will explain the hurriedly organised press conference by Lt Gen B S Jaswal to refute the demands of scrapping AFSPA by none other than Omar Abdulla, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Lt Gen Jaswal termed provisions of AFSPA as 'pious' to him and to the 'entire Indian army'.

Only that, India is a democracy and not a theocracy. And that legality should be the sole criterion to retain or scrap an act and not religiosity or piousness!

Indian security forces and government have failed themselves badly. The situation, unfortunately, is not far better in case of judiciary, one of the most reputed and well functioning organs of Indian democratic system. The well-meaning judiciary, responsible for heralding an era of accountability and responsibility in the Indian political system through judicial activism, too has failed singularly when it comes to the injustice meted out to Kashmir.

The judiciary, known for taking suo moto notice of cases of grave violations of fundamental rights and redressing the grievances, often by challenging and compelling the executive to act against their will, had not shown any great enthusiasm for the same when it came to Kashmiris including in the famous cases like that of a famous and respected journalist Iftikhar Geelani who was incarcerated for almost an year under the Official Secrets Act for keeping information easily available on the internet.

The roots of the near perennial conflict in and over Kashmir are rooted in its chequered history and problematic present. It has emerged as a site which India and Pakistan, two perennially fighting countries, have used to project their claims and counterclaims. The existence of a constituency for freedom in Kashmir has added to the problems of any immediate resolution of the problem as well.

Yet, the only road to that elusive solution is by restoring the law of the land to the province while doing away with archaic, colonial and brutal laws like AFSPA made for disturbed lands. The road to peace can only be taken if the government of India pulls its act together and brings the officers responsible for firing at and killing innocent civilians under the ambit of the law while stripping them of the immunity offered under the AFSPA.

It should reopen all the cases of the violations of human rights, reinvestigate them and ensure rule of law. Or, it will remain the biggest hypocrisy of the world instead of being a self-acclaimed democracy.

Published in Counter Currents. can be accessed at--
http://www.countercurrents.org/samar180710.htm

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