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Time for New Delhi to wake up – Kashmir is burning

20 September , 2010

In the mother of all democracies, it is time for both state and central Government to wake up from their self-induced slumber. Kashmir is burning, and the long summer of curfews, strikes and protests shows no sign of coming to an end.

Notwithstanding the all-party conference taking place between Sringar and New Delhi this week just days before the Commonwealth Games are due to commence in the capital, India’s politicians are hoping blindly that peace can be brought to the troubled State by pretending there is no trouble. Entirely out of touch with the reality in Kashmir, the Government chooses at its peril to ignore the movement timidly being named an intifada that has arisen out of another summer of repression, bullets and death.

An inglorious history of blame

India’s governments have an inglorious history of blaming those who seek equal rights for themselves. The British, in government, blamed the natives for stirring up trouble during the Raj. Indira Gandhi’s government blamed the Sikhs, and those tiresome folk up in the North East of the country during the 1970s and 1980s. Modi’s government in Gujarat blamed the Muslims for their own carnage, and throughout this chequered history, every government has blamed Kashmiris for their own strife and suffering.

Kashmiris have the added privilege of being blamed alongside an assortment of  fellow trouble-makers. The Pakistanis are to blame, Laksha-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda are to blame, everyone is to blame except for the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar. Both state and central politicians need to wake up and see the reality of what they are doing to this embattled population whose men and women are now battling back, with little more than sticks and stones. Although it is likely that both Pakistan and cross-border terror groups are fuelling or adding to the scale of the violence, the anti-India feeling seen on the streets, demonstrated in massive post-Eid protests where over a dozen were killed in one day of a summer that has seen over hundred people killed by police bullets, that sentiment can be resolved only by India herself.

Of police brutality and bullets

Those police bullets are the absolute crux of the matter. Under cover of some of the most repressive anti-terror legislation in the world, such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which has been in place now for over twenty years in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian police and army have been able to run amok with impunity, violating the most basic human rights of Kashmiris, as well as the most serious. The legislation provides complete immunity against suit against anyone acting under cover of the law and was originally designed in 1958 to deal with so-called “disturbed areas” in the country’s North East. That emergency legislation, intended to prevent those states seceding from India, still applies to those areas; although talk of partially withdrawing the law takes place routinely amongst the political elite, this legislation remains entirely in force today.

In 2008, Amnesty International called on the Indian government to investigate mass graves which purported to belong to hundreds of young men who had been “disappeared”, tortured and killed by State brutality. Torture and death at the hands of the State remains prevalent in today’s Kashmir; a recent video on YouTube claimed to show at least four young naked men being beaten with sticks by police after they had been alleged to be throwing stones at the police. The clip, now removed, quickly has become known as India’s own “Abu Ghraib”; in the wake of similar allegations against adivasis in the tribal regions of Chhatisgarh by Amnesty International, Kashmiris will take little solace from the fact that they are neither the first nor the last of India’s minority regions which have been hammered by State-sanctioned abuse. Some studies suggest that as many as 32,000 widows have been created by this internal war and 100,000 orphans. No serious attempt has been made to destroy this culture of impunity, despite half-hearted suggestions of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A mature democracy?

India wants to show the world next month at the Games that it is a modern, powerful democracy whose voice deserves to be heard and understood on an international stage. Before it can claim that privilege, it needs to look within its borders and give a meaningful voice to those who are suffering, and find a way to get back in touch with the reality that Kashmiris are living. Detention, extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, media restrictions and curfew make daily headlines in this State, and India relies on its image as an upcoming democratic, economic miracle in order to diffuse international criticism.

The anti-India protests of this summer are inevitable when young men are beaten and detained arbitrarily, when women come out onto the streets demanding justice for their men, and both sexes demand a vote that counts.

Four possibilities to create change and forge peace

There remains a real chance for India to show herself to be a mature democracy: She needs to dismantle immediately the brutal anti-terrorist legislation which whips the population and provides its youth with valid ammunition, she needs to remove military control over a civilian population, she needs to acknowledge publicly that she has made terrible mistakes in Kashmir and try to right those mistakes, and then she needs to be confident enough to let her children go, giving Kashmiris the right to self-governance within a federalised system. It is time for democratic India to realise that loyalty cannot be demanded; it must be earned and deserved. These momentous steps may allow India to make a right from the many wrongs she has imposed.

September 20th 2010

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