Successive Indian governments have promised a 'zero tolerance' policy against human rights abuses in Indian-held Kashmir. But on the ground, common Kashmiris still see gun-wielding Indian soldiers stationed in every nook and cranny of the disputed Himalayan valley painting the picture of a hostile group that can enter, shoot and leave of its own accord.
And justice either remains elusive or is so delayed that it is as good as denied.
As I write this blog, disturbing reports pouring in from southern Kashmir suggest that another youth has been killed by government forces as locals were staging a demonstration in protest against the killing of two Kashmiris in Chenigam village in Kulgam district, some 45 miles from Srinagar.
Also, earlier this month, two young boys — Me’rajuddin Dar and Faisal Yusuf — were shot dead by Indian soldiers from the 53-Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in the Chattergam area of central Budgam district. Two others were critically wounded as army personnel opened fire on a Maruti car the four boys were travelling in.
After massive protests from locals in Budgam, the Srinagar-based General Officer Commanding (GOC) 15 Corps, Lt. Gen B S Hooda admitted responsibility for the killings of teenage youth by his troops and promised speedy justice.
The army initiated an inquiry into the firing. This was a break from the routine. Otherwise, the ugly practice was to issue routine press releases with infuriatingly meaningless phrases like “we don’t shoot to kill”, “error of judgment”, “a case of mistaken identity” or “the army fired in self-defence”.
These instances from Budgam and Kulgam do not sound too different from an incident that took place on April 30, 2010, more than four years ago, when army men killed three Kashmiri civilians (Shahzad Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Shafi Lone, Riyaz Ahmad Lone) in a fake encounter in the Machil area of northern Kashmir’s Kupwara district near the Line of Control (LoC).
The trio, dubbed by the army as militants, was lured to work as porters for the army and killed to collect monetary rewards and win easy promotions.
A month after this incident, the army ordered an inquiry while in July the same year, Jammu & Kashmir Police filed a charge sheet against a Colonel, two Majors, five other soldiers and three civilians.
Kashmir was on the boil. Infuriated people staged massive anti-India and pro-independence demonstrations on the streets of Srinagar against the Machil fake encounter.
But the state's brutal response to all these demonstrations was such that 120 protesters (mostly teenagers), were killed in police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) firing incidents from April to October.
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Four-and-a-half years later, the Indian army has broken the monotonous routine and through its summary general court martial convicted the then Commanding Officer of 4 Rajput Regiment Colonel D K Pathania, Captain Upendra Singh, Subedar Satbir Singh, Havaldar Bur Singh, Sepoy Chandraban, Nagendra Singh and Narinder Singh.
The Indian army sentenced five of its men, including two officers, to life imprisonment for staging a fake encounter in Machil.
Another accused in the said fake encounter, Abbas Hussain Shah, who was accused of luring the trio to work as porters for the army, has been exonerated by the army’s court martial.
Jammu and Kashmir’s embattled Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, described the army’s verdict as a “watershed moment”.
However, Kashmir’s vibrant civil society in a press release has said that the Indian army’s court-martial verdict is neither any new beginning nor a watershed moment for Jammu and Kashmir but “an illustrative case of the manner in which political considerations and interests of the Indian army overrule larger principles of justice and accountability”.
Alluding to the latest killings at the hands of the Indian army in Kashmir, the J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) further said that the army’s apparent justice mechanism should have brought a change on ground but the fact is that killings continue unabated.
The JKCCS press release also makes a reference to the alleged mass rape in Kunan Poshpora (1991) and the Pathribal fake encounter (2000) to bring home the point.
At least 40 women from Kunan Poshpora village in Kashmir’s frontier Kupwara district were allegedly gang raped by army men on February 23-24 in 1991. Little seems to have been done to address these allegations.
In March 2000, the Indian army claimed to have “neutralised” five “terrorists” in Pathribal area of southern Kashmir, whom the army blamed for killing 35 members of the minority Sikh community in Chhattisinghpora, Anantnag.
India’s premier investigating agency, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted an inquiry and found that those killed by the army in the ‘encounter’ were local labourers. The CBI also filed a charge sheet against the guilty army officers and soldiers in 2006 but nothing substantial has happened since. No one has been punished.
In July 2005, the army killed four teenage boys in Kupwara district.
In February 2006, four more Kashmiri boys were killed by the Indian army while playing cricket. No one was punished.
For the past two-and-a-half decades, killings of innocent people has been routine. Suspicions, arrests, disappearances, killings, probes, denials, protest demonstrations, condemnations, condolences, curfews — all are part of an all too familiar vicious cycle and our daily lives.
Memories of my own childhood brim full with such incidents.
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Therefore, we can only a hope that the Machil court-martial verdict is not a political gimmick before the just-around-the-corner Assembly elections in the region.
In most of the cases since 1989 where civilians were killed by personnel from the army, paramilitary CRPF and region police, the perpetrators have escaped punishment.
Justice is awaited. No one should be allowed to enter, shoot and leave.