Situationer: Valley of the dead civilians

Published March 7, 2018
SRINAGAR: Kashmiri protesters on Monday throw stones at Indian paramilitary soldiers amid tear gas smoke during a protest here.—AP
SRINAGAR: Kashmiri protesters on Monday throw stones at Indian paramilitary soldiers amid tear gas smoke during a protest here.—AP

TWENTY-EIGHT years ago — on March 1, 1990 — the Indian army killed more than 40 civilians in Kashmir valley in two incidents and the day has since been remembered as one of “the days of massacres”. Many such incidents followed, but no arrest was made. No one was punished. Nothing has come out of the unending battles for justice.

At the end of the same month, 23-year-old Ashfaq Majeed Wani, too, was killed. Wani was the first commander of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front — an armed group that launched the rebellion in Kashmir. Tens of thousands joined his funeral procession, vowing to continue his mission.

In the coming months and years, thousands were killed, maimed or arrested. In scores of human rights violations documented by rights groups, no government functionary was punished. The killings went on.

Today, after almost three decades, we are seeing same Ashfaqs, as well as similar but low-intensity incidents of killings, and the same policy of no prosecution. It didn’t lead anywhere back then and it is leading nowhere now.

Violence against civilians, in any form a crime as per war laws, only turns the complex Kashmir dispute more frenzied and bloodied.

The latest flare-up in the Valley came on Sunday evening, a time when people were preparing for the next working day like everyone else and children were excited to go back to school after a long winter break. But in Shopian, 60kms south of Srinagar, four young men were living the last day of their lives. On Monday morning they were laid to rest by thousands of people. A pall of gloom descended on the Valley.

Suhail Khalil Wagay, Mohammad Shahid Khan, Shahnawaz Ahmad Wagay and Gowhar Ahmad Lone — all thought to be under 25 — were shot dead by the Indian army. It is said two combatants, Aamir Ahmed Malik and Ashiq Hussain, were killed during a shootout as well. Combatants leave their homes knowing they have to die, but civilians are only looking for ways to survive amid bloodshed and strife. Interestingly, while the Indian army claimed that the four civilians were facilitators of the militants, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti called them “civilians caught in the crossfire”.

Logical conclusion

When these four youths were being buried amid sobs, India’s Supreme Court was hearing a case of previous killings by the army in the same district. On Jan 27, when an army unit, led by Major Aditya, killed five civilians, Mehbooba Mufti had said that the case would be taken to its “logical conclusion”. But on Monday, her government told the court that the major was not an accused in the case, even though his name appeared in bold letters in the first information report (FIR) seen by many on social media. The army and other government agencies enjoy impunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The demand for its withdrawal also seems to be withdrawing from the conscience of mainstream political leaders.

In response to the state government’s move, the court halted the investigations, saying that since the major is an army officer, he cannot be treated as a criminal. These developments sent a loud and clear message: the army will not be prosecuted for its human rights violations.

In Kashmir, the term justice is rarely used anymore as it sounds hollow. Even the state government changed its position from “logical conclusion” to “the major wasn’t an accused”.

The court proceedings on Monday, a big turnout at the funeral processions of militants and the four civilians, and the multi-layered statements by politicians lead one to conclude that the situation in Kashmir is far from normal. Since the day the Mufti-led government took charge, it has only worsened prospects of peace. Communal harmony and fundamental rights stand eroded, institutions weakened, nepotism is rife, killings and clampdowns are the norm and the future uncertain.

There has been nothing new from March 1990 to March this year. The only uncommon denominator is that casualties have come down. But it is said the killing of one person is equal to killing the entire humanity.

Change would have been possible in Kashmir if justice was delivered impartially, if human rights violations were investigated and the guilty booked. An image cultivated through the media but not backed by any political initiative, has turned the region into a tinderbox.

The people of Kashmir are pining for a resolution of the conflict through dialogue so that they are able to lead normal lives.

Fahad Shah is a journalist and editor, whose works appear in Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, The Diplomat and the CSMonitor. He is also the Director of The Kashmir Institute — a Srinagar-based policy institute. He can be followed at @pzfahad

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2018

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