I had wanted to go to Kashmir ever since I visited Palestine in 2007. There are many similarities in the nature of the occupation as well as the struggles, both being nearly 63 years old. One difference is that while Israel is seen as an external occupying force in Palestine, the Kashmir issue is considered an ‘internal’ matter or a conflict between Pakistan and India and the voice of Kashmiris is often lost. As a result there are fewer international organizations monitoring the region and little information about the extent and impact of the occupation gets out.
A lay off from my company in August 2009 gave me the perfect opportunity to visit the region, called ‘a paradise on earth’ by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The unanimous message I heard as I traveled and spoke to journalists, taxi drivers, pony riders, waiters, students and teachers was that they want azadi (independence); freedom from the occupation by India.
As a Muslim minority who grew up in India, it took me some years to take a position on the Kashmir issue. My visit to Palestine forced me to analyze why I could show solidarity with Palestinians but remain unsure about Kashmir. I was also falling into the trap many Indian Muslims do – if only Kashmiris would give up their struggle against the Indian government there would be peace for Muslims in the rest of India and the scars of partition would be gone.
The first striking view of the capital city Srinagar from the landing airplane was the breathtaking beauty of the magnificent Himalayas in the backdrop of a long stretch of army tents and buildings along the runway. Six army men stood around the plane guarding with guns. I wanted to take a picture but was advised against it by my neighbor.
The extent of militarization is appalling. There are 700,000 troops and 70,000 police forces for a population of roughly 10 million. The Indian military has been conducting training sessions with Israel on how to curb resistance in Kashmir. Checkpoints and detention centers (which also turn into torture centers) are all over the valley. “There are more soldiers here than in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said Qazi Mir, my taxi driver who often drove journalists to cover news stories. “How do Indians expect us to be part of their country? Do they know what it is like to live surrounded by armed men?” he asked. The combined troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in March 2010 were roughly around 250,000.
A senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer admitted that unless the longstanding grievances of injustice and suppression of civil liberties are addressed in a fair manner there will never be peace. “Things are better now. Our forces have been reduced but we are still very distant from a healing process”, he said as we chatted during iftaar (the breaking of the Ramadan fast) at an old family friend’s place. Tired of the violence, some members of their family had moved to Delhi during the 1990s.
The nature of the struggle has changed over the years. Non-violent protests and isolated incidences of violence had been taking place for some years. A rigged election in 1987 which lead to massive protests was a turning point. Images of the first intifada(uprising) in Palestine the same year were an inspiration. However, the fraud elections lead to a feeling of deceit and frustration that evolved into a violent insurgency throughout the 1990s. Kashmiris felt that democratic and peaceful means of resistance were choked.
With the rise in arrests, torture, killings and rape by Indian soldiers, young men started taking up arms. Pakistan took advantage of the frustrations of the Kashmiris and started arming groups like Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Harkatul Mujahedeen. The US-lead mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against the Soviets also had an influence in shaping the 1990s resistance. More than 300,000 Kashmiris, mostly Hindu pundits were displaced.
Jawed Bukhari was part of the armed resistance but gave up arms some years ago. He now works on documenting missing and torture cases. “Some years ago we were worried about whether the next generation will continue our struggle,” he said. “Now we have no worries. We don’t need an armed struggle anymore. The civil society has taken on the resistance through non-violent actions like strikes and protests,” he continued. The last twenty years of oppression, torture and humiliation has given rise to a more mature, sustained and united resistance movement.
Massive protests in July-August 2008 against the state government’s decision to transfer 100 acres of land to the Amaranth Shrine Board are the best example of this new form of uprising. The state said that the land would be used to build toilets and huts for Hindu pilgrims visiting a cave in the mountain ranges in the state. Thousands of acres of land including forests, hills, orchards and schools had already been taken over by the armed forces over the years. Kashmiris perceived this as occupation of their land, similar to tactics of settlement building by Israel in West Bank. Thousands of people, young and old, men and women, came out on the streets all across the valley in cities and villages.
The only company on the road to Gulmarg, a beautiful city I had pleasant memories of from my visit as a young girl in 1984 was a trail of military trucks. Sadly a lot of the prime land there has turned into an army camp. As we drove through the lush green rolling mountains Mir pointed to a hut where the Hindi film, Bobby was shot. I could visualize Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia singing “Hum tum ek kamre mein band hon”. Prior to the late 1980s Indian films often depicted Kashmir as a romantic and exotic place for Indians, masking the lives and tribulations of Kashmiris .
“How can we forget what the army did to our women? One day we will be independent, Inshallah. We know that,” said an old pony owner as we rode towards a glacier. When he pointed out to a far off mountain range on the Pakistan border I asked him if he would want to be part of Pakistan. “We just want an independent Kashmir. What has Pakistan done for us,” he said.
I was lucky to be in Srinagar at a time when two important conferences were taking place. The first was by a delegation of women from Delhi to investigate the Shopian case. The other was on ‘Half Widows and Orphans’ to mark the International day of the Disappeared organized by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). I was stopped at a checkpoint a few meters before the venue for the APDP conference. It reminded me of the checkpoints in West Bank. The policemen let me go after asking where I had come from and why and where I was going. It was an important conference and the police were keeping an eye.
Half widows are women whose husbands have been missing but have not been declared dead. They are neither widow nor can they remarry. In desperate search and hope that one day their husbands will return, these women lead a life of immense stress and hardship. They often don’t qualify for support from NGOs since there is no clause for ‘half widows’.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives authorities special powers to search and arrest without a warrant. Anyone qualifies as a suspect. “This is what leads to large scale human rights violations and torture,” explained Parvez Imroze, human rights activist and founder of APDP and Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). His organization also monitors elections.
The act has been in place in the Northeastern states since 1958 and was introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. State authorities have the right to detain persons without charge or judicial review for as long as two years. During this time family members do not have access to detainees, and detainees do not have access to legal counsel. “There have been only 15 cases of militants abducting civilians and military men in 20 years. In contrast, armed forces are responsible for 10,000 missing persons. Families of missing persons struggle for justice for years. This is a failure of the judicial system,” Imroze continued. His life has often been under threat and is closely monitored by the Indian state.
“The Shopian case is another example of failure of the state and its judicial system,” Imroze said. On May 29, 2009 relatives and police discovered the bodies of two women in a stream in Shopian. Local residents and examining doctors alleged that Indian security forces committed gang rape before killing them. Uproar and protests by local residents brought attention to the case which could have easily have fallen into a black hole. “A few years ago only a few would come out to protest. Now thousands are out on the streets,” noted Imroze.
This is by no means an isolated incidence. There are thousands of cases of rape, torture, abuse and disappearances by the Indian armed forces. Most have not received any justice. BURIED EVIDENCE documents 2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing more than 2,943 bodies, across 55 villages in Kashmir . Such news is often invisible in global and Indian media. The report was published in 2009 byInternational People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, a rare collaborative effort by Kashmiris and non-Kashmiri Indians.
The delegation of Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice from Delhi held a press conference after visiting Shopian. They made a strong statement about the failure of the state government in conducting a fair investigation and highlighted the plight of women in the valley. One of them pointed out that the water was too shallow to drown. It may be noted that an investigation by The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) later that year however ruled out rape.
A woman stood up and said that normal dreams and aspirations have been made impossible. Another man asked why it had taken the delegation three months to pay a visit and what they would do after going back to Delhi. Quite often fact finding delegations from India frame the issue as a human rights issue but avoid addressing it in a larger political context. The delegation laid emphasis on the fact that the armed forces were there to protect and ensure justice but were not doing their job properly.
The truth is that Kashmiris don’t see the armed forces as protectors at all. They perceive their presence as an occupation. The investigation report published later gave a very detailed and candid account of persistent abuse of power, injustice and violation of human rights but seemed to make a distinction between the Indian political system and the military.
A journalist friend, reporting from the valley for many years explained the complex and institutionalized nature of the occupation. “Kashmir is given subsidies by India to make it more dependent on India,” he informed me. Historically Kashmir has been rich in natural resources and is world known for its dry fruits, carpets and papier-mâché products. “Subsidies destroy the local economy,” he explained.
He also highlighted the psychological impact on the social fabric of the society and the internalization of the violence. Mothers live in anxiety, not knowing when their son or husband may be on the ‘missing’ list. Families are scared to send their daughters to universities.
Saleem Dar, a shopkeeper I bought phirans and shawls from told me that he had sent his daughter to Nepal to study because it was safer and cheaper there. He used to export carpets but they had declined significantly over the past decade (post 9/11). He was in favor of autonomy instead of independence but wanted the military forces to be withdrawn. “The Indian government will not do a plebiscite because they know the outcome will not be favorable to them,” he noted. He was referring to the 1949 UN Security Council resolutions passed after Pakistan had attacked India leading to one third of Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan. The plebiscite, which hasn’t yet taken place due to political disagreements between India and Pakistan, was supposed to allow Kashmiris the right to self determination.
After talking to local residents I realized many Kashmiris in the valley considered the rule of independent India an extension of the rule of Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh, known for oppressing the majority Muslim community. He had acceded to India in 1947 against the wishes of the majority population. This belief only solidified as the Indian government used brutal military tactics to curb insurgency in the 1990s.
Without understanding the situation in the valley, it is difficult for an Indian to face the reality of the aspirations of Kashmiris for an independent state. An open debate on the issue is avoided because Kashmir is considered an integral part of India. Kashmiris however address India as a different country. When I said “I am from Delhi,” they replied back saying “oh, you have come from India!” “But are you a Muslim?” they questioned on hearing my name. Perhaps being a Muslim made it easy to gain their trust and enabled me to openly discuss their struggles and aspirations.
Ameena Hussain, a school teacher asked me what it was like to live as an oppressed minority in India. “Why would Kashmiris want to be part of India given what it has been doing to minorities there?” she asked. “You know, Kashmir is the only state with a Muslim majority,” she continued. She reminded me of the riots in Bombay (called Mumbai now) following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the massacres of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. I was living in India when the two tragic events unfolded.
It was an interesting perspective from the other side. Kashmir is often used as a fuel to ignite anti-communal feelings. As an Indian Muslim I partly blamed Kashmir for our problems. After talking to the local residents of the valley I realized Muslims in rest of India have to fight their own battle for justice and equality. Having visited Ahmedabad, Gujarat on the same trip I acknowledge it is easy for me to say this sitting in the US.
Kashmir is not the only place where India is exercising its might. As the war against the poor tribals in eastern and central India escalates, the question is how long India, proud to call itself the world’s largest democracy, will continue oppressing its own people?
Can democracy under the barrel of a gun be truly called a democracy?
YASMIN QURESHI is a Bay Area, CA professional and human rights activist involved in social justice movements in South Asia and Palestine. She works closely with the youth and has conducted workshops on activism. Her article, “Gaza Shakes Arab and Muslim Youth“was published by ElectronicIntifada.net.
1. Huma Dar, Cinematic Strategies for a Porno-tropic Kashmir and Some Counter, 2007
2. BURIED EVIDENCE, Angana Chatterji, Parvez Imroze, et al, International People’s Tribunal On Human Rights and Justice in India-Administered Kashmir, 2009