“…From windows we hear
Grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
On us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
It cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
The homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning:”
-- (Agha Shahid Ali: The Country Without a Post Office)
Ever since the government of India launched its Operation All Out in the early spring of 2017 against armed militants in Kashmir valley, the fundamental rights of people, especially those living in the rural hinterland, continue to be violated on a massive scale. There is no sense of dignity and their basic right to life appears to have been under the constant threat with the increasing military siege that has resulted because of this deadly operation.
As the rural hinterland has become a site of many deadly battles between armed militants and government forces, the result has been a heavy toll on human. More than 300 militants, mostly locals, including many top commanders, have been killed so far. At least 140 civilians, mostly youth, have also been killed and hundreds of others either blinded or injured in protests near encounter sites during this period.
The worst of these civilian atrocities took place on two occasions---in Kulgam district on October 21, 2018, when an explosive left behind by government forces after an encounter exploded killing eight civilians besides injuring dozens of others, and in Pulwama district on December 15, 2018, when the Army opened fire on protestors near an encounter site killing seven civilians and injuring many others.
In the same period, militants, too, resorted to abductions and killing of some off-duty local forces personnel, political workers and even alleged informers, although the number is far less. Nearly 250 government personnel, including Army, paramilitary and police, have also been killed in the attacks and gun battles during the same period. Hundreds of houses and other huge material property belonging mainly to Kashmir’s working class and peasantry have also been destroyed in the encounters as government forces aim to neutralise defiant militants stuck in localities by using heavy mortar shells and explosives.
It is not that the period prior to the Operation All Out was any peaceful; the 2016 civil uprising had seen 100 civilian killings and blindings of over 1,000 people. And, unspeakable as the fact is, it all keeps happening with a recurring pattern. This is the daily depressing tale of Kashmir’s rural life, where blood and life flow together. Imagine, the horrors of a population living under such conditions day in and day out.
Killings are only one facet of this horrible existence; the exacerbated military influx which Operation All Out brought into the rural hinterland has just trampled whatever civil rights were left unviolated by the state till then. While all the focus has been on the recent India-Pakistan standoff and the de-escalation thereof, one wonders what has changed for the people who are living under the constant shadow of military siege and war-like conditions?
While in the past, incidents like Kulgam and Pulwama, would have invoked some “regret” on the part of the authorities, no such a thing happens now because the killings are happening with regularity, and Indian state is on a declared full-fledged war of sorts in Kashmir. In the past month, military concentration has increased and dissent is widely being suppressed. Leave aside punishing the guilty, not an even FIR has been lodged in the civilian killings because there is complete impunity sanctioned by the state through its draconian laws, which is ever increasing these days.
Bizarre and ironical as it may sound, but the cases are often closed by laying the blame on the dead themselves. This impunity has undoubtedly exacerbated ever since General Bipin Rawat was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Army chief while ignoring the two senior generals (General Praveen Bakshi and General Mohamadali Hariz). After General Rawat assumed office, he publicly started talking tough on Kashmiri protestors who were notoriously categorised by him as “over ground workers of militants.”
After this, the killings of civilians especially teenagers, during protests also witnessed an increase and so did other forms of repression. This hard posturing also saw General Rawat openly commending Major Leetul Gogoi for making a Kashmiri voter a human shield in Budgam in order to control stone-pelters. This was interpreted as a message to all field units involved in anti-militancy operations that such extreme measures were needed to tackle dissent in Kashmir.
It is noteworthy that previous generals (notably the former GOC of the Northern Command, Lt. Gen. Hooda during the 2016 protests) had repeatedly resisted the use of Army for tackling stone-pelting protestors. But ever since General Rawat has taken charge, there is a visible change in how the Army has now taken it upon itself to deal with protestors instead of letting the police deal with it. Since the Army is not equipped with batons, teargas shells and other non-lethal weapons to deal with the protestors, it uses its assault rifles against the protestors which have inevitably resulted in a high number of civilian casualties in the last two years.
Recently, during a press conference when a journalist questioned the General Officer Commanding of Army’s Chinar Corps about the Army excesses and its role in alienating teenagers, his typical reply was that it was “Pakistani propaganda” and that “Indian Army does not commit any excesses.” This is the kind of thinking that informs the state and its institutions, especially those in charge of the security apparatus.
As if the horrendous conditions of the last two decades were not enough, Operation All Out has enhanced military concentration in Kashmir and besieged the population further. All this has been carried out with utter disregard for law and life. In many ways, it is the Army that now controls the lives of the hapless residents in the rural hinterland. It is in many ways reminiscent of the early 1990s with the only difference perhaps that military concentration is much higher now than it was during those years. Many new Army camps, paramilitary and the SOG have been established at various locations, especially in South Kashmir, roughly a distance of five kilometers separating each. Prior to 2016, only two brigades were stationed in South Kashmir, these have now almost doubled. Many of these units established in the middle of localities are a cause of lot of harassment to the general populace. Barricades have been erected on different roads connecting various districts and tehsils. People of all ages travelling in both public and private vehicles are routinely frisked and humiliated. Many of these camps close the various roads and make them no-go zones during the night. Besides the obvious physical trouble to the people, this is also impacting farming and other economic activities, and even social intermingling.
The unprecedented military siege in rural Kashmir has also meant that the Army has exacerbated its panoptic presence there. The privacy of residents is being routinely breached and they are being subjected to humiliation. Family homes are often reconnoitered to get a full track of the personal details of the family members including females. At times, cellphones and laptops of students are confiscated and searched without any reason. Young students, Imams and even village elders in many areas, including in the locality where this writer lives, are frequently summoned to the field camps by the Army where they are subjected to physical and psychological torture.
There has certainly been an increase in the cordon and search operations (CASOs) and flush-outs in various areas. Every day, one village or sometimes more than one village is put under the CASO in different districts. During these CASOs, inmates are taken out of their houses while the searches are carried out by barging into the family homes. Use of human shields while searching the houses is a regular feature of these CASOs. A family head was killed in an encounter in Pulwama last month when he was allegedly used as a human shield.
Young boys under the frivolous pretext of being “Over Ground Workers” are being arrested and tortured at the notorious Joint Interrogation Centres (JICs) manned by the SOG of Jammu and Kashmir. In these illegal detention centres, people are detained for a prolonged period without any FIR or charge-sheet while brutal methods of torture are inflicted upon them.
Amidst all this, one is not able to make out how the much abused “peace and normalcy” is going to be restored in such circumstances? Tragically, this is the new “normal” which Kashmiris, especially rural Kashmiris, have been living through for quite some time now. One can only imagine the lives of common Kashmiris in such scary situation.
The writer is a blogger and a youth activist based in Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir. The views are personal.