Why freedom is a war-cry in Kashmir

The December 17, 2012, ruthless assault and gang rape of a 23-year-old college-going girl on a moving bus in New Delhi shook the nation. Irate protesters, mostly youths, poured out on the streets the next day. As the victim battled for her life on a hospital bed, people across India protested and prayed simultaneously. She was air-lifted to Singapore for advanced treatment and finally succumbed to her injuries there after 13 days. 

Young protesters in Delhi had to face the wrath of police as they marched on heavily fortified Raisina Hill, the president's official residence. Tear-gas, water cannons and lathis (cane batons) were employed against the enraged mob of protesters who were demanding death for the accused and more stringent laws to deal with rapists. 

The degree of outrage against the rape is heartening. However, this was not an isolated case, and certainly not the first time such a gruesome incident has taken place. It has brought back the haunting memories of Kunan Poshpora, a small hamlet in North Kashmir, where at least 53 women were gang-raped on February 23, 1991, by Indian security forces. Two decades on, there has been no action against the accused cops from the Fourth Rajputana Rifles. 

A double rape and murder case in 2009 also comes to mind. There, two young women, Aasiya and Neelofar, were abducted, gang-raped and murdered in mysterious circumstances on the intervening night of May 29 and 30, 2009, at Bongam, Shopian in North Kashmir. Locals accused personnel from India's Central Reserve Police Force of the crime, but the case was carefully shelved to avoid embarrassment for the security forces. 

Crimes, perpetrators and inaction
On December 6, 2012, the International Peoples' Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) released a report -"Alleged Perpetrators - Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir". The report, a painstaking research work of two years, used data from official state documents and witness testimonies, examined 214 cases of gross human-rights abuses and the role of 500 alleged perpetrators. 

Among the 500 perpetrators were 235 army personnel, 123 paramilitary personnel, 111 Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel and 31 government-backed associates. The list of alleged perpetrators included many heavyweights, including two major generals, three brigadiers, nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels, 78 majors and 25 captains. The list also included 37 senior officials of the federal paramilitary forces, a retired director general of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, and a serving inspector general. 

"Cases presented in this report reveal that there is a policy to not genuinely investigate or prosecute the armed forces for human-rights violations," said a press handout by the IPTK. 

Taking serious cognizance of the report, Amnesty International called for an "impartial probe into the allegations of human-rights violations made in a report". The Asian Federation Against Enforced Disappearances said the study "clearly points to a high level of command decision, given the involvement of top ranking officers of the Indian Army, the highest of them a Major General. If used to the full, it will go a long way towards the unveiling of the truth, the prosecution of perpetrators, reparation for victims and the non-repetition of human-rights violations in this paradise lost". 

However, the findings of report, notwithstanding their gravity and seriousness, have gone largely unnoticed in mainstream Indian media. 

A state of perpetual denial
A sense of alienation between the people of Kashmir and India has reached its climax. However, people in New Delhi and other cities in India still have one prickly question on their mind which occasionally brings out their patriotic outrage against anything they perceive as "anti-national" and dangerous to the "sovereignty" of India. That is the question of "azadi" or "freedom".
For people in India, the definition of azadi still appears hazy. "What do Kashmiris want?" asks a journalist friend of mine from South Delhi. "Azadi," I tell him. He appears bemused, almost fuming. "But what does azadi mean to you. Aren't you free already," he asks with a puckered brow. "If living under the specter of terror and breathing through the barrel of Kalashnikovs is what you call azadi, then we are more azad [free] than you," I retort. He retreats, with exasperated looks. 

Azadi is not a strange beast or a hydra-headed monster. It means people demanding their basic and fundamental right to lead a dignified life. It means breaking free from the specter of repressive laws which provide police and armed forces with extraordinary powers. Azadi means justice for the 100,000 Kashmiris killed in last two decades of conflict. It means justice for the 7,000-odd custodial killings, and the 3,700 people who have vanished under mysterious circumstances in past two decades. 

Kashmir happens to be the most militarized zone in world, more than Iraq and Afghanistan. The struggle for the right to self-determination has a long history because Kashmir has always been ruled by "outsiders". 

Massacres and a culture of impunity
The people of India need to be reminded of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's 1947 promise at Lalchowk Srinagar, where he spoke to a large gathering accompanied by his friend Shiekh Abdullah. They should be reminded about the umpteen United Nations resolutions on Kashmir and how successive regimes in New Delhi made a mockery of them. 

Speaking of killings, massacres, carnage; they need to be told about the Gaw Kadal Massacre on January 20, 1990, when Indian police opened on Kashmiri protesters, killing an estimated 200. Author Victoria Schofield in her book Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War calls it the "worst massacre in Kashmiri history". This massacre took place just a day after New Delhi sent Jagmohan as governor to Kashmir. 

The Chhatisingpora massacre that took place on March 20, 2000, is another blot on India's history. Around 15 armed personnel entered the village of Chattisinghpora in Anantnag district, lined up 34 men and boys belonging to Sikh community in an open field and mowed them down in cold blood. This happened on the eve of the then US president Bill Clinton's visit to India. No army personnel were prosecuted in the case. 

Five days after the Chattisinghpora massacre, a battalion of Indian troopers gunned down seven men in Pathribal village of Anantnag district, dubbing them as "foreign militants" responsible for Chhatisingpora. Last year on March 19, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said that those officers taking part in the Pathribal killings, "were cold-blooded murders and deserve to be meted out exemplary punishment". 

The Zakoora massacre occurred on March 1, 1990, when thousands of protestors decided to approach a United Nations Military Observer Group office in Srinagar, next to the chief minister's Gupkar Road residence, to protest against the policies of governor Jagmohan. Army bullets left 26 dead. 

The Tengpora massacre took place on the same day, when 21 more Kashmiri people, totally unarmed, were killed by the Indian army at a bus stop in Tengpora, Srinagar. The dead included five women. There is also the Handwara Massacre, when nine civilians were shot dead by border security forces on January 25, 1990, in frontier district of Handwara. The list goes on. 

The new 'intafada'
The years 2009 to 2010 brought back memories of the 1990s when the resistance movement was at its peak. Many people were killed, most of them innocents. A 45-year old physically challenged man, Abdul Rashid Reshi, was shot dead on January 7, 2009, near CM's high-security bungalow in Srinagar. A 17-year old Amina fell to bullets on May 12, 2009, in an "exchange of fire". Neelofar (24) and Asiya Jan (17) of Shopian were raped and murdered on May 29, 2009. Final-year student Amina Masoodi of Doolipora Trahgam was killed inside her house during the night intervening of July 8 and 9, 2009. 

Inayat (16) was shot dead on January 08, 2009, followed by Wamiq (13) on January 31 and Zahid (16) on February 5. Habibullah Khan of Handwara, a beggar, was mowed down on April 13 and passed off as "veteran militant". Shehzad Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmed of Rafiabad were mowed down in a fake encounter in Machil and dubbed as "militants". 

Tufail Ahmad (17), whose death gave fresh impetus to the spirit of rebellion among Kashmiris, was killed while returning from lessons on June 11, 2010. Asif Ahmed Rather, a nine-year-old from Baramulla was literally bludgeoned to death. Mukhtar Ahmad Sheikh, 68, a father of five children, including three daughters was shot dead by the army's 21 Rashtriya Rifles in the Bawan Watser forest area. The army said the man was killed in an encounter between militants and the army. 

These were followed by even more brutal killings of Ishtiyaq Ahmed Khanday (15) on June 29, 2010, Shajat-ul-Islam (18) on same day, and Muzaffar Bhat (17) and Abrar Ahmad (18) on July 6. An 11-year-old Irshad Parray, of Islamabad, fell to fire by police while protesting against the earlier incident of women being beaten by police and the CRPF. One injured boy died on his mother's lap near Batamallo bus stand during curfew on August 2010. There were more than 150 killings, mostly teenagers, in 2009-10 alone. 

Vanished into thin air?
Nazima Jan of Tathmulla Uri in Baramulla district has been waiting for her "missing" three brothers for 15 years. She, along with the kith and kin of other missing persons, gather in Partap Park Srinagar on the 10th and 28th day of every month to register their protest against enforced custodial disappearances in Kashmir. They have formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). 

A 48-page report "Half Widow, Half Wife" by the APDP speaks about the conundrum of "missing versus disappeared". It says the fact that men have disappeared and not been declared dead has left thousands of children and women (half-widows) in a hopeless state with no legal protection. 

Activists claim that close to 8,000 people have gone missing in the region over the past 20 years. The IPTK in Kashmir in its report released in December 2009 revealed 2,700 unmarked graves containing more than 2,900 bodies in more than 50 villages in northern Kashmir. Due to operational constraints, the research was confined to few select villages so they suspect the number could be much higher. In August 2011, the 11-member police investigation team of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) verified 2,156 unidentified bodies in unidentified graves in Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts. 

Arrested, persecuted and released
The tales of horror do not stop in Kashmir. Many Kashmiris have faced the music in different states of India. There have been many instances where Kashmiri journalists, academics, artists and students have been abused, vilified, and targeted by state and its agencies outside Kashmir. 

Syed Maqbool Shah (32) was aged 17 when he was arrested by Delhi Police on 17 June, 1996, in Lajpat Nagar. He was holidaying in Delhi when he was arrested in connection with the Lajpat Nagar bombings of 21 May, 1996. He was sent to Tihar Jail, and released on 8 April, 2010, after almost 14 years, due to "lack of sufficient evidence". 

Mirza Iftikhar Hussain (40) used to run a Kashmiri handicrafts shop in Mussoorie (UP), and had come to Delhi when he was arrested in Bhogal on 14 June 1996. He was also accused of involvement in the 21 May, 1996, Lajpat Nagar blasts. He was set free on April 08, 2010, after 13 years, 10 months and 25 days, again for want of foolproof evidence. 

Shakeel Ahmad Khan had a government job in Srinagar. He had come to Delhi when he was arrested on 24 April, 1992, in Lajpat Nagar for allegedly plotting to kill Bharatiya Janata Party politicians. He was released in August 2002 after serving almost 10 years behind bars, again for lack of evidence. 

Delhi University Professor SAR Geelani was arrested in the 2001 parliament attack case and was later acquitted after some human rights activists took up his case. There are still more questions than answers in the case of Afzal Guru, who has been sentenced to death in the parliament attack case, to satisfy the "collective conscience of the society". What makes the "death sentence" gross and disproportionate, according to legal experts, is the fact that Guru's case is riddled with many loopholes and he was not defended properly at the trail court. 

The case of Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani is most peculiar. He was arrested in June 2002 for allegedly "violating" the Indian Official Secrets Act 1923. He was accused of being a Pakistani spy after police found some "documents" in his possession which otherwise are freely available on the Internet. He spent nine months behind bars and was finally acquitted for lack of evidence. 

Life in Kashmir remains crippled. The political leadership has failed and the economy is in tatters. No matter what the tourism ministry says, normalcy seems like a far-fetched dream. The fate of the strife-torn state hangs in balance. As the youth on streets would tell you, it is no more about the political or economic packages, half-hearted pronouncements, or cosmetic confidence-building measures. 

The resounding war-cry on the streets of Kashmir is "azadi" - complete freedom from the specter of oppression, repression, humiliation, and occupation. 

Syed Zafar Mehdi is a 26-year-old New Delhi based journalist, born and brought up in Kashmir. His writings have featured in newspapers and websites across the world. He blogs at www.liveaxle.wordpress.com and can be reached at [email protected] 

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