By Amrita Garg:
“Kashmir is a film heroine and as in every Bollywood film, there is a hero and there is aÂ villain,”Â remarks a Kashmiri boatman, when asked about the relationship between the army and the locals. Who is whom, you ask, and he smiles enigmatically.
This is the best description of a turbulent relationship that has, time and again, threatened to rip apart the fabric of Kashmiri society. With the army a constant presence in the valley since the imposition of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990, the erstwhile paradise resembles a pressure cooker of sorts, always simmering with tension and animosity.
In the wake of the recent floods in many parts of the state, the media discourse has largely centred on the heroic rescue operations led by the Indian Army and the Air Force, wherein the men in uniform rescuedÂ thousands from the clutches of death. Little mention, however, was made of ordinary people like Mudabir Jaleel, a volunteer in his mid-thirties, who made a raft from empty petrol barrels tied together with rope, and rescued hundreds of people at a time when he could not reach his own sister. Going a step further, the media have demanded that separatists be chastened and the people of Kashmir reaffirm their allegiance to India in return for the relief efforts. In reply, noted activist Kavita Krishnan wrote, “Shame on channels that try to use Army relief work in flood-hit J&K to justify AFSPA and Army deployment there! Shame on attempts to use humanitarian work to justify inhumane crimes.” This, then, is the crux of the problem.
Can the floods, which washed away large chunks of cities and towns, also be reasonably expected to wash away the collective memory of a people suffering under the draconian laws imposed on them? Aimen Reshi, a young student, whose family was trapped for days in the floods, thinks not. She recounts the horrors of growing up in a place where gun toting Army personnel would stop anybody they wanted, enter any house they wished, check lunchboxes and detain innocent men whose hearts, they claimed, “beat like that of a terrorist.” She says that she applauds the rescue efforts of the army but not if it means using these as a rationale for the draconian AFSPA.
One of the main grievances against the army’s relief operations was that some parts of the disaster-struck areas were ignored in favour of rescuing VIPs and people with “contacts” on a priority basis, and help came in quite late. But in an interview, the Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. DS Hooda, who led the rescue of more than 2.3 lakh people, categorically denies these charges. He says there was absolutely no heirarchy followed in who would be helped first. He acknowledges the role of local volunteers in providing succour to the victims, especially in areas of Srinagar, where army presence is limited. Busting rumours of the Kashmiris turning down offers of help, he says, those were isolated incidents mainly due to pent up frustration and despair, and most were highly appreciative of the Army.
The question then is why do Kashmiris not forgive and forget? The fact is that these floods were a natural calamity, which saw the army pulling out all stops. This same army, however, has wreaked a disaster of its own in the valley. Too many people have images of the February 1991 mass rape by army personnel of the women of Kunan Poshpora villages painfully seared in their minds. Too many people remember Jaleel Andrabi, the human rights lawyer who was allegedly subjected to extrajudicial execution and whose corpse was later found floating in the Jhelum. There are too many widows and too many orphans.
Many voices, including that of the Chief Minister, have been raised against AFSPA and the havoc it leaves in its wake. But most of these voices fall silent on the Public Safety Act which provides for arresting and jailing a person without trial for two years on mere suspicion that he/she may disrupt law and order in the state, or may act in a manner prejudicial to the security of the state. Thousands of Enforced Disappearances have taken place since the promulgation of this act in 1978. For some mothers like Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year old son was arrested in 1990 by the armed forces and who now chairs the Association for Parents of Disappeared Persons, the search will never end.
We have seen it in the Punjab of the 1980s. The visits after dark, the muffled cries, the loss of innocence, the families left behind. It cannot and must not be swept under the carpet any more. Power should come with responsibility or it will lead to complete alienation within this Union of India. Patriotism must not give way to jingoism because, as the historian Howard Zinn put it, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”