The complexity of the freedom movement in Kashmir is not surprising, given the myriad dimensions involved in any secessionist movement. However, what is shocking, is the existence of a polarized view on what should ideally be an objective fact; whether or not the majority of the Kashmiris identify as Indians; whether or not mass graves exist in Kashmir; whether or not human rights violations are perpetrated by the armed forces, are not matters on which people can have varying views.
Time and again, we’ve heard of atrocities; the violation of basic dignity; the massacre of the concept of individual liberty; the abuses hurled at the AFSPA, whilst the Army is accused of perpetrating violence in J&K. However, in this entire scenario, there is another side to the story – that, as seen from the eyes of the Army Man; which is interesting to note, as it helps point out how the two narratives are diametrically opposing.
I interviewed Retired Major General G.D. Bakshi, who served in the Army for over 40 years. He was even awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal, for distinguished service in commanding a battalion in operations in Kargil. In 2008, he was posted in J&K, with about 25,000 men under him. He is a well known figure: a common face on the television, and a recurrent invitee for talks at university campuses across the country. Being an influential person, his voice is important for two reasons: one, because his opinions go a long way in ‘educating’ the masses, and giving them a perspective on Kashmir, that they believe to be the one iron truth; two, it gives us a peek into the minds of the Army men functioning in the region, to understand the lens through which they view the conflict.
In response to the numerous questions asked by me, the following is the narrative of J&K, as provided by him.
It is well known that Kashmir’s fight against oppression dates back to the late 19th century, even before India and Pakistan, as we know it today, came into existence: be it the unrest against Maharaj Hari Singh’s autocratic rule;the incessant demands for a plebiscite between 1953-1975; the armed civilian uprising of the Kashmiris against the rule of Government of India in the 1990s; or the recent mobilizations and events of violence.
However, Major General Bakshi says that, contrary to public opinion, there is no separatist movement at large in the region. According to him, there was a poll held by one of the “Western European organisations” that very clearly stated that the majority of the people of Kashmir wanted to stay with India.
Despite the fact that democracy in Kashmir saw a weak beginning in 1951, when only 2 of the 75 seats were contested, and the opposition was not allowed to file nominations; that the elections between 1975-2000, never saw a turnout of more than 25%;that over the past two decades Srinagar, the capital of J&K, has never seen a voter turnout of more than 30.16% (1998), with the lowest being 7.14% (2017); that in the 2017 Srinagar bypoll elections only 80,000 of the 12.61 lakh electorates cast their vote; and these very elections were marred by deadly violence that left 8 dead and 200 injured, when only 80,000 of the 12.61 lakh electorates cast their vote, leading the Election Commission to order repolling of 38 booths in the Srinagar constituency; that until 1967, in many constituencies, considered ‘sensitive areas’, including Anantnag, Pulwana, Lolab, Karnah, Ganderbal and Kangan, the electorate was simply not allowed to vote; that the parliamentary voter turn-out for the year 2014 was a mere 49.25%, reflecting the disconnect between the people of Kashmir and the Centre; General Bakshi maintains that the elections are a very democratic, free and fair process, which witnesses voter turnouts of 60-70%, if not more. The people have been “freely voting for whichever candidate they want to”. He notes that ‘observers’ from foreign countries present in the Valley, have described the elections as “patently free and fair”. Therefore, he concludes that the majority are quite happy and satisfied with the current situation, “as they know their bread is buttered, and that they are taken care of”.
However, this does not fit in with the factual reality. If there are no separatist ideals in the minds of the people, as suggested by General Bakshi, then why is it that the death of terrorists such as Afzal Guru, who bombed the Parliament, are mourned as though they were martyrs? Why is that parts of Kashmir saw a shut down on 9th of February, 2017, to mark the fourth death anniversary of Afzal Guru? Why did the killing of Burhan Wani, the leader of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen lead to outbursts of anger and clashes that resulted in the death of 21 people and injured over 300? Why is it that 50,000 people congregated to mourn his death and join the funeral procession?
This is because the people of Kashmir, largely, do not identify themselves as Indians. Who the rest of India might view as a terrorist may be a hero for them, a martyr for them; after all, “One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter”.
Despite Pt. Jawahar Lal’s promise for a plebiscite; and the people’s incessant demands for freedom from the Indian rule, which were demonstrated by slogans such as “azaadi ya maut” during the mass mobilizations of 1953-1975; Major General Bakshi believes that concerns regarding a plebiscite are “not at all genuine”. He relies on the UNSC Resolution of 1948, to state that no plebiscite can be held in Kashmir, until and unless Pakistan withdraws troops from J&K.
Further, Major General Bakshi believes that there is no principle reason or legal basis, on which J&K can exist as a separate autonomous entity. For this, he provides two reasons: first, the Instrument of Accession; and second, is the more controversial, principle argument based on the idea of secularism: Indian Muslims in J&K must respect the sentiment of their Indian Muslim forefather who deliberately chose to remain in secular India, rather than to go to a theocratic Pakistan. He goes on to add, that the Indian Muslims in J&K must demonstrate their loyalty to the other Indian Muslims, by remaining with India.
He claims that the AFSPA is not as draconian as it is made out to be. He recalled his days in Kashmir, when they recovered 2,000 rockets, 18,000 AK47s, more than 80,000 grenades; he said, “the militants were building an army” and “were not afraid of violence”; therefore, he concludes, that AFSPA is a piece of legislation that is required to tackle the terrorism situation in Kashmir He relied on the case of Naga People’s Movement v. Union of India (1997), to defend the constitutionality of the Act;
“when the Apex Court of the country, which is a fairly respected one, not only upholds the constitutionality of the Act, but also suggests an increment in power granted to the officials, instead of reducing the powers; then who the hell are these NGOs who can say that the Supreme Court is wrong, and they are right?”
Given the emphasis placed on the credibility of the Supreme Court, we must also take into account the more recent opinion given by the Justice Verma Committee. It was a three-member commission, headed by Justice Verma, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India that was constituted in 2012 to review laws for sexual crimes. The Committee submitted its report in 2013, and inter alia, observed that the Act was legitimizing the impunity of systemic sexual crimes. In light of the heightened disregard for human rights and blatant misuse of the powers that are granted under he Act, the Committee suggested an imminent need to review the Act.
J&K, just like any other conflict-ridden region, suffers from a general breakdown of law and order, as a result of failure of state machinery. People die, disappear, and more often than not, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find out what happened, and to whom. Monstrous and innumerable human rights violations are carried out, in various forms, in a systemic manner. As a consequence, we saw the birth of the concept of half wife- half widow in Kashmir, or Parveena Ahangar’s organization, Association of Parents of Disappeared People.
Despite the use of iron “non-lethal” pellets that killed many, and rendered hundreds severely injured and either partly or completely blind; the improper and disproportionate use of tear gas against protesters; the systemic use of sexual violence as a mode of repression and punishment; the fact that horrific instances such as the mass rape of Kunan-Poshpora went unpunished; instances of extra-judicial killings are common, such as the Pathribal fake encounter; brutal use of torture against suspected militants during interrogation;
Major General Bakshi denies the existence of any large-scale human rights violations. He recalled that there were 2758 cases of human right violations that took place during his time in the Valley; these were investigated by the National Human Rights Commission, of which, 97.2% were false, whilst only 2.8% were found to be true upon investigation; and for these genuine cases of human rights violation, Court Martials were held, and officers penalised.
However, he goes on to make bold and loaded statements with big words such as, “human rights is used as propaganda” to impede the operations of the Army; used as a “ploy or a tactic, to interfere with the operations of the Security Forces, to restrain them and put them on the backfoot”; as a mode of “psychological warfare” to defame them, and portray the AFSPA as a draconian law. He believes that cases of human rights violation must be addressed, but only when they arise out of “true compassion”.
He further states that there is a presence of ‘Overground Workers’, who go around, spreading “atrocity accusations” against the Army, incite people, who then, indulge in stone pelting. Their job is to go around saying things like “oh, woh ladki ke saath yeh kiya, who kiya”, or “oh, saahab, they raped every woman in the village”; in response to which he adds, “at night, the Army is busy carrying out operations, who’s got the time?”.
Referring to the people of Kashmir, he says “you become the Court, you become the justice, and burn the bunker with the soldiers inside; and you expect us to quietly get burnt to death”.
In the recent human shield incident during the violence of the 2017 Srinagar bypoll elections, a few members of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles beat an innocent civilian, Farooq Dar into unconsciousness, strapped him to the bonnet of the jeep, and used him as a human shield against stone pelters. Human Rights Watch, with regards to Kashmir, has pointed out that the Army must resort to the use of lethal force only in cases where there is an imminent threat to life.
Despite this, General Bakshi says, “the standard military solution is to shoot the stone pelters to death”, however, the soldiers, despite being given orders to do so, were hesitant, owing to the “human rights tamasha”. Major General Bakshi, even praised the act, labelling it, “out of the box thinking”.
It must be noted that international law, strictly prohibits the usage of the human shields, deeming it inhumane, and degrading to human dignity. The practice was prevalent in Kashmir in ths 90s, and in Israel today. It has been collectively and severely criticized by the international community.
On the question of the violation of human rights, it is important to watch the recent videos from the incident at the Pulwama Degree College, where the youth were beaten up and forced to chant anti-Pakistan slogans. In the videos, one can see the injuries on their bodies, and hear the heart-wrenching sobs of the youth. They were threateningly asked, “Azaadi chaiye tumko?”, or “do you want Freedom?”, and then again slapped and beaten with sticks.
Such incidents of violence are not isolated incidents. Numerous reports have been published by renowned organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ICRC and Medecin Sans Frontiers.
Despite numerous reports of human rights violations; documented cases of torture and custodial deaths; Major General Bakshi maintains that the Army, as a rule does not rely on methods of torture during interrogation. This, he claims, is for two reasons: firstly, on the basis of human rights; and secondly, because information obtained through means of torture was invariably wrong. Despite all the proof that exists to the contrary, he condemned the NGOs, for fuelling such “stories” and maliciously cooking up “atrocity accusations”, that have demonized the Army, by printing false news and statistics.
Pervez Imroz, a renowned human rights activist and lawyer, worked extensively on the problem of mass graves in Kashmir. While enquiring on disappearances from villages, he filed thousands of writ petitions (of habeus corpus, that literally translate to ‘produce the body’). He was able to map over 1000 locations that would qualify as mass graves; this included village areas of Kichama with 235 unidentified bodies, Bijhama with 200 bodies, and Bimyar with over 230 bodies, including even that of a 6-month old baby girl. In fact, on one particular night, the caretaker one of these locations, was forced to inter 203 bodies; the names of the people were unknown and the crimes committed unstated; some of the corpses were burnt, whereas some were disfigured.
An 11-member Special Investigation Team, constituted by the State Human Rights Commission published a report that revealed the existence of 2730 unidentified bodies, in 38 districts of North Kashmir including Baramulla, Bandipore, and Kupwara; the report also mentioned that since these bodies were unidentified, there was a very high possibility that these included bodies of those subjected to enforced disappearance. APDP maintains that the number of those in mass graves is around 2,373; they published a report documenting the mass graves in Kashmir, called ‘Facts Underground’, containing over a list of about 940-1000 nameless graves in 18 villages in Baramulla, Uri and Boniyar, near the line of control.
Despite all of what is aforementioned and more, Major General Bakshi denies the existence of any mass graves in the Valley; he justifies this by saying that, it was impossible for something so visible to go unnoticed; J&K is under the watch of the CRPF, the police, the BSF, the Intelligence agencies, etc., who would simply not allow such a lack of accountability.
Major General Bakshi, in a blanket manner, rejects all allegations of impunity in the Valley. He says that the Army has a very strict Code of Behavior, derived from the Army Act, 1950 and The Army Act, 1954; very rarely, does a deviation from the expected standard of behavior occur, but when it does, the offender is Court Martialed and then sent behind bars; and proceeded to give examples of the Machil and Pathribal fake encounters.
Since 1989, over 50,000 people have lost their lives. From the year of enactment of the Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA), until now, over 10,000 people, including juveniles, have been detained; in the year 2016 alone, more than 600 detention orders were issued. Those who are taken into detention centres, are held in ‘incommunicado detention’ (unacknowledged and secret detention), and they almost never make it out alive. In the region, approximately 8,000 – 10,000 cases of disappearances have been made out so far. Of all the conflicted zones in the world, Kashmir has witnessed the maximum number of rapes by uniformed men. Statistics indicate that one out of every six individuals in J&K has been subject to torture.
Despite this, not a single member of the Armed Forces of the security forces has been tried for human rights violations in a civilian court, indicative of the impunity that exists in the region.
Officers, commissioned or otherwise, are given absolute immunity from prosecution, until and unless sanctioned by the Home Ministry. The procedure to obtain this clearance, is long, and full of bureaucratic formalities; which results in either the withdrawal of complaint, or weak investigations. Investigations are constantly interfered with, and fudged, for instance, in the Kunan-Poshpara case, when the Government deleted important parts of the investigation document. Therefore, cases hardly ever make it to the Courts, and if they do, they are hindered by ineffective investigations and/or political considerations and motivations.
General Bakshi insists, time and again, on the ‘strict’ rules that are in place, which regulate the behavior of the Army officers. But the truth is, that officers do misuse their power, violations do take place, and crimes do go unpunished. Special laws such as the AFSPA and the PSA, the overwhelming presence of the military in the region, the power in their possession, the immunity granted to them results in impunity. Impunity lies at the heart of the military occupation of Kashmir, further fuelling the conflict. People live in constant fear, of the extremist militants as well as the Army. The impunity further encourages a culture of resistance, and cultivates unlawlessness. India has side-lined the tenets of various human rights conventions through a series of special domestic laws enacted for the Armed forces.
Despite all of what is written above, Major General Bakshi maintains that contrary to public opinion, the rapport between the civilians and the Army is very good. He claims that the Kashmiris are emotionally volatile people, and their anger rises as quickly as it subsides; people in a fit of rage, hold demonstrations, sitting protests, take part in episodes of stone pelting, file petitions etc. He says that the occurrence of all of the aforementioned is natural, considering that the Valley is a region where tensions run high. However, he believes and asserts that these are “isolated” instances of violence, and apart from these, no hostility exists.
He added, that during his time in the valley, they had a motto, “Be nice to the people, be nasty to the terrorists” or “logon ke saath achhayi, dehshath gardon ke saath bohot burai, nahi kiya toh shaamat aayi”; a slogan written everywhere, chanted like a prayer, and in the veins of each and every army official.
However, the truth remains, that civilians are subject to violations of human rights in the hands of those who were meant to protect them; that the civilians live in a state of perpetual fear of the Army; that violations of human rights, and the denial of justice are viewed as powerful tools of curbing this dissent; that the popular sentiment prevalent is for ‘azaadi’.
The Army has done plenty of good; and that is neither discredited nor disputed. Take for instance, the discipline and protection displayed at the border; or the rescue missions, rehabilitation, aid, and repair work carried out by the Army during the 2004 floods killed 281 people and left Srinagar underwater; or during the earthquakes of 2005 and 2015; or Operation Sadhbhavana, the educational, social and welfare initiative of the Army, under which they’ve set up schools, hospitals, taken up projects of women empowerment, etc.
However, these cannot be used to camouflage the atrocities that are otherwise committed; every time the Army is accused of violating human rights in J&K, or the Northeast, these good deeds cannot be used as a red herring. Allegations cannot be brushed under the carpet, by downplaying the impugned incident as “an odd incident”, and then overshadow the possibility of its occurrence by bringing up the good done by the Army.
This was the perspective of an Army Man, which reflects the collective attitude of the Army towards the plight of the Kashmiris. On the other hand, we have opposing reports from numerous NGOs, national and international, UN rapporteurs, and most importantly the civilians who live there. The two seem to be at loggerheads, constantly flinging accusations at one another; each demonising the other side. The primary reason for a lack of consensus of material facts, is the disregard that the State has for what the majority of Kashmiris feels and thinks; and this disregard is manifested in various ways, for example, threats, use of force, incomplete investigations, sham trials, etc. The voice of the majority must not be shunned; and what is troubling, is the audacious manner it is done in the context of J&K. Despite being a ‘nation’, and within the same borders, our peaceful realities are far disconnected from their everyday struggle.