On May 7, 2018, Saddam Padder, a top-ranked commander of the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in a gunfight with Indian troops in Heff village of Shopian, in South Kashmir, along with two other militants. Among the killed was a militant of 40 hours, Dr. Mohammad Rafi Bhat, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kashmir.
Thousands of people from across Kashmir poured into Shopian to attend the funeral of the militants, bypassing the restrictions that had been put in place to contain human and vehicular movement across South Kashmir by the authorities. Due to the sheer number of mourners, 15 back-to-back funerals were offered.
Militants carrying AK-47s appeared from the roof of Saddam Padder’s house and raised slogans in favor of Azaadi, freedom. At one point, a woman was seen among the militants; the next instant she had an AK-47 on her shoulder pointed to the sky. She pressed the trigger three times. That was the mother of Saddam Padder offering a gun salute to her son and that image is a microcosm of Kashmir in 2018.
How Did Things Reach This Point?
What brought Kashmir to this point? One major factor: the perception that Indian policymakers are simultaneously callous, arrogant, and perpetually timid when it comes to the sentiments of Kashmiris.
In 1999, when the armed insurgency was at its peak in Kashmir, the Indian government at the time, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, vociferously pushed for the dialogue to resolve the Kashmir conflict. It went on to declare that “autonomy within the ambit of the Indian Constitution” could be among the options and endorsed the earlier government’s famous reiteration that the “sky is the limit.”
This lead to hope among the general Kashmiri public for resolution through dialogue. The then Indian government held talks with the Hurriyat, the separatist political leadership in Kashmir, and the Hizbul Mujahideen, the main militant organization, which led to the declaration of a ceasefire. Hope in dialogue as a means for resolution sapped support for militancy among the Kashmiri public and as a result militancy largely ebbed away. The effects could actually be felt on the ground in Kashmir and on the Line of Control with militancy-related casualties drastically decreasing from 4,507 in 2001 to 377 in 2009.
However, as militancy receded, the Indian government further tightened its grip on Kashmir. The dialogue processes were given up. The separatist political leaders were either put in jails or under perpetual house arrest. Indian soldiers, roughly 700,000 strong in Kashmir, still manned civilian areas and continued to enjoy virtual impunity. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which necessitates prior approval from the central government in New Delhi for the prosecution of any army personnel in Kashmir, ensured that not a single Indian soldier was ever prosecuted for violations in Kashmir, not even when accused of rape in cases like Kunan-Poshpora.
On the diplomatic front, India dismissed and restricted Hurriyat from talking to Pakistan over the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, stating that Kashmiri people have no place in talks with Pakistan. India maintained the political status quo in Kashmir and extended its rhetoric by declaring that “Kashmir is an internal affair.”
To the people in Kashmir, India, having successfully defeated militancy by offering dialogue and diplomacy, was now trying to dodge the political aspirations of Kashmiris and render them a nonparty to the conflict.
At the beginning of 2016, when I was in Kashmir, I felt the anger and the frustration that had pent up among many young Kashmiris. The narrowing political space had caused many to feel pushed against a wall. The mass civilian protests of 2008, 2009, and 2010, which were violently repressed, causing hundreds of civilian deaths, were cited by many as proof of India’s indifference to the nonviolent movement — and hence its futility.
In May 2016, I wrote in Foreign Policy that India was losing ground as well as any support it had in Kashmir. In July, Burhan Wani, the then-commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed. Kashmir erupted like never before and it continues to simmer. But unlike earlier uprisings, many young Kashmiris are again turning to militancy and finding huge support from the civilians. The slogan “there is only one solution — gun solution, gun solution” is becoming more popular in Kashmir each day.
A number of young and well-educated Kashmiri people, among them engineers, doctoral students, and scholars, are choosing militancy over diplomacy.
I visited Kashmir again toward the end of 2017. If anything, there is more anger and deeper frustration. The horror of pellet munitions, which wreaked havoc and left behind a crisis of blindness during the 2016 uprising, continues to this day. To young Kashmiris, this is a reminder of a drastically skewed political balance — they see themselves at the mercy of an Indian soldier in full riot gear with lethal weaponry aimed at them. The visuals of Farooq Ahmad Dar, tied to the hood of a military jeep and paraded as a human shield, have caused a sense of collective humiliation and desperation.
Today, the situation in Kashmir is worse than it appears. It would be safe to say that there are as many takers as guns available. A political commentator told me recently that “if there is a truckload of weaponry, it would run out in an hour.” One can comprehend this by the fact that there have been so many cases of militants snatching weapons from police that recently the police banned the use of smartphones for on-duty personnel to ensure full attention from the police.
On June 14, the United Nations Human Rights Office published a 49-page report on the human rights violations in both India as well as Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir. It called for the “respect of the right of self-determination” of the people of Kashmir and inquiries into the allegations of abuse.
The Indian state was swift to dismiss the report as “fallacious” and went on to accuse the UN human rights chief of “prejudices.”
What is more astonishing — perhaps even shameful — is that the elite liberal Indian journalists and commentators also vehemently denied any human rights violations in Kashmir by dismissing the UN report as “airy-fairy.” By doing so, these elite Indian journalists are essentially denying that human rights abuses were carried out when (for example) Farooq Ahmad Dar was used as a human shield, legitimizing to the Indian public what could amount to a war crime according to Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions. Such denials embolden perpetrators to repeat offenses, which they did just recently in Pulwama in South Kashmir, where a bunch of civilians were used as human shields during clashes.
Instead of accepting the UN report as an opportunity for urging the government to act against the violators of human rights in Kashmir, mainstream Indian commentators prefer to outrightly deny that mowing down three Kashmiri protesters with armored military vehicles could be considered excessive. And the rapes, the mass graves, and disappearances, the epidemic of dead eyes — by rejecting the UN report, analysts either completely deny that these violations happened or essentially stand by them.
The United Nations has repeatedly been denied unconditional access to both parts of Kashmir. On June 18, its Human Rights Chief declared that they would continue to remotely monitor the situation and would push for a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses at the UN sessions this week.
It would be prudent for India to change its Kashmir policy now, when the situation is still controllable. India should genuinely start the dialogue process amicably, with both Hurriyat as well as Pakistan, with the aim of reaching a viable solution that would ensure peace and stability in the region. It should show its goodwill by acting on the United Nations report and ensure that the perpetrators of human rights violations be punished and not protected behind the smokescreens of denials and dismissals.
Ikram Ullah is a Kashmiri doctoral candidate at the University of Marburg, Germany. His works have appeared in Foreign Policy and The Express Tribune among other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @ullahi_