Kashmir: 'pawn in a vicious game'

Issue 

By Kathryn Hamilton

"When shots were fired outside the bus, people inside started to scream and cry. The bus stopped to let the BSP [Border Security Force] aboard. They yelled at the passengers as they searched them, guns pointed in their faces. Still shots rang all around.

"One officer came aboard and told me and the two German tourists that we would be escorted in an army car to Srinagar.

"Setting off down the road, we were shaken by an explosion. The bus had been blown up."

Nadia Kafritza, a French Australian beginning her holiday in Kashmir, went straight to the police station in the capital, Srinagar, risking her life for an explanation of the carnage she had just witnessed.

It was a "crackdown on militants".

Indeed, the bodies that lay on the side of the road could well have been those of 11 militants, but strewn about indiscriminately were those of another 25 innocent men, women and children.

For the people of Kashmir, in India's far north, it is a familiar and all too regular scenario. The recent destruction of the town of Chrar-e-Sharief was little different. A stand-off between militant and government forces finally came to an end in the town when fires destroyed the homes of 20,000 people and Kashmir's most sacred mosque.

Officially, India blame Pakistan's interference, while the people of Chrar-e-Sharief point the finger at the Indian forces occupying Kashmir.

India and Pakistan abuse each other over the small state, each blaming the other for the destruction and deaths, just as they have since partition in 1947. The Kashmiri people, a recent International Commission of Jurists Report has found, are the "pawns in a vicious game".

The game has taken the lives of more than 20,000 Kashmiris in the last five years. For a population of 13 million Kashmiris, India has 600,000 troops in the region.

Justice Michael Kirby, ICJ executive chairperson, says India and Pakistan must let the people decide what they need. The recent events in Chrar-e-Sharief, he says, are "an illustration of the problem that arises when you deny the people their right to self-determination".

The separatist movement in Kashmir is a direct result of the erosion of the people's autonomy within India and the government's imposition of emergency rule in conflict with international covenants on human rights.

To maintain rule over the people of Kashmir, the Indian government has resorted to torture and judicial and political manipulation.

Although human rights observers have been refused access, numerous reports have been released investigating these abuses.

Amnesty International's report earlier this year documents more than 700 cases of deaths in custody due to torture, though groups in Kashmir believe the figure to be double that.

It outlines frequently used methods of torture as electrocution of sensitive parts of the body including the genitals, or the running of an electric current through water that the detainee is immersed in.

A "roller" is widely used, in which two soldiers sit on the end as it is rolled up the legs and body of the detainee, not breaking bones but crushing the surrounding membranes. This leads to acute renal failure and ultimately death.

Hot rods have been inserted into the anuses of detainees, permanently damaging internal organs. Hospital and legal staff are punished by security forces for aiding suspected militants, which is against the law.

Amnesty reports that "torture is virtually a matter of routine use in interrogation". The National Human Rights Committee, set up by the Indian government, condones some forms of torture: "Third degree methods have not been abandoned, it is in vogue and to a limited extent, if one does not use it, no investigation is possible".

The government has entrenched these abuses through emergency powers giving wide right of detention and impunity to troops for their actions.

Many other violations are inflicted on innocent citizens in "crackdowns". There have been reports of gang rape and destruction of property in the search for militants. Rape has torn the Muslim community of Kashmir apart, alienating the women and leaving them destitute, without support or income, as they can not marry or stay with their husbands.

Troops are never punished for these abuses, even in the few cases where they have been tried and found guilty.

When speaking of freedom is against the law, and the taking up of arms to protect your family brands you a militant, there are not too many Kashmiris who are not directly affected by the Indian government's oppressive rule.

"They — the army — get rid of our houses, rape the women and children, kill the boys, and then whoever is left behind, he picks up a gun and fights", says Peroz Wani, a Kashmiri now living in Australia.

Pakistan's influence in perpetuating the conflict in Kashmir should not be ignored. The politics of both India and Pakistan are so caught up in Kashmir and their manifest hatred for each other that neither is really concerned with what is best for Kashmir.

They both claim to have emotional and ethnic bonds to the state. Were Solomon adjudicating, he would certainly confiscate it from both of them.

The question of how to combat human rights abuses remains a problem for the international community. Ian Russell of Australia's Foreign Affairs Department believes that the international community should help India find alternatives to its abuses rather than punishing the whole country by imposing economic sanctions.

Justice Kirby says that as the largest democracy in the world, India can be influenced by opinion, argument and persuasion from the international community.

Kirby says, "Until an act of self-determination takes place which is accepted as free and fair, we will continue to see violence escalate ... The area will not be in peace until the issue is resolved."

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