The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
One day last month, I spoke with a medical student in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. "We have seen enough of India," the twenty-something-year-old told me. "We don't want to put up with the oppression anymore. We want freedom." He proudly claimed to be one of Kashmir's so-called stone pelters -- protesters who aim large rocks at the Indian security forces that have been trying to put down a resurgent wave of demonstrations in Kashmir. "We are peaceful protesters," he said. "We only throw stones if they stop us." And if they catch a policeman alone, he said, they beat him up.
"But we don't kill him," his friend piped up. "We have beaten up a few, but not a single policeman has been killed." Just then, a third Kashmiri youth, silent until now, spoke up: "It is only self-defense. It is in response to their provocation. Our stones for their bullets."
Since the protests first erupted in June, after the police killed a teenager in Srinagar, demonstrations in Srinagar and other towns in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley have become almost a daily occurrence. Crowds of young men in their late teens or early twenties are summoned by separatist leaders or by cryptic phone messages that contain invitations to "picnics."
In response, the Jammu and Kashmir government has imposed almost a daily curfew to prevent demonstrations. It is a vicious cycle: protesters violate the curfew; security forces arrive to disperse them; protesters start throwing stones at the security forces; security forces open fire, sometimes killing or wounding people in the crowd; then, the violence spurs a fresh round of protests.
The security forces, often outnumbered, line up behind barbed-wire barricades. They are told to stop the demonstrations and exercise restraint, but they have little training or access to nonlethal crowd-control equipment. Approximately 1,200 of them have been injured so far. Some officers told me that they only take action in response to provocation, and even then, only in self-defense. "We are professionals, we are mentally very tough," one police officer told me. "We want to prevent clashes so that there is no loss to human life. But when there is a mob mentality, one person starts something, and soon the situation gets out of control. There is no option but to open fire."
His colleague then added, "We are also human beings. In a situation in which we are surrounded, with our people injured, what else is there to do?"
The police have killed 64 people in Kashmir since June. Most of the dead are young people, some of them children. In some cases, those killed and injured were not even taking part in demonstrations: one bullet struck a girl watching a protest from the window of her house; a boy was inadvertently wounded while walking home from classes. However, there have also been allegations that some attacks by police have been entirely unprovoked. Last week, a policeman opened fire on five youths playing carom billiards in Srinagar; the policeman has since been arrested.
Yet such signs of accountability are unusual. Although Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- and before him, Atal Bihari Vajpayee -- promised "zero tolerance" for human rights violations in Kashmir, law enforcement officers are seldom held responsible for unlawful force. Inquiries are routinely ordered, but come to naught.
A few recent cases, however, suggest that the culture of impunity may be changing, albeit slowly. In February, a commander of the Border Security Force was arrested for killing a teenager in Srinagar. Murder charges have been filed against some policemen for kidnapping and killing villagers and then falsely claiming that they were unidentified terrorists. But for most Kashmiris, these actions are too little, too late and do not cover similar abuses committed by army personnel who are protected under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides military personnel with effective immunity from prosecution.
The most serious abuses date back to the 1990s, when a violent Kashmiri separatist movement first emerged in response to elections rigged by Indian authorities. Hundreds of young Kashmiris in Indian-administered Kashmir left to enter training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, returning with guns and ideological fervor. Indian forces moved to put down the armed rebellion, often responding with force against militants and civilians alike and relying on brutal search and interrogation tactics.
The Kashmiri armed rebellion was soon quelled, but it was replaced by extremist militant groups that mushroomed in Pakistan to take on the battle for Muslim-majority Kashmir. Members of these groups were trained in sophisticated guerrilla-war and terrorism tactics. Kashmiris were brutalized -- on one side, civilians were killed in indiscriminate militant bombings and land mine attacks or murdered as suspected informers; on the other, they were prey to arbitrary arrest, torture, and killing in police custody. Since 1990, more than 50,000 people were killed in the violence (although many observers put the number closer to 100,000), and an estimated 10,000 people remain "disappeared."
India was gradually able to win over domestic and international opinion regarding its handling of the conflict by pointing to the fact that militants trained and armed in Pakistan were behind attacks on civilians. After 9/11, in the context of the "global war on terror" -- with much of the threat blamed on militant training camps in Pakistan -- Kashmir was largely shelved by international powers.
After 2003, the battle between Indian security forces and militant groups based in Pakistan began to quiet down. Under pressure from the United States, Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan's president, attempted to prevent militants from crossing over the Line of Control, the de facto border between Pakistan and India in Kashmir. At the same time, negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi produced some positive developments, including the creation of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzzaffarabad to reunite Kashmiri families who had been separated since the 1947 war.
Yet a final settlement remained out of reach. India was slow to respond to Musharraf's early overtures, and by the time it was ready to enter into negotiations, the authoritarian Musharraf had come under domestic pressure to leave office. Talks with the newly elected government of Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad had barely begun when, in November 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan, launched an attack on Mumbai, killing 166 people. (To this day, relations remain so prickly that Islamabad initially refused Indian relief aid after devastating floods in August.)
In late 2008, local elections were held in Indian-administered Kashmir. At the time, the separatist political groups were in disarray and lacked credibility; many people despised the separatists for having brought violence without any tangible gains. Voters elected a young politician, Omar Abdullah, who leads the mainstream National Conference Party founded by his grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and supports greater autonomy -- but not accession to Pakistan -- for Jammu and Kashmir.
Today, the Abdullah government appears paralyzed; it has even failed to reach out to victims and families of the recent violence. With the recent crackdowns and killings, moderate separatist leaders who entered into dialogue with India feel let down. "The Indian government eroded the dialogue process, failing to deliver even on the most minimum confidence-building measures," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a moderate religious and political leader. "People are angry because we have been harping on dialogue for so long without any results."
As many people in Kashmir have turned away from moderates, they have placed their faith in hard-liner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an octogenarian separatist leader who previously fell out of popular favor because of his fundamentalist Islamic and pro-Pakistan views. Speaking of the new wave of protesters on the streets, Geelani told me, "They respect me because I represent their sentiment." But even his appeal for peaceful protests was viewed with anger by the young demonstrators. "They have been born in the gun culture," he said. "They are angry, but gradually, they will be managed."
That will be difficult. When the Abdullah government was elected and violence appeared to be waning, the Indian government could have used this window to end the pervasive culture of impunity and to prosecute those responsible for abuses.
But little changed. India's response to the current unrest has been as counterproductive as ever. With the police unable to contain the demonstrations, the Abdullah government requested additional paramilitary forces. Despite orders from above to exercise restraint, some Indian troops, frustrated and aggressive, have damaged private property and smashed windows. Police round up young Kashmiris, beating them up in police stations to force confessions. There are widespread allegations that police are arresting boys and demanding bribes to secure their release. Anyone out on the streets past curfew is at risk of abuse by security forces. On August 30, an 11-year-old boy was shot during a demonstration in the southern town of Anantnag; he was this summer's 65th fatality.