Kashmir: The forgotten conflict


Repression and resistance in Kashmir
Even after years of struggle for independence, much of Kashmir remains under the control of the Indian government
Wajahat Ahmad

Supporters of the Islamic political party Jamaat-e Islami shout during a rally to show solidarity with Kashmiris, during Kashmir Solidarity Day, in Multan, Pakistan [EPA]

A year ago I was chatting with a young Kashmiri acquaintance who professed his love for English literature and wanted to enter a quality graduate programme in the discipline. I suggested that he apply to some international graduate programmes in the United Kingdom and the US. To my embarrassment, I was to learn that the young man did not have a passport.
Being the son of a Kashmiri nationalist who had been engaged in non-violent activism to realise the idea of an independent Kashmir, he had been denied a passport by the Indian government, thereby inhibiting his right to free movement. We talked about the impossibilities and the lack of freedom that the Indian military occupation of Kashmir had imposed on Kashmiris. For my young acquaintance, “it was easier to die for a revolution than to live for it”.

Likewise, thousands more men and women in Kashmir have seen their dreams of an international education or career die young for want of passports. The government of India has used passports as a weapon to discipline and punish Kashmiri dissidents who have sought to challenge India’s control over Kashmir. Not only do former guerrillas and non-violent dissidents suffer from the denial of passports, but also their families and relatives are denied the right to travel beyond the borders of “Incredible India”.

“All over the world, travel documents are isued to citizens, including dissidents – the only exception being in Jammu and Kashmir”

Early Times, May 25, 2010

Even though international law, as per Article 12 of the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, guarantees an individual the right to free travel, India, with an increasing global clout, has grossly violated its international treaty obligations. The English language press in Kashmir has highlighted this repressive phenomenon.

“All over the world travel documents are issued to citizens, including dissidents – the only exception being in Jammu [and] Kashmir in Asia where the government uses the travel documents as an instrument of controlling and collectively punishing a defiant people. The denial of travel documents has adversely affected all the spheres of civil society with consequences on education, trade, religion, employment and human rights. The intelligence sleuths, it has been reliably learnt, have prepared a blacklist, which the establishment calls a ‘Security Index’. The list has as many as 60,000 families from Kashmir Valley alone.” Early Times, May 25, 2010

India’s control of political dissidents

The Indian state’s widespread use of repressive measures to silence and criminalise political dissent dates back to 1947, when pro-Pakistan parties such as the Muslim Conference, the Kisan Mazdoor Conference, the Kashmir Socialist Party and the Kashmir Democratic Union clamoured for Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. Prem Nath Bazaz, a prominent dissident intellectual, writes in his book, The History of Freedom Struggle of Kashmir: “From October 1947, about ten thousand people of various political organisations have been put behind bars. Political workers of opposition parties … were deprived of their individual freedom.”

Joseph Korbel, a member of the UN Commission on India and Pakistan, was to write that, in Kashmir, the Indian government imposed a ban on listening to “Radio Pakistan” and “Azad Kashmir Radio”. People who violated the ban were either arrested or had their radio sets confiscated. The newspaper, Statesman, in 1949, described Kashmir as a police state, where government had unleashed repression to the extent that restaurants exhibited notices asking customers to refrain from holding political discussions.

From 1948 to 1953, the National Conference government in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which was led by Sheikh Abdullah and backed by India’s federal government, either arrested or exiled the leadership of pro-Pakistan parties. Ironically, Sheikh Abdullah, the first prime minister of Kashmir, was arbitrarily removed from power and imprisoned on August 9, 1953, after he indicated to US diplomat Loy Henderson his desire to see Kashmir as an independent country. Barring brief interregnums, between 1953 and 1968, Sheikh Abdullah was subject to continued imprisonment by the Indian state for supporting the idea of a UN sponsored plebiscite in Kashmir.

In the years between 1953 and 1974, India hoisted client regimes in Kashmir, which stifled political dissent and promoted a relentless campaign of state terror.

The ‘Peace Brigade’

Bakshi Ghulam Ahmad, who headed the Kashmir government from 1953 to 1963, created the so-called “Peace Brigade”, a militia of hoodlums that was used to terrorise and repress pro-plebiscite leaders and activists in Kashmir. Kashmiris who were found listening to Pakistan Radio were brutalised by the “Peace Brigade”. The hoodlums drew monthly government salaries of around 30 Indian Rupees for a job which involved looting, beatings, torture and burning the property of dissenters.

During the 1950s and 1960s, leaders and activists of major pro-Pakistan and pro-plebiscite parties such as the Kashmir Political Conference and Plebiscite Front in Indian-controlled-Kashmir were either banished to Pakistan-controlled-Kashmir or imprisoned under draconian laws such as the Enemy Ordinance Act and the Preventive Detention Act. The Enemy Ordinance Act denied the accused the right to access a defence counsel and entailed death sentences or life imprisonment for convicts charged with endangering lives.

Many forcibly exiled dissenters were never to reunite with their families and died in Pakistan or in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. One notable example of this is that of the president of the Kashmir Political Conference, Ghulam Rasool Wani, who, along with two other leaders of the party were forcibly exiled to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in 1957, and continued to live in banishment there until his death in 1993.

“The draconian Public Safety Act … allowed the authorities to carry out ‘preventative detention’ of peaceful dissenters on vague grounds of being a threat to law and order”

In 1975, the former prime minister of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, signed the “Kashmir Accord”. This compromise with the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, established the resignation of Abdullah’s support for the plebiscite movement in Kashmir in return for the Indian government’s promise of restoring nominal autonomy to Kashmir within the Indian Union, and for a chief ministerial position. The accord was challenged by dissident organisations such as the Jammu Kashmir People’s League, Awami Action Committee, Jamaat-e Islami and Mahazi Azadi.

To repress this new wave of political dissent, the Jammu and Kashmir government promulgated the draconian Public Safety Act in 1978. The act allowed the authorities to carry out “preventive detention” of peaceful dissenters on vague grounds of being a threat to law and order. Dissidents such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani of Jamaat-e-Islami, People’s League leaders including Farooq Rehmani, Shabir Ahmad Shah, Sheikh Abdul Aziz and many others were repeatedly booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act – which replaced the Preventive Detention Act in 1971 – and the Public Safety Act on charges of “preaching sedition and challenging the state’s accession to India”. Between 1975 and 1987, panoply of repressive laws ensured the pacification of Kashmir until the eruption of a popular armed struggle in July 1988.

In 1987, the Muslim United Front (MUF), an alliance of mostly religio-political and pro-plebiscite parties such as Jamaat-e Islami, Jamaat-e-Tulba, Ummat–e-Islami, Jamiat-Ahl-e-Hadis, Anjuman-Tahfaz-ul-Islam, Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, the Muslim Employees Front, et cetera, contested the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. The ruling party in the Kashmir government, the National Conference, in alliance with Indian national party, Congress, engaged in the blatant rigging of the 1987 elections. This electoral fraud meant that the MUF, expected to win around 20 seats, tasted victory in only 4 of the 43 electoral constituencies, despite receiving a high vote share of 31 per cent.

Most of the prominent MUF leaders and activists were arrested and subjected to beatings and torture in prisons. This would push the dissenters to start an armed struggle against Indian control of Kashmir in 1988. Non-violent separatist politics in Kashmir would take a backseat until the emergence of the Hurriyat Conference in 1993, a Kashmiri separatist conglomerate comprising some 26 religious and political groups committed to striving for independence of Kashmir through peaceful means.

Struggle turns to pacifism

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A year after the formation of the Hurriyat Conference, Kashmiri nationalist guerrilla outfit, the JKLF, announced an end to its armed campaign and declared to wage a non-violent struggle for Kashmir’s independence. The Indian military and paramilitary forces, however, were bent on eliminating any political opposition to Indian rule in Kashmir. They did not spare the JKLF cadre. Altaf Hussain Khan, a JKLF executive member, maintains that more than 435 unarmed members of his party were killed by Indian military and paramilitary forces in the aftermath of the 1994 ceasefire. JKLF’s executive member and prominent human rights activist, Jaleel Andrabi, was also killed, and the accused killer, Major Avtar Singh of the Indian army, still eludes trial and reportedly lives in the sleepy city of Fresno, California.

Likewise, thousands of members and sympathisers of the pro-Pakistan party Jamat-e Islami were harassed, tortured or killed by Indian security agencies and Ikhwan, a ruthless government-sponsored militia. As per a spokesperson of Jamaat-e Islami, the party lost 2,000 of its members and supporters and 1,000 were subjected to enforced “disappearance”.

After 2006, the dying insurgency, with fewer than 1,000 deaths a year and with a few hundred guerrillas left active, transformed the armed conflict in Kashmir from a high intensity conflict to a low intensity one. In the summers of 2008 and 2010, thousands of pro-independence protesters flooded the streets of Kashmir. The Indian paramilitary forces, trying to suppress the protests, shot at and killed approximately 50 young men in 2008, injuring around 700 more.

In the Kashmiri summer of 2010, similar repression ensued against mass protests. Troops mowed down around 110 young protesters and injured some 2,500. It was a gory reminder of the multiple massacres carried out by Indian troops in the 1990s, when hundreds of pro-independence protesters were shot dead in Srinagar’s neighbourhoods of Gawkadal, Tengpora Bypass, Zakoora, Khanyar, Hawal and Hyderpora. Additionally, even more were killed in South Kashmir’s Bijbehara town, and in reprisal killings in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area and in Sopore town after troops were ambushed by armed groups.

A brutal exercise in pacification was to follow in the wake of 2010 summer protests. Some 5,000 stone throwing protesters, mostly school and college boys, were arrested and tortured in prisons. Although the majority have since been released, they still face constant surveillance and the torments of prolonged court cases. According to the Amnesty International report, Lawless Law: Detentions under the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act, between 8,000 and 20,000 people have been detained under the Public Safety Act alone in the past two decades. Between January and September 2010, some 322 persons were detained under the arbitrary law.

To prevent a repeat of 2010 protests, the government has taken into “preventive custody” some 55 core members and leaders of the Syed Ali Shah Geelani-led separatist body, the Hurriyat Conference. Also, prominent separatist leaders Shabir Shah and Nayeem Khan – along with Kashmir Bar Association President Mian Qayoom and General Secretary GN Shaheen – were arrested in 2010 for leading protests against civilian killings in Kashmir, and for taking part in pro-independence demonstrations or “strengthening the separatist movement”.

Many others, such as the chairman of the Islamic Students’ League, Shakeel Bakshi, have been imprisoned under the Public Safety Act. Bakshi’s aides attributed his arrest to his pro-independence activism on Facebook. So far the 2011 Kashmiri summer has been rather silent. It is a negative peace enforced by constant surveillance, arrest and harassment of dissenters by a repressive state apparatus, which is quite efficient in labelling and framing political dissent as sedition or criminal subversion.

Wajahat Ahmad is a lecturer of Peace Studies at the Islamic University of Science & Technology in Indian-administered-Kashmir.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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