Living in a state of eternal incarceration

Living in a state of eternal incarceration

Living in a state of eternal incarceration

In a damp corner of a dimly-lit hospital ward, Nasreen lay quietly on the bed. I asked her father if I could talk to her for a while, soon realising it was pointless. Her overwhelming silence almost seemed to mute the clamour that filled the ward.

“She is in trauma,” said Nasreen’s father, who sat beside her. It was in August when I met Nasreen, an eight-year-old Kashmiri girl from Pulwama, at SHMS hospital in Srinagar, while interviewing some pellet victims, their families and friends. The Valley had reached tipping point after the killing of Burhan Wani, a militant commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, by the security forces in July. Soon after the incident, a large number of Kashmiris took to the streets in several parts of the Valley to denounce Wani’s death.

As a result of the unrest which followed his death, over 80 people, including two security personnel, were killed and a large number of people on both sides injured. Many civilians, including children, were injured and some killed by “non-lethal” or Crowd Control Weapons (CCW) such as pellet guns, rubber bullets and tear gas shells.

However, Nasreen was a victim of none of these. Her father explained, “Nasreen was playing right outside her home with her friends when the incident took place. When she heard the sound of gunfire in the vicinity, due to fear, she tripped and soon fell unconscious. Then we took her to a hospital, but the doctor asked us to shift her to SHMS in Srinagar. My daughter has hardly spoken anything for days.”

Kashmir is the most heavily militarised zone in the world, with around half a million troops stationed there. Early 1990s witnessed increasing militarisation of the Valley. After decades of political discontent and excesses of the Indian state, in the early 1990s, thousands of Kashmiri men travelled to Pakistan Administered Kashmir for arms training, with a goal to fight the Indian state. The Indian security forces reportedly led a harsh campaign against the insurgents and their families. The militarisation of Kashmir is well reflected in a series of emergency provisions, particularly the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act – called AFSPA – which was imposed in 1990 to deal with armed militancy.

This draconian law grants legal cover from prosecution to the armed forces operating in the disturbed areas. AFSPA provides extraordinary powers to the security forces, including power to detain and enter property without warrant and to “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area” if that officer believes that it is essential “for the maintenance of public order.”

Sense of marginalisation

Further, the breathtaking landscape of Kashmir is juxtaposed with cantonments, barracks, detention centres, roadside morchas, personnel in battle gear and olive green armoured vehicles. It is, as if, almost impossible to visualise the Valley without these tools of militarisation.

During my visits to the districts and interactions with the youth since 2010, most of the youth across the Valley expressed disenchantment with the Indian state, and their statements often elicited a sense of marginalisation and collective alienation. Many felt that they live in a state of eternal incarceration.

In July 2014, as Omar and I walked past Sher-e-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar, he asked - What do you think of Kashmir? Before I could even respond, he said, “Kashmir is nothing but a prison and I am a prisoner in my own home.” The feeling of incarceration seems to be reinforced by the landlocked geography of the state. In the north is the impregnable Himalayas and to the southern is the perceived wall of alienation created by the Indian state. The only proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for them seems to be the opening with Pakistan.

In another instance the same year, Mansoor from Bandipora, emphatically asked, “Why do we have to constantly prove our identity? Why are we frequently interrogated by the forces?” Search and interrogation of civilians at any given time by the security forces pervades everyday life in the Valley. Frequent encounters with the forces, and the constant pressure to prove their identity on the streets, in public spaces and even their own homes, are likely to generate a sense of vulnerability and alienation among the locals.

In the past couple of years, the Valley has witnessed large-scale protests by the youth (some protesters have also engaged in stone-pelting) shouting slogans of ‘azadi’ which have been met violently by the forces, only to subside and erupt again. Criminalisation of the protesters and further militarisation are likely to alienate people further. A dialogue with all the parties concerned and most significantly, the people of Kashmir for addressing their underlying grievances, seems to be the only way out.

(The writer has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has taught in Kashmir University)