Army and human rights

Rights Wronged: The Indian Army’s human rights record in J&K is once again in focus

The report on human rights violations in Kashmir of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) gave the Indian government an opportunity to score a moral victory. PTI file photo

The report on human rights violations in Kashmir of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) gave the Indian government an opportunity to score a moral victory. Instead, Delhi refused to calmly acknowledge the findings and promise to address the issue raised by High Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein. It opted for a hysterical, panic-stricken and knee-jerk denial, and hopes to follow it up by building a diplomatic offensive internationally to block discussions on the report, a move that is a losing proposition both politically and morally. One can engage in endless chest-thumping over the report, but it doesn’t change the facts, nor dim the horrifying reality of human rights abuse in Kashmir.

The official response that the report is “fallacious”, “prejudiced” and “builds a false narrative” is out of sync with the everyday reality of Kashmir – its burgeoning landscape of military bunkers, gun-toting men in uniform, violent stone-pelting protests that have become the norm and the use of disproportionate force to -- unsuccessfully -- quell the protests with bullets and pellet guns; and, in the backdrop, the tormenting memory of three decades of gross violations of human rights, including murders, torture, enforced disappearances and rape. Worse still, a systematic pattern of impunity, exercised through various instruments like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the J&K Public Safety Act (PSA) as well as through political and bureaucratic influence to subvert the justice system, enhances the seriousness of the excesses.  

Any move to revoke or dilute AFSPA, which has become a barricaded, protected and prized national heirloom, even a holy cow, is met with stiff political resistance. AFSPA, which gives the central armed forces unbridled power to arrest, use force and even kill people on mere suspicion, is a colonial legacy that makes a mockery of the claims of being a liberal democracy with constitutional right to life and dignity, liberty and equality. It explicitly forbids prosecution of men in uniform without previous sanction by the central government. This institutionalised impunity has encouraged crimes, including custodial killings, fake encounters, torture, unjustified crackdowns and rape. None of these are investigated and almost all are justified under the rubric of counterinsurgency operations.

The reality of this impunity was spelt out in response to a series of RTI applications, which also form part of the OHCHR report. These revealed that no sanction for civilian prosecution for rights violations in J&K had ever been granted since 1990; only one case was dealt with through  court-martial proceedings, but the sentence against six army personnel for the Macchil fake encounter killings stands suspended by the Armed Forces Tribunal.  

With the case of Farooq Dar, who was tied to a army jeep and used as a human shield in April 2017, it has gone beyond impunity. In this case, the officer Lt. Col. Leetul Gogoi even got an out-of-turn commendation.

Or, recall the staged killings in Pathribal in March 2000. Fourteen years after the incident, a closure report was filed on the basis of a court-martial proceeding, which gave the five accused army officers a clean chit without an explanation, even though there was clinching evidence of the fact that their victims were innocent civilians, not foreign militants. The accused were promoted and decorated during this period. A year before the case was closed, India’s apex court in its judgement of May 1, 2012, altered the very meaning of justice and right to life by endorsing blanket impunity for the armed forces.

This kind of protection is not exclusively for the army. The same is true for other security forces as well. The Border Security Force (BSF) held its men guilty of raping a bride and murdering another in 1990, but simply ended the matter with a few dismissals. Cases abound in Kashmir of police personnel being protected and promoted instead of being punished for crimes, through systematic fudging of evidence and botching up investigations. The J&K Police went out of its way to botch up investigations in the Shopian twin rape-and-murder case.

Human rights violations have assumed a much more brazen form in the last couple of years as security forces grapple with the uphill task of combating both militants and street protests. In 2010, 130 young boys were killed by teargas shells and bullets shot mostly at the upper parts of their bodies. Teargas shells are normally used to disperse violent protesters and the standard operation procedure is to shoot them in the air or along the ground. In Kashmir, the rule book has been thrown to the winds. In 2016, excesses reached a new high. Pellet guns and bullets sent over a hundred to their graves and injured hundreds, many of them blinded for life. In 2018 so far, four protesters have been crushed under security vehicles.  

The situation today is so dismal that while till 2010, some victims’ families were pursuing battles for justice, today it is rare for people to come out with a formal complaint. In 2016, the victims who took legal recourse found counter-cases slapped against them, an indication of how the security grid is tightening its noose around ordinary civilians already pushed to the brink.  

The theatre of bloodbath in Kashmir Valley today is a grim reminder of the inhuman crimes committed not just by non-state actors but also the State’s agencies, with full impunity. The government will one day have to grapple with its excesses, which have pushed young men and teenagers, often inspired by collective suffering or their own misery of being caught in the trap of revolving door arrests and harassment, to pick up the stone to fight the mighty security apparatus or, worse still, take to militancy.

In April 2018, Mohammed Rafi, an assistant professor of Kashmir University, was killed during an encounter, within hours of joining a militant group. It highlighted the desperation of the Kashmir situation, where an endless cycle of violence and blind rage is not only sucking in teenagers and tormented youngsters but also educated professionals, whose trust in peaceful resistance and the fairness of the Indian system has been broken. Young boys, mostly teenagers, have opted for the gun and joined militant ranks, knowing well that their lifespan would be reduced to just a few months. Many others join the street battles almost on a daily basis, throwing stones. They know they are no match for the mighty Indian security apparatus. But as one of them, who wears his pellet injuries and slew of FIRs lodged against him as a badge of honour, said, “at least, we will not die a death of humiliation. We know we will die, but we will also take a toll of one or two of theirs.”

(The writer is Executive Editor, Kashmir Times)

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