Praveen Swami

The real challenge before those who represent Jammu and Kashmir's people is to build pressure for the carnage in the State to end not to initiate endless discussions on its constitutional future.

EARLY ON February 24, just a few hours before politicians from across Jammu and Kashmir met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, 26-year-old Tasleen Akhtar was shot dead inside her home in Sarhuti, a small mountain hamlet in the border district of Poonch.

Her crime? A local Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander had wished to marry the young woman. Tasleen refused his proposal on the grounds that she was already engaged to someone else. This minor obstacle was soon removed. Tahir Ahmad Mughal, Tasleen's fiancé, was executed by beheading. Against the counsel of her family and friends, though, Tasleen still refused to marry the terrorist and paid the price.

In another place or another time, Tasleen's murder would most likely have generated widespread outrage. In war-fatigued Jammu and Kashmir, it figured only in the footnotes of public discourse. Somewhere in the Jammu and Kashmir Police headquarters, a noting on a file would have recorded that the number of fatalities in the State's 18-year war had risen to 43,791 or thereabouts. Bar a four-sentence mention in two local newspapers, the incident was ignored.

Tasleen's murder offers an opportunity to examine the ugly politics of death in Jammu and Kashmir: the processes that determine whose blood is deemed to be of value, and when. "Violence," the participants in Prime Minister Singh's Kashmir conference said in a joint statement, "has no place in a civilised society." If the dialogue process in Jammu and Kashmir is to have meaning, politicians must consider just what they intend to do to expel violence from democratic discourse.

Dr. Singh's conference began with an unprecedented acknowledgment of the wages of war: the observation of two minutes silence in memory of four Handwara villagers killed by the Army on February 22. Compensation as well as jobs had already been offered to the families of the villagers in stark contrast with the more typical fate of Tasleen's family, which did not receive even a word of commiseration from the local legislator.

What happened in Handwara to vest it with such importance? On the morning of February 22, a Rashtriya Rifles detachment received information about the presence of a Lashkar-e-Taiba group in the village of Doodhipora. A patrol under the command of Captain Nitin Datta was sent to the village. Once there, the security forces picked up Abdul Samad Mir, a village resident who was imprisoned until September last year on charges of being a covert Lashkar operative, as a guide.

A few minutes later, Doodhipora villagers have told police investigators, a single shot rang out. It is still unclear if it was fired by one of the terrorists as a signal to warn the rest of his group of the presence of the troops, or if a soldier fired his weapon by accident. Whatever the truth, the troops opened fire in response. Mir and three other local residents, Mohammad Alam, Ghulam Hassan, and Amir Hajjam, aged between 8 and 18, were shot dead.

By the Army's account, 27 rounds were expended by the troops in Doodhipora. Just for a few seconds, this suggests, panic and poor command overwhelmed both training and common sense. On the basis of the evidence available, it seems improbable that Captain Datta or his troops fired with the intent to kill Mir. Had they wished to murder the alleged Lashkar operative, the soldiers are unlikely to have chosen a location with large numbers of witnesses present.

What followed this tragedy, however, was pure politics. All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq promptly claimed the incident was the outcome of a "catch and kill" policy. "Indian forces," he said in a statement addressed to the United Nations, "have been given full authority by the Government of India to act with impunity, unleashing a reign of terror and oppression on the innocent people of Jammu and Kashmir."

APHC leaders used the Handwara killings to strip the Delhi conference of legitimacy. Mirwaiz Farooq asserted that the killings demonstrated that the conference was just a "vain activity" intended "to hoodwink international opinion." The Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani went one step further, asserting that the killings were "a part of the conspiracy hatched by [the] Indian leadership [to] eliminate Kashmiris to pave [the] way for illegally occupying the land of Kashmir."

Doodhipora, then, was significant to politics in Kashmir not just in and of itself, but as an instrument to legitimise the anti-Delhi conference position of secessionist groups. How plausible is the claim that the killings were part of a conspiracy of genocide?

Empirical evidence is hard to come by but the available data enable some rough estimates to be made. Between 12 and 15 per cent of the 15,101 civilians killed in Jammu and Kashmir from 1988 to 2005 died in what official records describe as `crossfire.' While some of these deaths were, by official admission, plain and simple murder, many were the outcome of genuine exchanges of fire between security force personnel and terrorists.

Allegations that security forces act with impunity seem to be based more on prejudice than fact. Complaints of human rights violations have in fact been on a steady decline, mirroring the overall fall in levels of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. From 142 in 2001, complaints went down to 74 in 2002, 25 in 2003, 16 in 2004, and just seven in 2005. Seventy-nine Border Security Force personnel and 134 soldiers received sentences ranging up to life imprisonment for human rights violations between 1990 and 2004.

Examples of such action are not difficult to come across. In January, for example, a court-martial held Major Rehman Hussain guilty of the criminal use of force during a search operation as well as multiple procedural errors. While ambiguous DNA evidence led to his acquittal on charges of having raped a Handwara woman and her 10-year-old daughter in November 2004, the military court which heard his case recommended his dismissal from service on other counts.

Major Rehman's case has a special political significance, too: although it caused outrage across Kashmir, the soldier's acts did not stop Mirwaiz Farooq from meeting with Prime Minister Singh in September 2005.

Indeed, it is probable that the APHC will accept an invitation for further dialogue with Dr. Singh as long as its political adversaries are not also at the table. Using the tragedies that took place in Handwara to attack the dialogue process is at best disingenuous and at worst plain dishonest.

Sadly, the APHC's moral compass has long pointed in the direction of the expedient. Not a word of regret was voiced by Mirwaiz Farooq over the recent assassination of State Education Minister G.N. Lone conduct which was of a piece with the stoic silence he has long maintained on the murder of civilians like Tasleen. Although protected by guards provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Government, the APHC chairman and his colleagues have never summoned the courage to speak out against the carnage.

Politicians across the spectrum must also shoulder the blame. Like the APHC, the National Conference saw in Handwara only the opportunity to embarrass the Government. Anantnag legislator Mehboob Baig even attacked the "physical presence of troops who enjoy unbridled powers" in Jammu and Kashmir: an extraordinary charge, given that few of his party colleagues would have survived the 2002 election campaign had their rallies not been protected by the Army, the BSF or the police.

Trapped in a haze of fear and opportunism, few of Jammu and Kashmir's politicians have even protested against the perpetrators of the terror bombings and fidayeen strikes that routinely claim the lives of those they represent. Never has there been an all-party demonstration against all violence; nor even a joint statement. At a recent conference, a prominent Islamist lawyer even refused to sign a letter commiserating with communist leader M.Y. Tarigami, whose nephew had been assassinated by a Lashkar-e-Taiba hit squad. Attitudes like these are not just part of the problem: in some fundamental ways, they are the problem.

In December 2002, terrorists shot dead schoolteacher Ghulam Shafi Wani along with his sons Noor Mohammad and Jehangir Ahmad. Then, as now, Jammu and Kashmir's politicians stayed quiet. The Srinagar-based journalist Ahmad Ali Fayyaz authored a passionate denunciation of the silence, writing that the State's politicians cared only for the `red' blood of their supporters, not the `white,' or worthless, blood of their opponents. Three years on, nothing seems to have changed.

Building a consensus against violence is the real challenge that confronts the dialogue process the Prime Minister has initiated. Unless politicians are able to deliver an end to gunfire and bombings, the dialogue process will have little meaning to Jammu and Kashmir's people. Speaking out for the right of Jammu and Kashmir's people to live not another interminable discussion on the State's constitutional status ought to be the core issue for those who claim to care for its people.