New semantics of state in Kashmir

Crackdown, half-widow, gravediggers, the disappeared, the encountered, paani parade, unmarked grave — a brand new vocabulary of conflict has developed in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

Vasundhara Sirnate

A crackdown is a cordon-and-search operation during which entire villages have their houses invaded by Army or >paramilitary personnel, with people being physically violated or arrested; a half-widow is a woman who does not know if her husband is alive or dead (these missing men and many others constitute the disappeared); gravediggers are local villagers, who have been instructed by the police, the Army and the paramilitary to dig graves to bury the bodies of those killed in encounters.

Encountering someone means staging an ambush in which a targeted person is then killed in “ >crossfire”. Paani parade is waterboarding, or the creation of the illusion of drowning by putting a towel on a person’s face and dripping or pouring water on him — a technique of torture that has been severely contested in the international community. An unmarked grave is a grave where a suspected “foreign terrorist” allegedly lies having been killed in an encounter.

These are the practices and vocabulary through which the Indian state is identified and understood in Kashmir — through the presence of uniformed actors that possess the power to snatch people from their homes and visit violence on the bodies of non-combatants and combatants alike. A new report, titled “Structures of violence: The Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir”, provides deep insights into the architecture of violence that the people of Kashmir live with every day. The report released by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) and the > Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) exposes the “institutionalised impunity” that exists in the State. It documents 333 cases of torture, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence and enforced disappearances and identifies 972 alleged perpetrators in uniform or working at the behest of those in uniform.

Last year, when I visited Kashmir, I interviewed an Intelligence Bureau agent, who spoke on conditions of anonymity. I asked him, “Suppose I am a CO [Commanding Officer] and I want a promotion. Should I go and try to kill more militants? Will I get a better promotion?” He replied, “Definitely… 102 per cent.”

He later added, “We [IB agents] only provide information. We don’t get awards.” Later, we talked about one of the most-wanted militants, Abu Qasim, one of the commanders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir, whom the security forces have been trying to trap for about seven years without success. During our discussion, the IB official said, “There is a grading of militants here. C grade, B grade, A grade. You kill a C-grade militant [the lowest rung, fresh trainees]. The reward is 20,000 to 50,000 [Indian rupees]. If he becomes popular, his grading goes up. Abu Qasim is A plus … J&K police have all information about many militants. But no one will shoot them. C grade is turned into A-plus grade and then they are killed. Killing a B-grade militant carries about 1,00,000 reward. A plus carries 5 lakh. Most of this money is given to informants.”

Dubious rules

Counter-insurgency in Kashmir has been complicated and works according to dubious rules. Actions of combatants are not directed only towards other combatants; civilians or non-combatants are also arrested, held against their will, tortured or killed. Irregular means of war such as sexual violence and torture and the backing of a locally raised private militia (the Ikhwani), or government gunmen, is encouraged, commanded and funded by the regular government forces. The use of Ikhwanis in the 1990s, Special Police Officers, and, the rise of a monetised counter-insurgency campaign where killing of people is incentivised through gallantries, promotions and various awards, all point to irregular means of warfare that are being used to suppress an entire population.

Counter-insurgency in India is seen by most as either a strategic issue, where collateral damage is not of much concern, or it is seen as a struggle for the extension of a unique Indian nationalism — it is romanticised by the public at large. What people mostly miss is the moral torpor that underpins the framing of counter-insurgency strategy in India. In both the northeast, where for over five years, I interviewed several police and Army personnel, many of whom suffered from sever post-traumatic stress disorder and also confessed to killing in counter-insurgency operations, and in Kashmir, where violations of the population are so well-documented, the Indian state’s counter-insurgency strategy has only been effective in terms of creating disaffected populations.

A counter-insurgency operation is done in the name of Indian citizens; it is seen as a matter of national security. However, there are now enough reports that indicate that when blanket protection is provided to soldiers under laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the outcomes are not favourable to the local population. In fact, such Acts are used to extend not only national domination but also a uniquely patriarchal domination in these regions.

The Indian state’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir need to be put under national scrutiny. Counter-insurgency in Kashmir is no longer just the extension of a state’s monopoly of violence, but has turned into concerted campaigns of strategic area domination. Not only are people being dominated geographically, but, through extensive torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and sexual violence, are also dominated physically and mentally. The use of government gunmen, for instance, is the use of deniable violence by the state, where the state cannot directly be held accountable for the actions of non-state militia actors, though many such militias in the case of Kashmir and Chhattisgarh act directly on orders from the local security force officers.

Nature of state

The techniques of physical and psychological domination that have arisen are not new. However, we need to think about these techniques not just as tools to impose discipline on populations in a war but also about what the uses of such techniques say about the nature of the state that sanctions them. For instance, an encountered or disappeared person is someone whose right to exist has not only been denied by force, but in the denial of his existence, and later, even in the official denial of his enforced disappearance, his record is expunged from the state and such a person is placed outside the law because he has simply ceased to exist for the state.

No war-making state has ever seen itself as a perpetrator. In Kashmir, we are seeing the assertion of an architecture of oppression that is designed to “break the spine of Kashmiri society”, as one Army officer informed me. Only then, it seems, can militancy end.

However, very little attention is being paid in policy circles to the creation of deep societal trauma and generations of persons with severe grievances against the Indian state. Disproportionate use of violence by a much better equipped, manned, trained and monetised security force (the third largest in the world) than local combatants is also not being adequately questioned.

Kashmiri civil society groups are now calling for the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue. Given the evidence they have collected, there are sufficient grounds to merit a thorough investigation and to ask the Indian state to officially explain its case. The step to internationalise the issue is being taken because Kashmiri civil society actors cannot see a fair justice delivery mechanism that can bring alleged perpetrators to justice. The sentencing of six Army personnel to life in prison for the Machil encounter is an extremely rare occurrence. However, it also demonstrates that the Indian state is willing to take legal action against its own personnel, which is a step in the right direction.

There needs to be a sustained dialogue on the AFSPA and the methods of violence being used in counter-insurgency campaigns in India. While a repeal of the AFSPA is highly needed, it is also unlikely, as the move will be unpopular with the Indian security forces. A small step in the right direction then is to immediately remove sexual violence from under the AFSPA so that a soldier accused of a sexual crime can be tried under ordinary criminal law. While there is no end to the Kashmir dispute in sight, what the Indian government does have the power to do is to bring mechanisms of justice to the Kashmiri people. As a state that considers Kashmiris as part of the Indian citizenry, it is obligated to do so.

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Washington DC.)

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 8:26:18 AM |

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