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India's hardline approach in Kashmir won't work. It never has Open in fullscreen

Umar Lateef Misgar

India's hardline approach in Kashmir won't work. It never has

Indian forces use an armoured vehicle to block a road to South Kashmir [Saqib Mir]

Date of publication: 12 March, 2018

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Comment: New Delhi cannot resolve this conflict through a military solution. Instead it must urgently open an unconditional dialogue with Kashmiris, writes Umar Lateef Misgar.
In the summer of 2017, Indian forces stationed in Kashmir, with the consent of country's Home Ministry, launched Operation All-Out, to "flush out terrorists until there is complete peace in the state". 

Named after a popular mosquito repellent brand, All-Out was a continuation of the hardline military approach that Narendra Modi's government has embraced to deal with all kinds of dissent in Kashmir.

From the Indian perspective, All-Out was an undisputed success. Throughout the operation, Indian forces killed more than 200 armed rebels, engaging them in gun battles, mostly in residential areas.

However, the nature of these gun battles, which activists argue amount to extrajudicial executions, and the toll exacted by them on civilian lives and infrastructure, project an entirely different picture. At least 19 civilians were killed and hundreds injured during the battles in 2017.

In addition, the number of local Kashmiris joining the insurgency increased exponentially, putting the total number of armed rebels active throughout Kashmir at a steady pre-2017 count of 200. A total of 108 civilians were killed through 2017, according to figures released by independent monitors.

A similar situation arose in 2016; also a year that saw mass uprising against Indian rule. Around 145 civilians were killed and thousands injured, many of them blinded by birdshot pellet guns.

In just the first three months of this year, 13 civilians have been shot dead by Indian forces, almost all of them in South Kashmir. The southern districts of Shopian and Pulwama have become the frontline of India's war on Kashmiris, with large-scale repression in these areas.

Indian forces regularly set up checkpoints and obstruct movement in these districts and the internet is frequently blocked.

Through AFSPA, the central government has denied permission to prosecute the armed forces in every single case of alleged abuse

Only last week, at a checkpoint set up by the Indian army, four civilians were shot dead for apparently no reason other than being Kashmiris. The Indian army later labelled them as Over Ground Workers (OGWs), a blanket term used for civilians who are suspected of providing any material help to the armed rebels.

From OGWs to Agitational Terrorists, the Indian state has long used these tropes to obfuscate and legitimise the violence that its armed forces commit against civilians in Kashmir.

Even the terrorist label that Indians employ for the armed rebels holds little merit on closer scrutiny. Locals often provide them shelter during gun battles, and young Kashmiris often try to march to battle sites in order to create safe passage for the rebels to escape.

Also, the armed rebels in Kashmir do not engage in bombings, abductions, repression of population groups, sexual violence or lootings; the kind of atrocious violence that defines modern terror outfits across the world.

Indian forces personnel engage in systematic human rights abuses in the region

Conversely, Indian forces are frequently accused of looting civilian homes in the aftermath of gun battles, with one officer of Indian-sponsored police recently defending the plunder, calling it "war-booty". 

Indian forces stationed in Kashmir also enjoy total impunity from any prosecution.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a colonial-era law enacted in Kashmir since 1990s, explicitly allows these forces to detain anyone, and without a formal warrant search or occupy any premises. It provides them absolute legal immunity unless the central Indian government sanctions otherwise.

The willingness of successive Indian governments to appease the security establishment and hawkish nationalist constituencies at the cost of Kashmiri lives, has turned AFSPA into an instrument that provides blanket cover to the Indian forces personnel who engage in systematic human rights abuses in the region.

According to a report by Amnesty International, through AFSPA, the central government has denied permission to prosecute the armed forces in every single case of alleged abuse. Even in the cases of rape and custodial killings, the permissions have been repeatedly withheld.

More recently, the Indian Supreme Court blocked a probe into the conduct of an army major, accused of leading a contingent that shot dead three civilians in Shopian district last month. In fact, on the insistence of Indian forces, the victims are regularly booked for various crimes on flimsy grounds.

Human rights activists and journalists have also been hounded and arbitrarily detained in the region.

In September of last year, Kamran Yusuf, a freelance photojournalist was detained by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India's primary counterterrorism institution, after he was slapped with charges of throwing stones at Indian forces in Kashmir.

The charge sheet for Yusuf's case however, reveals that he is being incarcerated for essentially carrying out his professional duties. Yusuf "did not cover any development activity," it reads , referring to the infrastructural developments carried out by the Indian government in the region. Therefore, according to the NIA, he is "not a real journalist".

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, while calling for Yusuf's immediate release, reiterated that his work taking photographs of conflict in Kashmir is a "public service in the best spirit of journalism".

International human rights organisations are barred from visiting the region.

In a recent statement, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN Human Rights Chief complained that, despite repeated requests, the agency is yet to receive unconditional access to Kashmir.

The Indian media, particularly the prime time TV news, also plays a deeply corrosive role in the perception of happenings in Kashmir. The hosts of some of the most popular news shows often spill vitriol against Kashmiris, branding them either Pakistan-sponsored terrorists or terrorist-sympathisers.

Serious human rights abuses are often framed as necessary measures to preserve the country's national security.

This regular demonisation of a Kashmiri as a dispensable "other" often inspires violent attacks against students and traders residing in mainland India.

Law enforcement agencies often harass Kashmiris arbitrarily, and many are denied accommodation in the mainland. In 2017 alone, more than 10 such incidents were reported.

Despite this heavy multi-pronged crackdown, Kashmiris, across the board, continue to display their deep resentment for Indian rule.

Read more: India's search operations disrupt and destroy Kashmiri lives 

Almost every week is marked by a general strike and street protests. PhD scholars as well as businessmen fill the ranks of armed rebels, debunking the notion that the insurgency in Kashmir is primarily a product of socio-economic marginalisation. 

The political leadership in India, despite growing suicide, fratricide and casualty rates among the forces stationed in Kashmir, continues to dismiss the dispute as mindless terrorism, and is exercising unrestrained military means to crush popular political demands.

At the same time, Kashmiris are continually pushed to the wall, and a tiny number of armed rebels are embracing global jihadist groups. Although there are no apparent operational or tactical linkages between the two, a local rebel commander, with a handful of fighters, recently pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

The political leadership in India, despite growing suicide, fratricide and casualty rates among the forces stationed in Kashmir, continues to dismiss the dispute as mindless terrorism

New Delhi urgently needs to build political channels and start an unconditional dialogue with Kashmiris to resolve this lethal, decades-old conflict, while allowing independent international monitors to investigate and prosecute the extensive human rights abuses committed by Indian forces in Kashmir.

Vying for a military resolution for political grievances, as the scholars of conflict resolution argue, either ends up compounding the situation or establishment of fragile, negative peace. 

As the dominant military power, the onus lies on the Indian government, to decide whether it wants to continue with intransigence, or negotiate with Kashmiris, a sustainable and dignified resolution to this lingering dispute.

Umar Lateef Misgar is a political analyst focusing on Kashmir and the Middle East. His work has appeared in The Independent,, London School of Economics Human Rights Centre blog, and elsewhere.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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