September 15, 2010 | Special to ‘The Bengal Post’

by Praful Bidwai

The visit of the all-party delegation to Jammu and Kashmir wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, a spectacular success. It didn’t have a mandate based on a broad policy consensus. It was preceded by little sounding out of different strands of opinion in the curfew-bound Valley. It was led by one of the architects of India’s recent Kashmir policy which has left the Valley bleeding, under prolonged curfew, and with a death-toll exceeding 100. The delegation failed to get any assurance from the “separatist” leaders on help to normalise the law-and-order situation.

However, the visit was indisputably a major success in one respect: this is the first time that a large number of leaders from a broad spectrum of parties made a collective effort to acquaint themselves with the ground-level situation in the Valley and got exposed to ordinary people and their experiences. They couldn’t have been unmoved by young children entreating them not to steal their childhood from them. Nor could they have failed to empathise with old women mourning their grandchildren’s death.

Daily life in the Valley has become an unending purgatory for people—with no freedom of movement, no medicines, with most schools closed, and with terrible “collateral damage” from frequent confrontations between demonstrators armed with no more than stones, and the police and paramilitary who use live bullets.

This is a particularly odious phase in Kashmir’s long, sordid human rights story. Put simply, this is a blood-soaked history of arbitrary arrest, detention without warrant, enforced disappearances, custodial killings, rapes, unprovoked firing by security personnel, and collective punishment of whole villages for the violent acts of one of their residents.

The number of people estimated to have died since the azaadi movement erupted in 1989 varies from 35,000 to 60,000. But even the lower number bears hair-raising testimony to the extensive abuse of human rights in J&K, in particular the Valley.

Civilian killings are the ultimate violation of human rights, the snuffing out of life, the most fundamental right. But Kashmir has suffered a whole range of violations of both civil and political rights and economic and social rights amidst a situation of virtual occupation by the Indian Army, Central Reserve Police, Border Security Force and other paramilitary forces, numbering 4 lakhs (by one estimate, 7 lakhs) pitted against some 60 lakh civilians. This is probably one of the highest ratios of armed personnel (including non-state militants) to civilians anywhere in the world, barring war zones like Afghanistan, and failed states like Zaire or Rwanda.

Kashmir’s separatist insurgents are also guilty of human rights violations, including rape, abduction, suppression of the freedom of speech and political choice, and outright murder. But their violations pale beside the systematic and deliberate excesses of the Indian state. Any number of reports by national, international and multilateral organisations, including the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights, have documented these.

The story they tell is one of Kashmiris being forced to live like aliens, suspects, criminals and subversives in their own homeland, where they must carry identity cards and curfew passes just to conduct routine daily activities. They cannot live as a civic or political community except on terms defined by the state. They must suffer either Centrally-imposed puppets or fanatics who know no politics other than coercion. They have been excluded from citizenship not just of India, but of their own homeland and state.

Worse, they are treated like animals. The process of dehumanisation runs deep in the Valley. In situations of insurgency, not just militants, but even civilians, are seen by the state through all kinds of stereotypes not as “lawful enemy combatants”, but as traitors. As a psychologist puts it: “Dehumanisation enables us to view the enemy as subhuman—as demons, monsters or nonhuman waste. In turn, dehumanisation facilitates acts of violence. By emphasising the ‘otherness’ or inhumanity of the enemy, or by branding them as subhuman, criminal or depraved, they are not deemed to deserve the consideration to which human beings are entitled.”

The Valley has seen this process in its most evolved and advanced avatar. The dehumanisation is manifested through a number of practices—Army convoys poking passers-by with bamboo poles, and strip-searching young men—and by laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Public Safety Act and Disturbed Areas Act which give security forces sweeping powers to shoot, kill, arrest and detain along with blanket immunity from prosecution.

These laws violate international law enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Convention Against Torture, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of Enforced Disappearances.

This situation is unacceptable. The Army and paramilitary forces cannot be used to colonise our own people. India must not rule Kashmir by suppressing fundamental rights—consciously and as a matter of policy. We must dismantle the whole structure of oppression, violence and rights violation.

A good beginning would be to withdraw not just the AFSPA, but the Army from all civilian areas. This should be followed by a sincere, credible dialogue with both Pakistan and the Valley’s disaffected forces for a solution based on “soft borders”, in which the former state of J&K gets exceptional autonomy and local self-rule, guaranteed by India and Pakistan. That’s the way to go.