The Lonely Forces
First a little digression: On one frosty February afternoon in 1990, when my family was still in Kashmir, my cousins and I were playing in the courtyard of our house. Target killings by armed jihadis were rampant those days on the streets of Srinagar and as a result curfew was clamped in city for days. It had been sixth day of one such continuous curfew. Everyone was frustrated of being indoors.
Those were the darkest days of armed insurgency and we were petrified to open even the windows of our house. Everybody was tense. For children it meant no school for days and although we liked the thought initially, soon we were bored out of our mind and longed for school. It was on one of those cold afternoons, when we had absolutely nothing to do, my cousin a big boy of 15, whom we all looked up to, quietly opened the front entrance of our house just to peek at the street. He did it couple of times and was thrilled by his bravado.
Soon my other cousins gathered enough courage to do the same. I was the youngest and most timid. But my boredom had gotten the best of me and I joined the game as well. We opened and closed the gate few times and sure enough caught the attention of the soldier who was patrolling our street. Petrified and not knowing what to do, we mustered a smile and he smiled back at us. Too scared to shut the gate on him, four of us just froze there. He started walking towards us fully armed but a big smile on his face. As he walked past us, I still remember him leaning on the wall across the street from our house where it was hurriedly scribbled “Indian Dogs go back”.
I distinctly remember the irony of the situation, where a soldier was leaning against the graffiti which abused him. I am not sure if he noticed it. Or if he did, what did he think about being called a ‘dog’ in his own country.
Fast forward to 2011, when the debate around repealing of AFSPA has gained momentum, there were five grenade attacks in the heart of Srinagar a day after Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced his intention to repeal AFSPA. Senior member of ruling national conference and Chief Minister’s uncle Mustafa Kamal quickly announced on National television that Army might have orchestrated the attack. Not one prominent citizens group or political party in the valley expressed any outrage at his statement.
Being part of the ruling coalition in the center, NC sure was embarrassed and quickly distanced itself from the statement and Mr. Kamal was publicly chided by the Senior and Junior Abdullah. To me it was interesting to note how nothing had changed for the Army in Kashmir. It was still accused unfairly and its contribution to the peace grossly underestimated.
‘Army in Kashmir’ remains a sore point and most people who owe their livelihood to so called ‘Kashmir factory’ leave no stone unturned to prove that Indian Army is nothing but brutal and the sole reason why Kashmir valley is controlled by ‘evil imperialist Indian State’. This lopsided view is peddled with great efficacy to the west especially by the likes of Arundhati Roy and Basharat Peer.
If you knew nothing about Kashmir and were to read either of these writers you could be forgiven for thinking that India is an evil empire that uses its rogue Army to suppress the innocent population of Kashmiris in the valley. Another good example is that of Ghulam Nabi Fai. Before he was arrested by Americans for being a paid lobbyist for ISI, he was an active speaker and promoter of conferences where he would completely fudge the numbers and exaggerate the cases of human rights violations in Kashmir to please his handlers in Pakistan. The truth however is hidden amongst the true statistics which no one bothers to look into.
The biggest complaint against Army is that of human rights violation against the local population of the valley. Hundreds of stories have been churned, some in national press, but mostly in International press about the sheer ruthlessness of Indian Army. Numbers are easily inflated and mere allegations that have never been proven are paraded as gospel truth.
In October 2010, Army chief, General VK Singh clearly pointed out that 95% of the allegations were false and had been made with the ‘ulterior motive of maligning forces’. He further said that 988 complaints against the Army personnel had been received since 1994. Out of these 965 cases were investigated and 940 were found false accounting for 95.2 %.
This is not to say that human rights violations haven’t happened in the state. It is also not my case that Human rights violations by Army should be ignored. Even one innocent death is way too many whether it is at the hands of Armed forces or by militants. We should hold our Army to much higher standards. However, the forces seem to be targeted and wrongly accused just because they are seen as symbols of India by the local population of the valley.
Kashmir watchers and self confessed Kashmir lovers always like to bring up ‘Pathribal Massacre” as a weapon to vilify the forces. On March 26, 2000, in Pathribal, five people were killed, who the Army claimed were responsible for the earlier massacre of 35 members of Sikh Community in Chattisinghpora. It was later found out that these five people were innocent and this was a ‘fake encounter’. Every Kashmir watcher worth his salt has written ad nauseam about this incident, yet no one looks at the larger picture.
The intelligence for this operation was provided by the local sources. It was a joint operation with J&K police and they were the ones who had collected the intelligence. Yet Army is the only one who is blamed for this incident. The SSP police who was involved in this operation was not found guilty and was reinstated. A case has been filed against the five Army officers of 7 Rashtriya Rifles, the battalion that carried out the operation. While the law will and must take due course in this case it is important to point out that local people protested in huge numbers over these innocent killings and rightly so.
However, Chattisingpora massacre which happened five days before this, where 35 Sikhs were gunned down, still remains an unsolved mystery. While everyone knows that it was Lashkar e Toiba operation, yet the official line still remains that the ‘unidentified gunmen’ shot these people. No one in the valley except the Sikh community ever protested for the killers of these innocent Sikhs to be brought to justice.
Another interesting example is the relatively recent Kulgam Rape case. In July earlier this year a 32 year old woman, resident of Manzgam village in Kulgam alleged that two Army men abducted her and gangraped her for two days. As soon as the news spread the separatists and the mainstream political parties brought the valley to a standstill. All roads in the area were taken over by protestors, there was violence on the roads and the valley was nearly brought to the brink again.
Even though, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah immediately took to the Twitter and said no one in Army would be spared with or without AFSPA, and legal process would not be hampered, yet nothing could pacify the protestors. Lt. Gen. S A Hasnain, General Officer Commanding of 15 corps, went on record to say that if there was any truth to the allegations, strongest action will be taken. It did seem implausible that two Army personnel could stay away from their Unit for 48 hours without being caught.
But the protestors would have nothing of this and were soon baying for the blood of Army officers. As the probe began, slowly the case began to unravel. Soon the woman herself in front of the magistrate said that she had left her house on her own and was neither abducted nor raped. The medical investigation by independent agencies also ruled out any assault. There were multiple contradictory statements made by the family and the woman. Her mother in law even went on record saying that the woman was mentally unstable and her husband feigned ignorance.
To cut the long story short, the case completely fizzled out on its own. There was hushed silence in the valley. All those inciting violence behind their guarded mansions remained quiet. No one was apologetic for wrongly accusing the army. No Op- Eds were written in the local newspapers and there was deafening silence.
There are many such cases which are mere allegations and haven’t been proven but the Army has always been at the short end of the stick. Lt. Gen S A Hasnain has said several times that combat uniform has been worn by terrorists for years and a lot of crimes committed by them have been wrongly attributed to the Army. No one is ready to look at the truth however. Who cares about the truth if lies are so profitable?
There is a lot of propaganda against Army in Kashmir. The Government of India unfortunately with its eyes on vote bank and appeasement politics has done precious little to counter the vicious propaganda. It is interesting to note that a lot of these Kashmir activists will run from pillar to post screaming that just because there are some misguided Kashmiri Muslim youth who have taken to violence not everyone is a terrorist in the valley and we must not paint everyone with the same brush. Fair enough, yet they have no qualms about painting the entire Armed forces rogue and ruthless just because there have been few human rights violations in last 22 years. Not even one innocent death or rape is excusable, and if some Army personnel are involved in any such case, they should be severely punished.
However to vilify the entire Armed forces for some isolated events is not acceptable either. I wonder what these vicious campaigns against Army in the valley must do to the morale of an average soldier who is ready to sacrifice his life to protect our country. It doesn’t augur very well of the country that is not proud of its Armed forces and does not defend the sanctity of its missions.
The truth of the matter is that ideally there should no Army in the civilian areas of Kashmir or anywhere, there should be no AFSPA, and state police should be able to handle the law and order on its own. Yet the ground reality in Kashmir is entirely different. The infiltration on the LOC continues unabated. Valley has seen only one peaceful summer, and can be brought to brink again by just the slightest of provocation. We need to let peace gain some valuable ground in the valley before the Army can be sent back to barracks.