How violence has changed Kashmiri society

Much has been written about the political and legal aspects of the Kashmir issue, but little material is available on how violence has altered the social fabric of the Indian-administered territory in recent decades. It almost seems a mystery how a once docile people have turned violent. The present generation — "the children of war" –knows little about their ancient Sufi culture and Kashmir’s high level of tolerance. The people are living under tremendous stress, and this has deeply changed their cultural and social values.

The confrontation between the militants and Indian forces has resulted in massive human rights violations, in which there is no letup. Young men are the target of both the militants and the trigger-happy troops. The state forces are involved in a process of elimination of those youths they consider potential militants. On the other hand, the militants persuade young men to join their ranks to fight the state forces.

Women and children are the ultimate victims of this turmoil. Children are 38 percent of the state’s population. Out of these, 5-6 percent are either orphans or neglected children. There are a large number of families which have lost one or more members, without there being a financial support system for those families which have lost earning members. An estimated 50,000 orphans and 25,000 widows are the product of the conflict in Kashmir. The widows and children of slain militants find it particularly difficult to survive. Neighbours and friends, at times even relatives, are reluctant to support them for fear of the troops and police.

Raped girls are another story. Few of them can expect to find men willing to marry them, with the rest left unable to rebuild their shattered lives. This coincides with the growing trend of late marriage among Kashmiri men. Single men in their late 30s are more common than ever before. Many raped women have been disowned by their families because of social disgrace. This leaves some living on dole from social organisations, if they cannot find even menial jobs. Others are eventually forced into prostitution, or find their way into the drugs trade, which is now a booming business particularly the more seriously affected areas of the territory.

One of the worst dimensions of this conflict is the displacement of Pandits from the Valley. About 250,000 Pundits have had to leave their homes in the Valley, which has a Muslim majority, to take refuge in Hindu-majority Jammu and places in India. Very few Pandits have had a chance to revisit their homes during the last decade. Their children are growing up in alien surroundings, and have few memories of the Valley. Worse, some of them have become part of extremist Hindu groups, and have developed a deep hostility towards Muslims and Pakistan. More than 5,000 Pandits still manage to live in the Valley. A few hundred quietly came back during the last couple of years with the help of neighbours and friends.

The community used to play a significant part in different spheres of life in the Valley and, barring a few exceptions, the people deeply feel the Pandits’ vacuum. All sides in the Valley, from the nationalists and the Hurriyat Conference to the state government, favour the Pandits’ right to return to their homes, but none of them is in a position to ensure them protection if they decide to come back.

Part of the reason why the violence is going on is that the different stakeholders in Kashmir, including the armed forces and non-state actors, are believed to have developed a commercial interest in the continuation of the conflict. The forces are involved in illegal businesses and in extortion from people. On the other hand, there are many Kashmiri groups which receive money in the name of the Kashmir cause all over the world but rarely share it with the suffering people. Pro-Indian local political leaders use their position to receive benefits from New Delhi. Government servants and contractors have made big money, while others make millions of rupees in black money or in hawala pickings.

Accurate casualty figures are the prime causality in this war.

Pro-independence groups say 100,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict in 1989, while the Indian government puts the figure at no more then 45,000. There is also a dispute on the total number of Indian forces deployed in Kashmir. The Indian Home Ministry puts it at about 350,000, while pro-independence elements maintain they are over 600,000. Likewise, it is also impossible to get exact information about the total number of active militants.

Leading Indian human rights activist Gautam Navlakha says that there were an estimated 300 fighters in 1989, facing 36,000 Indian troops. The number of troops deployed in the territory has now crossed the 500,000 mark, even though the number of fighters operating in Kashmir has gone down from a high of 10,000 in 1992-93 to 3,000 now. Thus, it is really difficult for any independent observer to get to the truth as far as figures are concerned.

How to address the problems of the territory? To begin with, New Delhi must accept, at least symbolically, the disputed status of the Kashmir state. It can win the support and confidence of Kashmiris to help move forward the ongoing peace process with Pakistan.

Talking to this writer, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, declared that India would first of all have to recognise that it has not fulfilled its commitments to Kashmiris. This kind of confession can itself have the potential of bringing about a transformation of the situation. It is extremely important to revive the shaken confidence of Kashmiris.

Meanwhile, there is a strong need for a follow-up on the bus service with a series of other Kashmir-specific CBMs for the reduction of alienation in the ordinary people in the territory and for the creation in them of a sense of ownership in the peace process.