WikiLeaks, ICRC and Kashmir

The WikiLeaks report on widespread torture employed by the Indian army and paramilitary forces in Kashmir may have come as a surprise to some people for this is not what they expect from the ‘largest democracy’ in the world. However, in Kashmir the leak was simply digested as a mere attestation of what has been going on for decades. In Kashmir, the lack of any enthusiasm at the revelations may be due to the near total cynicism among Kashmiris as the world has forgotten their sufferings. 

During the last twenty years of insurgency and public rebellion, Kashmir has suffered unprecedented levels of death and destruction. According to various estimates, more than 100,000 civilians have died and about 10,000 are missing, mostly unlawfully arrested by the Indian troops and then made to disappear. In 2008, a group of Kashmiri and Indian human rights activists discovered thousands of unnamed mass graves. Kashmiris believe that they contain victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses.

Despite international pledges by the Indian authorities and continuous promises to seek a political solution to the vexed ‘Kashmir problem’, repression, torture and murder remain the chief tools for India in its engagement with Kashmir. Although once formidable insurgency is all but eliminated, Kashmir remains on boil, owing to continuous human rights violations, torture and humiliation of the people. This was the main trigger for the youth-led new intifada in last June, when millions poured out on the streets demanding azadi. The Indian response was not different from the past –” the Indian army and the security forces killed more than 100 civilians, mainly youths, and injured thousands more.

The WikiLeaks story may have embarrassed the ‘world’s largest democracy’ for a moment or so, but it has elicited the time tested, oft-repeated and well choreographed response –” blanket denial of any violations. Speaking to BBC, the Director General of Kashmir Police, SM Sahai, inadvertently accepted the presence of secret torture centres to which the ICRC will not access, only to deny it seconds later. Omar Abdullah, the pro-India Chief Minister of Kashmir brushed aside any need for an inquiry stating that the torture happened when he was not in power. Contrary to his resolve “not to allow any sort of incidents of custodial torture or any sort of breach of law”, a leading Kashmiri newspaper, Greater Kashmir published a list containing details of at least seven youths, all of them civilians, who were tortured to death by the police in recent months.

The youngest victim of the police brutality was Sameer Ahmed Rah, a 9-year old resident of Batamaloo in Srinagar. He was beaten to death by the Indian paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Another victim of the torture death was Syed Farakh Bukhari, a media student. He was arrested after taking part in protest demonstrations. Two weeks later his dead body was found with multiple torture marks.

If the Indian response to the WikiLeaks allegations demonstrates anything, it is this: The Indian state is not prepared to afford any respect to human life and dignity in Kashmir. Despite several promises to uphold Kashmiri right to life and dignity by the highest Indian authorities including many Indian Prime Ministers in the past and the incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Kashmiris live under siege –” threatened, humiliated and murdered on almost daily basis. In June this year, when  Manmohan Singh visited Kashmir, he mentioned many lofty phrases in his public address including ‘economic prosperity’, ‘good governance’ and ‘strengthening relations’. But according to a Kashmir Times editorial, he deliberately skirted the human rights issue, “that lies at the core of the deepening alienation and lack of faith in Indian democratic and legal systems”. The Prime Minister’s visit came only days after mass protests against the revelations of the ‘Machil fake encounter’ in which the Indian Army, like scores of similar incidents, had killed civilians and later dubbed them as terrorists. Commenting on the promise of ‘zero tolerance for human rights violations’ that Manmohan Singh made in Kashmir few years ago, the Kashmir Times observed: “Years ago, from this very soil, he [Prime Minister Manmohan Singh] made a solemn promise to the people of Kashmir when he assured zero tolerance to human rights violations. Ever since, the promise has been observed in breach”. 

It is because of any lack of interest in the welfare of Kashmiri population, that the current pro-India Kashmiri government has tried every means to block any sensible and legal attempts to rein in the murderous armed forces. In summer this year, an independent member of the local legislature, Engineer Rashid, tried to introduce ‘a private member’s anti torture bill’ seeking to make the paramilitary forces and the police more accountable. This was summarily rejected by the government. Such a hostile and anti-people stance leaves very little room for any maneuver to seek a sensible and a political solution to the vexed problem.

The failure of the international community to take any notice of the rampant human rights violations has emboldened Indian authorities to continue their unceasing repression. In mid-90s, when I worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kashmir and New Delhi, I can recall umpteen incidents where we were harassed and bullied, denied access to detainees and at few times even threatened. At one time in 1996, we received credible reports that the Indian intelligence agencies were exploring possibilities to kill some of our delegates through counter-insurgent groups in order for it to be blamed on Kashmiri insurgents. As a result, the ICRC had to abandon few field missions or discreetly reschedule them. The threat was so severe that I had to remain in Delhi for more than a month.

At a great risk to its staff, ICRC worked tirelessly collecting data about more than 300 secret torture centres based inside the Indian Army and paramilitary camps. Despite several requests, majority of them remained out of bounds for the ICRC personnel.

Without any international support, the leaks will make it harder for the ICRC to work in Kashmir, as India is likely to increase its pressure on the ICRC and its personnel. If the world conscience cannot be bothered to come to the help of Kashmiri victims, the least it can do is to support the ICRC.