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Death in Kashmir

That view is what the Indian government offered again in early August, when more than a hundred people, mostly Hindu, were killed in Kashmir, a week after the biggest pro-Pakistan guerrilla outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen—which, interestingly, was held responsible by the Indian government in March for the killings in Chitisinghpura—declared what turned out to be a very brief cease-fire.

It is still not clear—and probably won’t be for some time—what actually happened, even during the most widely reported of the recent killings in Pahalgam, the Kashmir town where, according to the Indian government, two pro-Pakistan guerrillas killed more than thirty Hindu pilgrims. Later reports said that the two suspected guerrillas were killed by soldiers of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), one of the Indian paramilitary organizations in Kashmir, soon after they assaulted a heavily guarded military camp; and in the fifteen to twenty minutes it took the CRPF to kill the guerrillas seven people died in the cross fire. The Indian prime minister himself, on a visit to Pahalgam, was confronted with hostile survivors who accused the CRPF of looting and killing pilgrims and Muslim shopowners of Pahalgam for almost forty-five minutes after the two suspected guerrillas had been shot dead.5

In another mysterious incident reminiscent of Chitisinghpura, gunmen in uniform were seen massacring nineteen migrant laborers, the poorest and most defenseless people in Kashmir, a few hours after the killings in Pahalgam. But there was hardly any follow-up coverage; and few people know who killed thirty-five people, some of them Muslims, in the remote jungles of Doda in South Kashmir in early August, since the reports about the murders seemed based on nothing more reliable than press statements put about by the Indian police and army.

The Indian government blamed guerrilla outfits working “at the behest of Pakistan”; the intention behind the killings, it said, was to disrupt the peace process. But it is not clear why Pakistan, which has long bankrolled the Hizbul Mujahideen and which brought about its declaration of cease-fire, should cancel its own moves by organizing killings in Kashmir, particularly at a time when the world’s attention was fixed on the region. It is more likely that one or more guerrilla outfits opposed to the cease-fire acted without Pakistan’s supervision or approval. The Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accused Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is mostly composed of fanatical holy warriors from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But that organization, which, along with the Hizbul Mujahideen, was also blamed for killing the Sikhs of Chitisinghpura, condemned the killings and rejected the possibility that its recruits might have murdered civilians—a disavowal that is in contrast to its usual eagerness in claiming attacks on the Indian military and police, such as the recent bombing in Srinagar, which killed thirteen army and policemen, and which was claimed by both Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. There is, as yet, no convincing evidence linking them to any of the more than six separate incidents of extreme violence against civilians. These killings thus take their place, along with the murder of the Sikhs, with some very relevant but ultimately obscure and unexplained incidents in Kashmir’s recent history.

As it turned out, the massacres in early August weren’t what undermined the cease-fire, which continued for another week before breaking down over the Indian government’s refusal to include Pakistan in any discussion of Kashmir. This failure was inevitable. The Hindu nationalists, to whom the Mujahideen’s unilateral cease-fire came as a shock, could not have risked alienating much of their middle-class constituency by talking to General Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, who is held chiefly responsible in India for the disastrous battles between Pakistan-backed infiltrators and the Indian army in Kashmir last year, in which hundreds of Indian soldiers died. The massacres were presented by an aggrieved-seeming Mr. Vajpayee to Bill Clinton as another reason why he can’t sit across the negotiating table from General Musharraf.

What has long been clear is that the Indian government does not wish to involve Pakistan or any other country in what it considers to be an internal matter. In the first fifty years of its existence, the Indian state has several times defused secessionist uprisings across India without any external assistance, through locally produced carrots and sticks, a blend of force and appeasement. You can see the same gradualistic strategy at work in Kashmir, where the government has attempted in the last few years to win over at least some representatives of the disaffected population: some of the most corrupt and rich men in Kashmir are former guerrillas. At the same time, it has tried to crush militarily those fundamentalist outfits operating from Pakistan who believe, somewhat fancifully, that jihad, if pursued vigorously enough, might force India to concede Kashmir.

However, the insurgency in Kashmir, unlike previous insurgencies in Punjab and Assam, pits India against an unstable, traditionally hostile, and now nuclear-armed neighbor. This means that even if India were to succeed in pacifying Kashmir on its own, the possibility of a calamitous war in South Asia would remain.

A more enduring peace can only be reached through three-way talks between India, Pakistan, and the representatives of Kashmir. In this respect, the cease-fire was a good beginning; its immense popularity among Muslims in Kashmir certainly made all the warring sides aware of the need for change. But the Indian government, as much as the jihad-minded guerrillas, seems to prefer the status quo in Kashmir. The failure of the cease-fire means not only that it has managed to avoid talking to Pakistan. It has intensified its campaign to internationally demonize Pakistan, which includes trying to persuade the USState Department to put Pakistan on its list of terrorist states. By parleying, however briefly and fruitlessly, with the Hizbul Mujahideen, it has also managed to present itself before the world as being flexible and open-minded about Kashmir while creating the possibility of a severe rupture between the largest guerrilla outfit and the more hard-line Islamic groups that stress the futility of any kind of negotiations with the Indian government and want to carry on their jihad against India.6

The number of atrocities on both sides in Kashmir is so high, and the situation in general so murky, that it is hard to get to the truth, to confirm, for instance, India’s claim, in both late March and early August, that Muslim terrorists are always responsible for them. Few people in India even talk of Chitisinghpura anymore; it did not come up when the senior bureaucrat I had seen on television in March accusing the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba of killing the Sikhs traveled to Srinagar in early August to talk to the guerrillas about ground rules for the short-lived cease-fire. And the forgetfulness and murkiness will remain: the recent killings will soon be supplanted by something bigger; there will be the usual exchange of allegations between India and Pakistan, the usual outrage and condemnation around the world; and no more than a few people will know what is really going on.

At present, what supports India’s forcefully articulated sense of victimhood after the incidents of March and August is the basic fear and distrust in the West of anything related to Islamic extremism. The United States refused to join India in blaming Pakistan for the recent killings in Kashmir, but the State Department has kept up its pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Kashmiri guerrillas and their Islamic fundamentalist sponsors in Pakistan and Afghanistan.7 The cease-fire by the Hizbul Mujahideen is believed to have been a result of some gentle arm-twisting of the Pakistan government by the State Department.8

The involvement of the State Department is also hinted by the speed with which the Indian government responded, after its initial silence, to the cease-fire. Since the cease-fire broke down, it has repeatedly declared its willingness to talk to any guerrilla outfit without involving Pakistan. There is an immediate incentive for the Indian government in working up a certain amount of enthusiasm about any US-mediated dialogue with the guerrillas: some of the more significant American sanctions imposed on India after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 are still in place. And then the Hindu nationalists, who now claim that India chose the wrong and losing side in the cold war, and many of whose richest patrons belong to the 800,000-strong Indian- American community, are keen on building a strong military and economic relationship with the United States.

The cautiously pro-India policies now followed by the United States derive from the assumption that India, since it is more stable and economically stronger than Pakistan, would be a reliable ally in South Asia. The assumption may well prove true; but it makes the government of Hindu nationalists much too complacent, and ends up undermining the already fragile safeguards for civil liberties in India’s imperfect democracy.

The government has been steadily indifferent to the several requests from human rights organizations and Indian political parties for an independent probe into the massacres of March and August. In the Indian parliament, the Union Law Minister asked members from opposition parties to drop their demand for an inquiry into the recent killings since it only helped Pakistan “point accusing fingers at India.” A spokesman of the BJP exhorted members of parliament to instead “concentrate on exposing the evil designs of Pakistan.”9

The Indian media, which usually shares such blinkered nationalism, is unlikely even to attempt to find out the truth behind the killings. A few hours after the murder of the Sikhs in March, the premier TV channel was already asserting, though its correspondent had yet to reach the site, and none of the police and army officers assembled could offer a clue, that the killings were the work of Pakistan-backed guerrillas; and this was to become the general Indian view. Later, the news of the army’s killing the five “foreign mercenaries” at Panchalthan was reported in the same unquestioning way. The protests of the villagers against Indian officials were hardly mentioned by the Indian press until unarmed demonstrators were fired upon and nine men died, and then the news was lost again.

There is no point in blaming the Kashmiri journalists who represent Indian newspapers in the valley. All of them know from experience what their bosses in Delhi will or will not publish. And it isn’t easy even on the rare occasion that they have full liberty to investigate; the threat of violence from the guerrillas and the Indian security forces is ever-present, and can’t be underestimated: several journalists exploring human rights violations have been murdered, many more beaten up and threatened.

One’s own capacity for exposing oneself to human distress on this scale turns out to be small. The figures alone are numbing. More than 30,000 people, mostly Muslims—and these are conservative figures—have been killed, maimed, or disappeared in the last ten years. The Indian army and police have lost a few thousand men, while they have killed many more Muslim guerrillas and civilians. There is hardly a family among the four million-strong Muslim population of the valley which hasn’t been affected by either side. Abbas said, while we discussed possible stories I could cover, “You must do widows and orphans.” I had foolishly asked, “Where can I find them?” Abbas had let the remark go; he simply said, “Anywhere.” And it was true: widows and orphans were as ubiquitous as graveyards and ruins in the valley.

  1. 5

    See The Kashmir Times, August 4 and 7, 2000.

  2. 6

    The Indian government here seems to be adopting a tactic that has successfully marginalized what was once the largest and most popular guerrilla group in Kashmir, the secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which declared a cease-fire in the mid-1990s, went nowhere in its talks with the Indian government, and was quickly pushed into irrelevance by more assertive Islamic groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen.

  3. 7

    See The New York Times, “Pakistan Outlines Plans to Curb Militant Networks,” June 10, 2000, and “South Asia Called Major Terror Hub in a Survey by US,” April 30, 2000.

  4. 8

    See “The Ice Melts, But Slowly,” Outlook, August 14, 2000.

  5. 9

    See The Asian Age, August 9, 2000, and Rediff.com, August 8, 2000.

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