OPINION: Institutionalising violence

SRINAGAR, Kashmir(Dawn/ANN) - The use of human shields by the Indian Army in held Kashmir has been reported many times in the past since the start of militancy in the 1990s.

It has been some nine months since Farooq Ahmed Dar was used as a human shield by the Indian Army. He was strapped to the bonnet of a jeep and then paraded through 28 villages when by-polls were held for the Srinagar-Budgam parliament constituency. Yet justice continues to elude him. Like the majority of the victims of rights abuse by the Indian Army in the past, he may never get any justice.

Dar was snatched by soldiers at Utligam village on the orders of Maj Leetul Gogoi on April 9 when he was travelling to a nearby village to condole the death of his relative. The incident happened an hour after he had cast his vote at his village, which was verified by the election officials.

The lowly shawl weaver of Chill Brass village told me he was expecting only two things from the Indian state: a mobile phone and justice. “When the soldiers tied me to the jeep, my mother called me repeatedly. A soldier got angry and took away my phone and did not return it,” Dar told me. “I can’t afford another phone. I appeal to the army to please return my phone.”

Dar’s ordeal came to fore after a video clip showing him being paraded by the army went viral with a soldier atop the jeep warning people that “whosoever will protest or pelt stones at the army, he will meet the same fate (as Dar)”.

The issue grabbed headlines in the press — locally and abroad. Under pressure, Gogoi told the media that he did it to save the polling staff which was held hostage by protesters, a claim which stands unverified. The incident embarrassed the government following which the police registered an FIR against the army. The police recently told the J&K high court that investigations into the matter have not registered any headway because the army was not cooperating.

The State Human Rights Commission recommended a million rupees be given to Dar as compensation for torture, humiliation and illegal confinement. But the government has refused to comply, arguing Dar has made no allegations of rights violation “against the state or any of its functionaries”. That has exposed the government’s duplicity on the issue: on the one hand, police have told the court that the army was not cooperating, and on the other that Dar has not levelled any allegations of rights abuse by the state or any of its organs.

Dar told me he was tortured and humiliated by the army. “I can’t sleep properly, and get nightmares even after nine months,” he said. He said soldiers were deriving sadistic pleasure from his plight. “They took a picture of me and said your father will be pleased to see it, not knowing my father was long dead,” Dar recalled.

The humble artisan, who lives with his mother, said he never pelted stones at the government forces and had voted that day, an act considered a betrayal by many Kashmiris due to the overwhelming sentiment for freedom. “I voted and yet they didn’t spare me. What would they do to the people who do not vote?” he asked.

What added insult to the injury was the Indian army chief Bipin Rawat awarding Maj Gogoi with a commendation card for his “sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations”. The move was interpreted by people in India-held Kashmir and outside as an approval by the army for all methods to subdue the Kashmiris.

Not only Rawat, but many BJP leaders in New Delhi, and the hyper-nationalist New Delhi-based media, hailed Gogoi as a hero. T-shirts, emblazoned with the sketch of Dar sitting on the bonnet of the military jeep were also sold.

“Everything is fair in love and war,” retorted Ram Madhav, the BJP’s national general secretary, who is on deputation from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to the BJP, when asked for his reaction on the army using civilians as human shields in Kashmir.

Dar was not the first such victim and nor will he be the last. The use of human shields by the Indian Army in held Kashmir has been reported many times in the past since the start of militancy in the 1990s.

Human rights organisations like the Coalition of Civil Society have documented a number of such cases where young men have been used as human shields during encounters with rebels. Many times the men were asked to lay explosive mines inside the buildings where the rebels were taking shelter because of which many people were killed or maimed.

Since the start of the armed rebellion, no soldier or officer found guilty by the courts has been prosecuted because of the protection they enjoy under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The AFSPA has been lifted from several north-eastern Indian states but when it comes to Kashmir, the army and civilian leadership refuse to listen. Under this law, a soldier can shoot at anybody even on mere suspicion. Rights defenders say the sole aim of this law has been to institutionalise violence in order to instil fear among the people to suppress the prevailing political sentiment. They explain that if the government starts giving justice to the victims, it will demoralise the forces and complicate their efforts to execute the job of holding “territory through use of overwhelming force” in the name of the national interest.

The victims of rights violations do end up in courts to seek justice, which at least helps document the crimes of soldiers and other government forces. It also helps the local human rights organisations seek the support of international bodies for justice. The court records come in handy in highlighting the denial of prosecutions against the guilty. They also help establish that the victims tried to get justice from the institutions — a key condition before one can approach international forums.

For the moment, Dar feels fortunate that he is living to tell his tale due to a video shot by an unknown person.

The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist.

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