India’s moral defeat in Kashmir

State brutalisation puts the fear of the arbitrary in everyone, gradually making all Kashmiris potential victims.

kashmir: the forgotten conflict - india''s moral defeat in kashmir
A system of state brutality – marked by thousands of nameless graves – reigns in Kashmir [Showkat Shafi]

In the early 1990s, I had a long conversation with a former Kashmiri militant. Among other things, I asked him why he had given up. He did not, or could not, go beyond inchoate answers that hovered around fear, disillusionment, uncertainty, and so on.

There was one thing, however, that struck me as significant, thought provoking and ultimately disturbing. He said he was grateful to the authorities that he had not been killed in custody. He had spent a few nights in a local prison when he was picked up by the armed forces a year or so after he had given up. His family feared for his life, so they went on a frenzied campaign to save him, and they did succeed in getting him out alive. In Kashmir many do not, as we witnessed in the recent custodial killing of 28-year-old Nazim Rashid in the town of Sopore in central Kashmir.

At the time, I did not fully register the import of what the former militant had said. Here was someone, even though a former combatant, who had come to believe that it was routine for the state, the government as he put it, to kill him while in their custody. He was grateful for not having been killed extra-judicially.

In other words, he had accepted the perversion of the idea of justice, and also of the moral and legal order, in his life – as well as in the world around him – and come to accept, and then believe, that was the normative relationship between the state and its subject.

The state, in this case the Indian state as it operates in Kashmir, does not execute this relationship only through the stated mechanism of coercion, extraordinary legal provisions such as those black laws AFSPA (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and PSA (the Public Safety Act), which mock the very concept of legality. It also employs deliberate legal, moral and technical obfuscations to do so.

‘Acts of mass murder’

Nearly 20 years later, this kind of brutality by the state continues unabated, and a damning testament of it was on display last year in a particularly barbaric and almost ritualistic performance of state power when the men who run Kashmir decided that the most effective way to deal with unarmed protesters on the street was to shoot them dead.

There are clear statutes in international law that apply to the treatment of civilian protesters and prisoners in conflict regions – the killings of 2010 may not go to The Hague, but there were what could be seen as ‘acts of mass murder’ throughout the summer of that year. It is also important to remember that no one has been held accountable, let alone punished for any of those murders, which by itself is a shameful indictment of the state’s behaviour. And that is one of the many consequences and expressions of the abnormal structures that the state employs to deal with dissent and enforce normalcy – no one is held accountable, and therefore no one among those who wield the reins of power feels responsible even for mass murder.

Perhaps that is why no one ever resigns in places such as Kashmir. Immunity (the word assumes a horrific meaning in the official lexicon of conflict) guaranteed by draconian legal structures is all pervasive, and cushions everyone in the military-police structure, right down to the level of the most ordinary functionary of the state.

This is how you have a state that kills the mentally handicapped Ashok Kumar in the border district of Poonch, claims he was the divisional commander Abu Usman of the LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), provides a detailed press release about the long encounter, and when the truth about a premeditated murder is revealed, does not even bother to put out an apology. No cogent explanation of the murder or answers to rudimentary questions are offered – such as if it was a ‘goof up’ (a term used by some sections of the Indian press) why did they make it a point to claim that it took 12 hours to kill this ‘militant’?

But then Kashmir has witnessed many instances of premeditated murder, also known as ‘fake encounters’ – a term reminiscent of Bollywood gangland-speak. And barring one instance of a punishment amounting to termination of active service in the case of the Machhil ‘fake encounter’ of April 2010, and a few police officials serving prison terms, no one from the armed forces has been punished for any of the murders in Pathribal (2000), Ganderbal (2006), Lolab (2004) and other cases before that.

The language of conquest

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On the street, then, amidst a brutalised people who are expected to behave normally as an acquiescent citizenry, the state that wants the world to believe that Kashmir is an integral part of India is often found speaking the language of conquest. Martin Luther King’s ‘arc of the moral universe’ does not bend towards justice in places such as Kashmir, it does not even begin to stir, because the compass is not still – it is comatose.

How does this almost completely dehumanised ‘conflict management’ (for neither India nor Pakistan have demonstrated any serious intent to resolve the dispute) impinge on the lives of ordinary people, and what are its goals with regard to the aspirations of those people?

The perpetrator of violence, whether by immediate personal choice or as part of a system that allows the executor to live in moral comfort or comfortable moral ambiguity, wants the victim to “renounce all claims to asserting his identity”. This is essentially what violence, torture, brutality are meant to do. To reduce a person, a mind, and consequently a collective of minds, to a “spiritless body”. And that, then, is what a repressive regime in Kashmir, an oppressive ruler in Arabia, or an occupying super power in Afghanistan, ultimately seeks to achieve: the complete destruction of the will of the victim, which in turn ensures a people kept in submission, slavery even.

And if you factor in other mechanisms of subjugation, for instance, turning people into willing or unwilling accomplices and collaborators, you have a well-oiled, thriving security or police state in which moral and legal insanity becomes the norm. And so we arrive at a former militant who is grateful that the state did not kill him in prison.

In the 1990s, the Indian state put in place a system of brutalisation to crush the armed revolt in Kashmir. As a prerequisite to that horrific state of affairs marked by thousands of nameless burials, littered corpses, street massacres and notorious torture chambers (Papa II in Kashmir was Abu Ghraib before Abu Ghraib became Abu Ghraib), a suspension of moral and legal order is necessary. That is how the case for dark emergency laws, reminiscent of the worst dictatorial regimes of the last century, becomes acceptable to the agency imposing it. Again, in the case of this state, these bulwarks of tyranny not only become acceptable but, as a general of the Indian army would have us believe, also tenets from a ‘holy book’.

This then gradually makes everyone a victim, and in my reckoning, worse, a potential victim. Fear is the overarching thread here. Apart from a handful of members of the elite and collaborators needed to check the governance box, everyone is a victim. Some directly, others indirectly. Brutalisation, beyond the immediate goal of crushing people’s aspirations or an armed revolt, means putting the fear of the arbitrary in everyone. ‘Anything can happen to you – anytime,’ the state seems to say to the common Kashmiri almost all the time. As the family of Nazim Rashid, the latest victim of custodial murder in Kashmir, found out.

Nazim was found dead in Sopore on July 31; a case has been lodged, a few low-ranked policemen have been arrested, the autopsy report has found evidence of torture – and yet the Indian state and its representatives in Kashmir have not admitted any responsibility for a murder that was committed under their watch. People will remember this, record a dirge for yet another extinguished young life, and wonder, first with frustration and then with fury, how hard it can really be for a gargantuan police state that sometimes resembles a loose Alcatraz, to deliver justice.

A personal conflict

One of the concerns of my work, both in fiction and outside of it, is to examine how the perpetrator of such random and ruthless violence objectifies the victim. This is germane to all conflicts between the powerful and the weak: The perpetrator has to ‘otherise’ the victim – how else does a member of the security forces come to bludgeon a nine-year-old to death, as we saw in the killing of Samir Rah in Srinagar last year?

And conflict is very personal. When you grow up in Kashmir, you are troubled by some very fundamental questions: Why are my people being killed? Why am I in this crackdown? And why do they always use expletives when they talk to you? When a member of the armed forces talks to you, you are never addressed normally. You are always a ‘maderchod’ or ‘behanchod’. Even an ‘abeyy’ would be honourable. Therefore, you see, you feel, you think, and even walk differently once you have witnessed your share of the brutality in play.
During my first year in Delhi, I was once walking near Pragati Maidan when I saw a Delhi police vehicle parked on the roadside. Instinctively, I started to run, to look for a place to hide.

That to me is complete brutalisation of a people. Apart from occasional shootings by unknown gunmen, and genuine battles between the armed forces and militants (it is hard to tell in the haze created by the fake ‘encounter mafia’ that rears its head from time to time); there is only one kind of terror that chills the hearts of parents of young men in Kashmir – the terror of the man in uniform.

Novelist and journalist Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel, The Collaborator, was published to critical acclaim earlier this year. He lives in London.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera