An ordinary man was tortured in Kashmir in April last year. He was beaten, strapped with ropes to the front of a military vehicle and a cardboard placard was forced on his chest. He was then paraded as a “human shield”.
Farooq Ahmad Dar was an embroiderer of fine Kashmiri shawls, the kind some of you may have worn or marvelled at in a shop window. I say “was” because since being shown around the world as a hapless, tied-up prisoner atop a truck bonnet, he has not been able to work or do much else.
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Farooq was neither a protester nor a stone thrower – not that either merit being turned into a living war-mannequin. He was just passing by after having cast his vote in an election.
But a gentleman officer of the army that holds Kashmir for Delhi decided to teach Kashmiri protesters a lesson – so he picked up the first person that caught his eye and turned him into a warning.
The torture parade Major Leetul Gogoi organised was filmed and somehow found its way onto the internet. We all know what happens when graphic content goes viral. There was quite a lot of outrage within and outside India, as there should’ve been. But there was also widespread support for Major Gogoi’s public display of torture.
Farooq’s tormentor was bestowed with official recognition and praise. Chief of Army Staff awarded him a commendation card “for his sustained efforts in counterinsurgency operations”. A serving chief minister wrote a passionate defence of his actions in an esteemed national daily.
A boorish cricketer and former captain of India’s national team celebrated the incident on Twitter and asked for more of the same. The officer, feted in TV studios, received a hero’s welcome in his home state in northeastern India.
This year, a respected spokesman for India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) brought Farooq’s life-changing brutalisation back under the spotlight when a company owned by him started selling t-shirts depicting the infamous scene.
Let me say that again: Clothing with a torture scene emblazoned on the front is being marketed by a politician from the ruling party of the world’s largest democracy. The politician in question, Delhi BJP spokesman Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, is something of a star on Twitter and he triumphantly declared he will not stop selling the torture t-shirts.
As far as we know, Farooq, the shawl weaver, is not on social media. One wonders how he feels about young people in India proudly wearing a representation of his trauma on their chests.
Torture is not something new for the Kashmiris. Since the beginning of the rebellion against Indian rule in 1989, Kashmiris have almost always faced some form of brutal torture at the hands of the Indian armed forces and police. Over the last three decades, killings, disappearances, rape, arson, and plunder also became a part of everyday Kashmiri life.
In the 1990s, when Kashmiri militants waged war against Indian rule, torture and unspeakable violence was inflicted on militants and civilians alike. Talk to any former prisoner in Kashmir and you will hear of a torture catalogue that puts US’ Guantanamo prison to shame.
Still, even though we knew and felt everything that happened to the prisoners in our bones, back then the torture was something that happened behind closed doors, it was the stuff of nightly whispers. Many outside Kashmir didn’t even believe such a thing could happen.
Friends in India often said, “Come on, yaar, that’s too farfetched … the Indian army simply cannot do that!” The use of torture on Kashmiris was both systematic and endemic – but it was not something to be proud of, or openly talk about.
Things are different today. This type of behaviour is being celebrated by some circles in India. Hectoring TV anchors exhort the nation for more at scream o’clock, newspapers have no qualms about publishing ghastly apologies for acts that are potentially war crimes, right-wing activists and tenants of troll farms regularly take to social media to congratulate the military apparatus and encourage them to “kill them all”.
A language of vengeance is in currency, with some analysts and policy cabals openly talking about teaching “ungrateful”, “secessionist” Kashmiris a lesson, “crushing ’em forever”. Their war cries are televised, trended, hash-tagged. What should have stayed a matter of national shame has become a matter of national pride for some.
Consequently, the new governing elites in India decided to borrow from an old playbook and launched a ruthless crackdown, killing anyone who gets in the way of the colonial engine deployed to keep Kashmir in a stranglehold. While doing so, they also added a celebratory gloss to it all, thereby normalising crimes like the blinding of civilians and the use of human shields.
Almost entirely dehumanised over the last three decades, Kashmir now is a place where impunity rules supreme. Perpetrators of grossest abuses are emboldened and the victims often silenced or abandoned on the margins.
Hero-worshipped, cloaked in impunity, the officer who received accolades for tying a Kashmiri man to a vehicle was back in the news last month – for his role in a disturbing new episode.
This time, the “misadventures” of Major Gogoi involve a young Kashmiri girl. He was caught in a hotel in Kashmir’s capital Srinagar on May 23 with “a minor girl”. According to First Post, he was planning to “spend a night with a girl in the hotel before joining duty…” Briefly apprehended and questioned by the local police, the major is now back with his unit, perhaps recounting his latest exploits in Kashmir.
It’s now been reported that the girl is not a minor and that she went to the hotel on her own accord. None of these revelations change anything – neither the fact of Major Gogoi’s insalubrious conduct nor the girl’s vulnerability.
Her mother, who insists her daughter is a minor, told First Post that the major had visited her in the family’s tin-shed home “on two occasions”, once “in the middle of the night”. It’s also been reported that the major had pretended to be a Muslim youth to befriend the girl on Facebook – he reportedly introduced himself as “Ubaid Arman“.
That a serving army officer feels free to attempt a clandestine liaison with a vulnerable girl, on false pretences, while on active duty among a traumatised, brutalised people means only one thing: The Indian army enjoys absolute impunity in Kashmir.
There have been some murmurs in sections of the press, and, of course, in the spite lands of social media, about consent, agency, and that Gogoi (a state operative in the most militarised place on the planet) should be free to do as he chooses with a consenting, adult woman. But all these arguments collapse when you consider the power structure within which the gargantuan military apparatus operates in Kashmir: A suspension of normal law, order, and morality.
Major Gogoi is protected by dark laws that give immunity to Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. The girl is from a near-homeless family of very little means, while the major derives his power from the group to which he belongs, not from individual agency.
A probe has been announced, but history has taught Kashmiris not to expect justice from such probes. We all know what happens to enquiries and probes in Kashmir: They begin and fade quickly, like sighs of weary old women and men.
Next year, it will be 30 years since the start of the uprising in Kashmir. The Indian state has tried everything to extinguish it, including using at least two generations of Kashmiris as human shields and rewarding officers for doing so. A new generation of Kashmiris has grown up on a daily dose of humiliation and that eternal reminder: “We are face to face with naked injustice. We are not free”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.