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When Rahul Gandhi went to Srinagar last month, he concluded, “There is massive progress in Kashmir, there is progress in the sentiment of the people, there is progress in the connectivity in Kashmir, there is progress in tourism.” He could not be more wrong about the sentiment of the people.
His misconceptions are shared by many in the rest of India. The first is that the Abdullahs reflect the democratic wishes of the Kashmiri people. Local Kashmiris tell you dismissively that Omar Abdullah, like his father, is the “chief minister of Delhi”—that he is appointed by Delhi. They care nothing for the duo’s political authority. The second misconception is that if ordinary Kashmiris are going about their business quietly, they must be happy. After all, they have set up a Gujarati hotel in Srinagar and all the restaurants in Pahalgam now cater mainly to vegetarian tourists—with perhaps just one chicken dish for the stray carnivore.
But scratch a Kashmiri and he will start bleeding. The lucky ones—like the venerable professor of law with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a home-cooked meal—have been roughed up by the security forces but managed to avoid being labelled militant. The unlucky ones have lost family members to militancy, fake encounters and custodial killings. Though they outwardly seem to be living with their loss, many are unhinged by grief, others are barely coping. Imagine the feelings of the 120 families whose young boys have been killed since 2010 in the stone-pelting riots. Some 2,000 youngsters today live with bullet injuries but no prosecution has been launched against anyone.
The third misconception is about the role of the Indian security forces. A young woman I met commutes an hour everyday to work in Srinagar. She dreads the last half-kilometre she has to negotiate on foot to reach home. It’s patrolled by the CRPF. “They make sexist and threatening remarks as I walk past them. I shake with fear that some day they might do more than pass a lewd comment,” she says. In the rest of India it is de rigueur to refer to Kashmir as our “atoot ang”—an integral part of India. “So how come you don’t feel our pain when we get hurt? Why is it that a gangrape in Delhi leads to mass protests but no one says anything when it happens in Kashmir?” asks a Kashmiri friend. Back in Delhi, the issues of disappearances, rape and extra-judicial killing by the security forces are referred to as ‘collateral damage’ in the mighty cause of keeping the nation together. Nobody asks whether this was the India that our forefathers had dreamt of.
If Rahul Gandhi had met ordinary Kashmiris, he would know there is hardly a family left untouched by violence. It has made Kashmiri society dysfunctional; fathers have gone mad in their search for disappeared sons, women have been widowed in their prime, children are growing up without the guiding hand of a father and young unmarried girls are bringing up families where no male has survived.
Two schoolgoing children say they want to become militants when they grow up without batting an eyelid. Their father was shot dead by the security forces while he was travelling in a jeep. Reports say that mentally challenged people have got shot because they are unable to understand the warnings of the security forces, or because they speak incoherently.
Where do ordinary Kashmiris go for justice? The J&K Human Rights Act exempts the army and paramilitary forces from the ambit of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC). That leaves only violations by the local police—a mere 10 per cent of the total rights violations—which can go to the SHRC. The SHRC has been headless for the last one-and-a-half years. It’s never taken suo motu cognisance of violations. Its recommendations are not binding on the government. So except for a minority that can afford a lawyer to move the HC, others have no access to justice.
The SHRC has mostly limited itself to awarding compensation, usually an ex-gratia payment of one lakh rupees or an appointment to a government job. However, each case must be cleared by a district-level screening committee to ensure that the dead/disappeared person was not a militant and only about 30 per cent of the compensation reaches the victim’s family after all the bribes are paid. Had Rahul Gandhi talked to ordinary Kashmiris, he would have realised that while there may be a need for the army to man the frontier with Pakistan, the militarisation of Kashmir has led to citizens being viewed as enemies. He would have then judged the progress in Kashmir not by the growth in tourism or connectivity but by the rights enjoyed by the local citizens.
(The writer was recently in J&K on a fact-finding mission on the functioning of the State Human Rights Commission)