PULWAMA SOAKED IN BLOOD

The continuing human right violations are out of step with democratic commitments of India and also encourage youth to take recourse to violent means

The killing of seven civilians and injuries to at least 40 others in the brutal firing by security forces in Pulwama on Saturday once again exposes the ruthless military oppression, brazen human rights violations and disregard of Standard Operation Procedures by security personnel during combat operations in Kashmir Valley. The incident follows a continuing pattern of similar killings, torture, disappearances, illegal detentions, whimsical raids and crackdowns which are perpetuated due to the antipathy of the government towards democratic norms and its abject contempt for civil liberties. It once again brings into sharp focus the gross abuse of human rights in Kashmir and the abject denial of the Indian government to probe the long list of excesses that have been justified in the name of counter insurgency or await reports of inquiries that have been ordered.

This denial is out of sync with the everyday reality of military bunkers, gun-totting men in uniform, violent stone-pelting protests that have become the norm and the use of disproportionate force in a vain bid to quell the protests with bullets and pellet guns. In the backdrop of this macabre bloodbath is the tormenting memory of three decades of gross violations of human rights, including murders, torture, enforced disappearances and rape. Worse still, a systematic pattern of impunity, exercised through various instruments like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Disturbed Areas Act and the J&K Public Safety Act (PSA) as well as through political and bureaucratic influence to subvert the justice system, enhances the seriousness of the excesses. Any move to revoke or dilute AFSPA, which has become a barricaded, protected and prized national heirloom, even a holy cow, is met with stiff political resistance. AFSPA, which gives the central para-militaries and armed forces unbridled power to arrest, use force and even kill people on mere suspicion, is a colonial legacy that makes a mockery of the claims of being a liberal democracy with constitutional right to life and dignity, liberty and equality. It explicitly forbids prosecution of men in uniform without prior sanction by the central government.

This institutionalised impunity has encouraged crimes, including custodial killings, fake encounters, torture, unjustified crackdowns and rape. None of these are investigated and almost all are justified under the rubric of counter-insurgency operations. A slew of RTI applications some years ago filed by civil society groups revealed that no sanction for civil prosecution for rights violations in J&K against security personnel had ever been granted since 1990; only one case was dealt with through court-martial proceedings, but the sentence against six army personnel for the Macchil fake encounter killings stands suspended by the Armed Forces Tribunal. In April 2017, the case of Farooq Dar, who was tied to an army jeep and used as a human shield revealed that impunity was more entrenched than just inaction against the accused men in uniform. That Lt. Col. Leetul Gogoi accused of using the man as a human shield got an out-of-turn commendation showed that instead of punishing the accused, there is a systemic design to award the personnel for human rights abuse. In the Pathribal fake encounter killings of 2000, a closure report was filed in 2014 on the basis of a court-martial proceeding, which gave the five accused army officers a clean chit without an explanation, even though there was clinching evidence of the fact that their victims were innocent civilians, not terrorists as had been claimed by the army officers who had exhibited them as trophies at the time of the killing. The accused were promoted and decorated after the incident. Human rights violations are encouraged not only through a systemic pattern of denial and silence, it is perpetuated through a policy of promoting and rewarding personnel on the basis of number of killings they are responsible for irrespective of the identity of those slained. Such a policy emboldens the men in uniform to indulge in human rights abuse. The Pulwama case appears to follow a similar pattern. Seven people were killed, some among them bystanders. The official version that the protesting crowd had swelled around the encounter site is unpalatable and even if true brings to light the irresponsible role of the security agencies in sanitizing an encounter site to ensure that ordinary civilians are kept at a distance. The official version is inconsistent with the allegations of the villagers who aver that the firing against civilians began an hour after the conclusion of the encounter. So far, the government has not even announced a formal probe in the incident though the fate of any such inquiry can easily be predicted to be an ‘eyewash’ in view of the past experiences. Such incidents which are internationalizing the human rights situation of Kashmir bring disrepute to India. Addressing the issue of excesses is imperative not only because as a democratic country, India stands committed to protecting the civil liberties of its citizens but also from strategic security aspect as narratives of oppression built upon the edifice of such incidents play a key role in pushing the youth towards gun or joining violent street battles.