The meaning of Shopian

In the month that marked 20 years of the uprising against Indian rule, occupied Kashmir once again erupted in anger. The shutters came down and life was paralysed by a strike across the Valley on Dec 15. This time the protest was ignited by the findings of a federal police investigation into the rape and murder in May of two women in Shopian, a town 35 kilometres from Srinagar.

Thousands of angry youths took to the streets in Shopian in response to the call by the victims’ families and the Majlis-e-Mushiwarat, a local group formed to secure justice for the murdered women.

The report of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) presented to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court claimed that the two women – a 17-year-old and her 22-year-old sister-in-law – died by drowning, and not rape and murder at the hands of the state security forces, as their family and locals had insisted for months. This provoked demonstrations by outraged Kashmiris, who rejected the report and accused the authorities of a cover-up.

Mehbooba Mufti, the opposition leader in the state assembly, had this to say: "The whole charade of investigations by multiple agencies was aimed at shielding the culprits rather than bringing them to book." She was referring to the bizarre sequence of events since May when local officials initially claimed that the girls had drowned, then retracted this in the face of mass protests and agreed they might have been murdered.

A state inquiry commission in its report in July held law enforcement personnel responsible for destroying the evidence. But in September the state authorities handed over the investigation to the CBI.

The latest protests testify to the fraught situation in the Valley and stress the unchanged reality about the depth of popular alienation and the overwhelming sentiment for freedom from Delhi’s rule. Every protest, even on civic issues, morphs into demands for an end to Indian occupation.

The large street protests in the past two years have also marked the Kashmiri struggle’s transformation into a non-violent youth-driven mass movement for self-determination, which has been much harder for Delhi to de-legitimise than the armed resistance.

The unrest that raged in the Valley in the summer against the Shopian outrage was a spectacular demonstration of the extent of the ferment in the Valley. So also were the even bigger protests last year over the Amarnath Shrine dispute. This belied the Indian claim that elections had "settled" the Kashmir issue.

Despite the current claims by Indian leaders that they are pulling out some 30,000 troops from Kashmir – from the over half-a-million forces deployed there – the Valley remains the world’s most militarised region. It is also the most traumatised. A report last week in The Independent said that in 1989 before the uprising and its ruthless suppression got underway, around 1,500 people annually sought help for mental-health issues. Today that number has shot to around 75,000.

Neither the humanitarian dimension of the Kashmir issue nor, for that matter, its political or security aspects, have recently attracted much attention from the international community. Yet the surface calm in Kashmir is but a thin veil over its combustible nature. And it remains the most proximate cause for the escalation of Pakistan-India tensions. Indeed, all four Indo-Pakistani crises in the past two decades were linked, directly or indirectly, to Kashmir.

International inattention to the human rights situation was more than evident before and during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington last month. In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Amnesty International urged him to take up human rights violations with India’s prime minister, saying that, among others, the people of Kashmir bear the brunt of these abuses.

The letter dated Nov 18 also highlighted the fact that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which remains in force in Kashmir, has facilitated grave abuses including "disappearances, rapes, extrajudicial executions and deaths from torture." This evoked no response from Washington and none from the American media.

While Kashmiris see little change in the coercive environment that defines their daily lives, Indian officials portray Delhi’s recent decision to draw down troops from Kashmir as evidence of the improved situation in the Valley. This reduction was promised in June at the height of the summer protests in what seemed to be an effort to defuse tensions and halt the momentum of the peaceful movement. One of the key demands renewed by the street protests was for the demilitarisation of the state.

Announced amid much fanfare last week the pullout of two infantry divisions from Kashmir was greeted with deep skepticism by Kashmiri leaders, and by public calls for an independent verification. Many leaders said they saw no visible sign of any reduction in the military presence. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), said: "This is merely an announcement… Who saw them leave Kashmir?"

The drawdown may well represent little more than a seasonal rotation of troops. In the past, too, such claims have produced a recycling of forces, often necessitated by the need to address the stress and strain of prolonged counterinsurgency duties and the obvious effects on troop morale.

Even if in this instance the troops are not replaced, the numbers are still a modest proportion of over 600,000 occupation forces present there. According to a Kashmiri commentator, if Indian officials claim there are only a few hundred militants left, what is the need to maintain such a heavy military force?

Moreover, a troop withdrawal is not the same as demilitarisation if the culture and infrastructure of repression remains intact. In the absence of a move to meet key Kashmiri demands – repeal of repressive laws, especially the AFSPA, end to arbitrary detentions and search-and-cordon operations, release of all political prisoners, cessation of extrajudicial killings and a halt to the human high abuses – the atmosphere of coercion will not be significantly transformed.

India’s defence minister A K Antony made it clear in making the drawdown announcement that the AFSPA will remain in force, because without its powers "the military will not be able to act effectively." The Act gives sweeping powers to the security forces to act with impunity – shoot, arrest or search without warrant and kill on suspicion.

In this backdrop, the pulling out of a few thousand soldiers actually means little. It will hardly alleviate Kashmiri demands or, for that matter, address the roots of recurring tensions in the Valley.

Delhi has of late sought to engage leaders of the APHC in talks. But these ostensible overtures have been made absent by any concessions that can form the basis for serious negotiations. This strengthens the impression that the move is designed to divide rather than negotiate with the movement’s leaders.

For his part, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has set a number of conditions for Delhi to meet before formal talks can proceed. They include creating a "conducive atmosphere" for meaningful talks that entails a number of steps, especially an end to human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, with the Pakistan-India dialogue process suspended for over a year now Indian officials insist that terrorism is the only issue they are interested in discussing with Islamabad in any future talks. By taking this position Delhi is signaling a singular lack of interest in pursuing a negotiated solution of the Kashmir dispute – on terms other than its own.

None of this holds promising prospects for a people whose fate has so tragically been shaped by a history of conflict, repression, injustice and denial of the right of self-determination and whose future has been stolen by the obduracy of an occupation force. Until there is wider international acknowledgement that the road to peace in the region runs through the Valley of Kashmir, the people of that land may yet have to witness more Shopians.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.