The physical distance from a Kashmir in turmoil is only one reason for Uri’s calm — just one road links the town to the rest of the Valley, currently closed due to the protests in Baramulla, and cellphones and the Internet have been disconnected for two months here too in attempts to bring peace.
The other reason is the special relationship Uri shares with the Army: this is perhaps the only place in Kashmir where people aren’t in conflict with the forces.
Uri is a town with one small hospital, a police station, no petrol pump, few government schools and sporadic electricity supply. People are dependent on the Army. The garrison itself isn’t a walled compound out of bounds for civilians — though there is a fence. Even the road connecting Uri with villages towards the Salamabad and Kaman bridge, all the way to Muzaffarabad, pierces through this camp.
Villagers regularly visit the Army hospital for treatment, their children study in the Army school, and a shrine revered by locals and a museum dedicated to the history of Uri are inside the garrison. The locals know many of the soldiers on the base, even consider some as friends.
Three hours on Sunday morning in September 2016 may have changed all that.
When the mountains reverberated with the sound of gunfire, initially the town didn’t pay much attention. There is a firing range close by and the sound of gunshots isn’t new. Plus, Uri is located in a narrow valley and the sounds always reverberate.
After the gunshots, there were a few loud blasts and smoke started to billow out from the garrison. Still, there was no panic. Locals thought a building inside could have caught fire. Some guessed the market had burnt down again. It had happened several times over the past few years.
When news finally filtered in that militants had stormed the garrison and killed 17 soldiers, fear swept over the town.
Could the Army close the gates of the garrison to the local population now? Could the Kaman bridge be shut, closing the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and ending the only successful confidence building measure between India and Pakistan since 1947? The road had reunited divided families in Uri too. What about the business that would be affected?
But was not the biggest worry. It was whether the attack meant the end of ceasefire along the LoC — a return to years of living in panic of Pakistani shells landing across the border, killing and maiming people.
Uri spent the day counting sorties of helicopters over the base. Though it is harvest season, people stayed glued to TV sets to know what was happening in their town.
Locals with friends inside grieved that most of the men who were killed had arrived in Uri only a day ago. “The 6 Bihar unit had come yesterday and was going to replace 10 Dogra unit,” a local said. “I don’t think the 6 Bihar men were even armed.”
A resident with sources in the garrison said the militants had cut the fence to get in. “The Army’s Devi Post is located 100 metres above the place where the attack happened. Perhaps the Armymen didn’t see them (the terrorists) sneaking in. Those who spoke to me are certain the militants came from the side of Sukhdar village, 4 km away. That is the only village there, and the LoC is an hour-long journey away, through a jungle.”
The locals also worried about what would have happened had the encounter gone on. “It would have been mayhem. There is a depot of petroleum products and an ammo depot very close to the place of the attack. The brigade commander’s residence is barely 150-200 metres away.”
Talk soon went around town about seven-eight unknown boys seen roaming around the area. Some claimed to have seen them a day ahead of Eid, asking for directions near the TV tower overlooking the garrison. They were looking for Gawahalan Singtung village, others said. Locals claimed they had informed the police, and for the next few days, soldiers patrolled the main town — also a rarity here — and carried out low-flying sorties.
When nothing happened, things quietened down.
As the night set in on Sunday, Uri looked peaceful again. But appearances were deceptive.
While people were allowed to go to the market, a lock now blocked the spot where the road entered the garrison, manned by soldiers. No greetings were exchanged; there was only a wary silence.
When Rahul Gandhi went to Srinagar in June 2013, 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 tension continues to fester in Kashmir which was again experienced even on the Eid day when clashes between Muslims and Hindus erupted after prayer services for the Id al-Fitr holiday.
This further heightened tensions between India and Pakistan in the disputed region. Those strains have worsened after exchanges of gunfire and a still-murky attack in which five Indian soldiers were killed. India has blamed Pakistan’s army for the attack, a charge that Pakistan has denied. There have been more reports of gunfire since then.
The BJP declared a three-day strike for much of the region, and Arun Jaitley, a leader of the party, flew to Jammu to assess the situation. But state officials would not allow Mr. Jaitley to leave the airport, according to Indian news media reports, and he was forced to fly back to Delhi.
The BJP has criticized the Indian government for initially refusing to blame Pakistan for the deaths of the soldiers. The opposition party routinely criticizes the governing coalition for not being tough enough on Pakistan.
To add to India’s woes, Chinese troops have recently carried out incursions into parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir near Ladakh.
As with previous curfews in Kashmir, the government suspended Internet service, and an important highway was closed.
This spring, the election in Pakistan of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had made improved relations with India an important part of his platform, raised hopes for better relations between the countries.
The relationship suffered a blow in January when an Indian soldier was beheaded and another mutilated after what India said was an attack by Pakistani troops. Pakistan rejected the accusations. Last week’s attack on the Indian soldiers, among the worst since the two sides signed a cease-fire agreement in 2003, is likely to strain ties further.
The Indian news media have been filled with speculation that the attack was intended by Pakistani military officials to undermine Mr. Sharif’s efforts to improve relations with India, despite Pakistan’s denial of involvement in the ambush. Mr. Sharif met with military and civilian officials on Sunday to discuss the tensions with India.
Kashmir: Where the Truth Doesn’t Matter
NPR’s Julie McCarthy was in Kashmir earlier in September and reported on how different the unrest seems now compared to previous years. “First of all, there’s this unprecedented kind of force being used. There’s these high-velocity pellet shotguns for crowd control. And it’s left thousands of people riddled with pellet injuries. And a lot of them have damaged eyesight. And some demonstrators have thrown stones, attacked police stations and government buildings. And, unusually, this started in rural areas. And it has spread throughout the Kashmir Valley. And it’s lasted over 60 days. That’s also unusual.”
Perhaps it’s not enough to point out that the champion of this latest uprising, a person who was slain in a fashion frequently called “extrajudicial” by others in the press, and whose killing was the primary provocation for the current uprising, was a self-declared militant who had used social media to resist the Indian occupation. He was someone who had become a symbol of the true spirit of resistance in the hearts of all Kashmiris.
The protest over Burhan Wani’s killing was obviously different. His killing set off a protest movement that was unusual in its scale. As many as 200,000 people attended his funeral in direct violation of a state curfew order that should have kept people immobilized in their homes.
One wonders why the honoring of the dead with a funeral procession would scare the daylights out of India. Enough to shoot them with shotguns? These guns weren’t, it should be added, pointed at infiltrators sneaking across the Line Of Control (LoC). They were pointed at moms and dads, sons and daughters, of Kashmiris. Perhaps some Pakistani agent was handing everyone a Snickers candy bar to show up, but Kashmiris seem to have had sufficient incentive without such inducements to risk life and death, blindness and permanent disability to let their feelings be known, notwithstanding any goodies from Pakistan.
Mani Shanker Aiyar, former Federal Minister of India confirmed it on July 25, 2016 by saying, “It is time we stopped blaming Pakistan for everything going wrong in the Valley, recognize our own errors, and take action to make the required course corrections.” India’s determination to put down any demand for azaadi had also reached a new level that expressed seemingly a deep resentment and hatred for all that Kashmir stood for, or a complete disregard for their standing as human beings. Any respect for due process, human rights and the traditions of democracy were nowhere to be found. Women and mere babies were being shot in the streets. Hundreds had been blinded and maimed for life. For what? Because they had a difference of opinion about under what kind of government they wanted to live? Because they wanted to have a say in their own future? Because they asked for democracy but got bullets instead?
“Wani should have served as an alarm bell for the government system,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, a former editor in chief of the English daily The Hindu. “Why would a young man, instead of taking up engineering, adopt a course that any reasonable person would tell him would end up in death?””
One man who might have had something to say about it is Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human rights activist and winner of the 2006 prestigious Reebok Human Rights Award who now sits in jail on charges under the Public Safety Act. The PSA is in fact applied to anyone seen as a threat to India’s good public image, And Parvez was sure to do some damage to it.
On September 14, Parvez was detained at New Delhi airport and prevented from flying to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The following day he was arrested and held without charges but later released under a court order. He was then arrested again on September 16 and charged under the Public Safety Act.
Parvez’ knowledge of the crimes of India is undoubtedly quite comprehensive. As a co-founder and coordinator for many years for the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), he was deeply involved in the issue of disappearances. According to the JKCCS, on the issue of “disappearances,” — Kashmiris who have simply vanished after being taken into custody by the armed forces — Parvez could have provided very damning testimony. A report issued back in 2011 by The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons,estimated that around 10,000 people had gone missing in the previous 20 years, many ended up in several thousand unmarked graves that have been discovered in more than 40 different communities in Kashmir. The practice India had adopted of just yanking people off the street, executing them, and then burying them in some unknown place has continued to this day.
To press charges against such a high profile human rights activist speaks to the impunity and brazenly undemocratic means to which India will stoop to enforce its will. It does this for all the world to see while at the same time saying that it has done no wrong. The mask is quite visible, like you would see on Halloween, while the masked man says there is no mask. Well, maybe not. India’s true face apparently is the mask, or can be seen through a very transparent one, which is the image of a monster creeping through the alleys in the dark, seizing little boys, and eating the flesh of their mothers.
In his Opening Statement, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on September 13, “I believe an independent, impartial and international mission (in Kashmir) is now needed crucially and that it should be given free and complete access to establish an objective assessment of the claims made by the two sides.”
The rejection by India was particularly upsetting. “States may shut my Office out, “ he added, ” but they will not shut us up; neither will they blind us” — a not so subtle reference, perhaps, to the hundreds of people blinded by shotgun pellets in Kashmir.
“Human rights violations will not disappear,” he said, “if a government blocks access to international observers and then invests in a public relations campaign to offset any unwanted publicity. On the contrary, efforts to duck or refuse legitimate scrutiny raise an obvious question: what, precisely, are you hiding from us?”
India’s image suffers far more from the obvious duplicity and an incorrigible unwillingness to confront openly its wrong-headed policies than it would if it just laid its cards on the table. The flaunting of its inhumanity — as if to say, we’re going to do it and you can’t do anything about it” — is only deepening its commitment to permanent conflict and suffering in Kashmir. It’s public posture of blaming Pakistan for its troubles in Kashmir is also fanning the flames of a nuclear holocaust. It’s time for the international community to act decisively and intervene in the interest of global peace to settle the Kashmir dispute to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.
Dr. Fai is the Secretary General of World Kashmir Awareness and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org