Kavita Krishnan: An open letter to the Army Chief
Why do Kashmiri youth and women pick up stones and guns; Why do soldiers kill themselves and colleagues; Why does Saqib seek freedom from Major Sharma are questions that Army chief needs to reflect
Dear General Bipin Rawat,
You have warned Kashmiri civilians that if they fail to cooperate with Army operations, you implied that the Army will not hesitate to fire on them. You have added, for good measure, that not only those who pelt stones but even those who raise anti-India slogans or display anti-India flags will be likewise treated as “terrorists.”
Why do Kashmiri youth and women pick up stones, raise anti-India slogans and obstruct Army operations against militants? Is it simply because they are brain-washed by Pakistan? To find an answer, I read about Waqar Ahmad Moharkan and what put a stone in his hands and an azaadi slogan on his lips.
Waqar, now 24 and facing a slew of cases relating to last year’s uprising, says that he “loved India once” but “the word India now makes me mad…I was living in a dreamland till I met with reality of their brutality.” During a curfew break in the 2008 protests, Waqar went out on his bike to buy milk, and was stopped at a petrol pump by CRPF troopers. “I greeted them politely. I told them curfew has been lifted and I had to buy milk. There were about 12 of them there. They encircled me and beat me up with lathis and gun butts. One of them thrust the barrel of his gun into my mouth so that I wouldn’t shout,” and declared that all Kashmiris were “traitors and Pakistanis.”
He says, “When they finally stopped I got up, parked my bike and for the first time in my life picked up a stone and threw it at them with all my strength and all by myself I said ‘hum kya chahte, azadi.” He then sought out stone throwers to learn the art of stone pelting.
I also read about 13-year-old Saqib in this enquiry report into the 2010 mass uprising. Saqib—much like every Kashmiri child I and other members of a solidarity team that visited Kashmir in November 2016 met—was very sure that azaadi for him means self-determination, a choice made between India, Pakistan or an independent Kashmir, a historical commitment that he insists India owes the people of Kashmir.
Azaadi from Major Sharma
The team members probed how Saqib imagined azaadi: “What possibly could azaadi mean to Saqib? A major criterion emerges a little while into the conversation: azaadi means in part, to be free of “Major Sharma”, the local army commander who made it a regular routine to swagger into Saqib’s school in the company of other soldiers from his unit—all displaying lethal firearms—to threaten children that they should participate in protest demonstrations only at enormous risk to their lives.”
General Rawat, it seems from these testimonies that the stone-pelting Kashmiris are being produced, not by Pakistan, but by the very presence of Indian armed forces in the Valley.
The report cited above estimates that there are 90,000 Indian armed persons deployed in Kashmir (for a population of 5 million) on counter-insurgency operations alone (not counting those on patrolling, guard duty, on the Pakistan border and in artillery and air-defence units)—“already close to the number that the British Raj needed in terms of European administrators and military officers in order to control 300 million or so Indians.”
The actual number may be much higher: “People in Kashmir believe that there is probably one armed person of the Indian Army and paramilitary for every 12 of them .” Why are Indian Army and paramilitary forces present in such concentration among Kashmiri civilians, if not to suppress and subjugate the will of a civilian population?
When death fails to scare
Will the fear of being killed by your troops deter Kashmiri civilians from protesting? To the people of Kashmir, it is hardly news that they may be killed during civilian street protests. In 2010, for instance, 112 Kashmiri civilians were killed over four months when CRPF and police fired at civilian protests and funeral processions across the Kashmir Valley.
Last year, over 100 Kashmiri civilians protesting on the streets have been killed, 1,178 received pellets in their eyes (52 of them were blinded, 300 including 150 minors partially lost vision) and 4,664 persons received bullet injuries in different parts of the bodies. When Kashmiris know that they can be killed even for demonstrating on streets or mourning in a funeral, why would they be deterred by your threat that they may be killed while obstructing an Army operation against militants?
“Can we pause and ask ourselves—how much do we really care, as a country, for the soldiers drawn from amongst the poorest Indians? They are a useful stick with which to beat up dissenters and questioners. They die—and their deaths allow us to be self-righteously and aggressively ‘patriotic’ at their cost. If any of them—like BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav—dares to complain about the indignities to which soldiers are subjected, he is treated just as ruthlessly as other dissenting citizens are treated.”Kavita Krishnan
The sad truth is that you have only given voice to a policy that the Indian State has already been following—and it hasn’t worked. The official line of the Indian State used to be that they are out to “win hearts and minds” of ordinary Kashmiri people while cracking down on “terrorists.” A commentator, writing in robust defence of you, has reminded of the doctrine attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, “If you’ve got them by the b…s, their hearts and minds will follow”. Well, most Kashmiris will tell you that India has held them by the b…s for decades and has still failed to win their hearts and minds.
When soldiers dissent
Many Indians feel that to question the presence of the Indian Army and its right to use lethal force against anti-Indian Kashmiris amounts to an intolerable insult to the patriotic soldiers who are being killed in the Valley.
Can we pause and ask ourselves—how much do we really care, as a country, for the soldiers drawn from amongst the poorest Indians? They are a useful stick with which to beat up dissenters and questioners. They die—and their deaths allow us to be self-righteously and aggressively ‘patriotic’ at their cost. If any of them—like BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav—dares to complain about the indignities to which soldiers are subjected, he is treated just as ruthlessly as other dissenting citizens are treated.
The Armed Forces of any country are meant to fight wars against enemies. Civilian discontent against a State and even civilian demands for self-determination, for azaadi from a State, have to be recognised as political, not military issues. When our political masters refuse to recognise—let alone solve—the political question of Kashmir, they demand that our soldiers risk their lives and peace of mind to suppress the will and aspirations of the Kashmiri people. Is this just?
I’m sure you’re aware of the alarming suicide and fragging rates among Indian soldiers. When reasons for these are discussed, one possibility is rarely ever admitted—the fact that being asked to kill and commit atrocities for a cause that you know in your heart is unjust, puts an incredible strain on the human mind and spirit.
For the sake of the Kashmiri people—but also for the sake of Indians deployed in the Armed forces—surely it is time we recognise the Kashmir issue as a dispute; demand a political solution; and seek withdrawal of Indian Army and paramilitary forces from civilian areas of Jammu and Kashmir as a necessary first step towards resolution of the dispute?
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.