Guest post by SUVAID YASEEN
A ‘March of Million’ in Egypt’s Tahrir Square picked up the momentum of the people’s movement in Egypt, and finally led to the ouster of the dictator who had ruled Egypt with an iron fist for thirty years. Hosni Mubarak, the US backed Egyptian President, fled the country on 11th of February.
In Kashmir, 11th of February is an important day. It was on this day in 1984, that Maqbool Bhat, the founding member of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a militant group that started the armed struggle for Independence of Kashmir, was hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He is remembered every year on his death anniversary, which has been a day of strike and protest since then. His remains still lie in the premises of Tihar jail in Delhi, and Kashmiris every year ask for their return. An empty grave in Srinagar’s Martyrs’ graveyard waits with Maqbool’s name on the plaque. For Kashmiris, the date of the flight of the modern Pharoah of Egypt, with Maqbool’s date of martyrdom brought a melancholic delight to this date.
The slogan ‘Khoon ka badla June mein!’ (We shall take revenge in June!) has been doing rounds in Kashmir. The badla (revenge) being in response to the killing of more than 111 civilians in the protests against Indian rule in Kashmir last summer. The government fears another uprising. And they are trying to take precautions. The Times of India in a recent report quoted a ‘top government source’ as saying, “Militancy we can handle. After 9/11 (we’ve seen) it backfires on its promoters. People here are sick of violence. But our greatest fear is 50,000 people landing up at Lal Chowk for a dharna. How do you handle that?”
The threat comes from a potential Tahrir-like uprising which might put the state on hold. However, the scenes of protest like those of Egypt have already been witnessed in Kashmir.
If the picture of Egyptians praying on Qasr al-Nil, braving water cannons, portrayed their firm resolve, Kashmiris prayed on the road to Muzaffarabad on August 11, 2008, during the Muzaffarabad Chalo march, in neat rows as the firing continued and on the streets of Srinagar’s downtown last summer, defying curfews. In addition to the early ’90s, Kashmiris had their ‘March of Million’ in 2008. On 18th of August 2008, more than half a million people assembled in Srinagar’s streets during the march to TRC grounds, near the United Nations Military Observers Group office, to submit a memorandum. Few days later on 22nd of August, the number shot up to more than a million, as people assembled to pray the Friday prayers at the historic Eidgah grounds. The prayers that Friday, were prayers of Freedom, in Freedom and for Freedom.
The Egyptians managed to make their President flee in 18 days. After being hostile to protestors initially, the Egyptian Army eventually stopped firing on its people. In Kashmir, the armed forces are from outside. The sense of ‘one’s own people’ doesn’t exist amongst the army as there is a clear dichotomy between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
In Kashmir, mass protests were allowed for just more than a week in 2008. Those days for many remain etched in memory as the ‘days of Azadi.’ Since the day of Eidgah march, not a single mass protest has been allowed till date. The authorities had initially hoped that allowing people to assemble will let the steam out, and the numbers will dwindle. However, more and more people kept coming out and people heeded call to a referendum of sorts, demanding Azadi.
Soon after, the Indian national security advisor MK Narayanan visited the Valley along with Intelligence Bureau Director P C Haldar, to review the situation and the state’s response to it. Since then, not a single mass rally has been allowed in Kashmir. Every time a call was given by the pro-freedom groups, curfew was stamped in the Valley. A million people on the streets of Kashmir, chanting in unison the slogans for Azadi, was a referendum in itself, a right denied to the Kashmiri people, and a scene of embarrassment for the Indian state.
The Valley erupted in protests again in 2009, in wake of the rape and murder of two women at Shopian. The south Kashmir town closed down for seven weeks at a stretch in protests. Valley wide strike continued for about 12 days. The investigation was later handed over to CBI which on December 13th 2009 concluded in its report that the women had died of drowning. No one in Kashmir, and many in India, refuse to buy this version considering the impossibility of death by drowning in water that is ankle deep.
Considering the structure of the militarised governance in Kashmir, a place that in 2008 was ironically listed in the Guinness book of World Records for being the highest militarized zone on earth, a protest is never far away as killings and human rights violations are a routine. And with the politico-legal structure which provides impunity to the offenders, resentment and anger always keeps simmering. A small trigger is all that is required for an uprising directed against the Indian rule.
Last year, massive protests again emerged in summer. This was a build up of the killings that had started in January itself. On 8th of January, troops shot dead 16 year old Inayat Khan in Srinagar. On 31 of January, 13 year old Wamiq Farooq, succumbed to fatal injuries due to tear gas shelling. On 5th of February, Zahid Farooq, a 16 year old boy was shot by a BSF patrol in Brein area of Srinagar, while he was playing cricket along with his friends. On 30th of April, three men were killed in a fake encounter by the Indian Army at Nadihal, Rafiabad, in North Kashmir. Things ultimately started heating up on the street with the killing of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, a 17 year old student, on 11th of June, who was hit by a tear gas shell on his head, spilling out his brains. The front page photograph of Tufail’s dead body in a local newspaper was enough to catapult people on to the streets.
The protests soon became widespread. In the ensuing months, 111 people were killed, most of them teenagers and men in their early twenties. The list of seriously injured, maimed lost count. A thousand were arrested during the summer. Many of them, including minors, booked under the controversial Public Safety Act, which allows the state to book anyone up to two years in jail, without a charge-sheet. The youngest one whose arrest was sought was a 7 year old from Srinagar’s Bemina locality and whose family was beaten; the child had to go underground. The oldest person to be slapped with PSA was 80. The youngest to die was an eight year old kid, Sameer Ahmad Rah, in Srinagar’s Batamaloo locality. The purple clogged blood, on the child’s body, showed the seams of CRPF bootmarks, by whom he was beaten as he ventured out of his home to go to a relative’s place. A 2 rupee coin in his pocket and a half chewed gum remained in his mouth.
Towards the onset of winter, and after the protests died down after more than four months, the slogan of ‘Khoon ka badla June mein (we shall take revenge in June)’ started doing the rounds. The state responded with a massive crackdown leading to large-scale arrests of young men, who could potentially contribute to the protests.
According to a report in Greater Kashmir on 9th February 2011, 118 persons were arrested in a span of one month, 10 of them under with PSA. The renewed crackdown, the report noted, was “driven by the sense that protests may resurface in the valley in the wake of international events taking place in Middle East countries. Police officials also maintain that the current raids were increased to stop “re-organisation” of protesters and thus pre-empt the “future protests,” if any, in 2011.”
Many of the arrested include minors. On 28 February, a 14 year-old 9th class student from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Faizan Rafiq Hakeem, was booked under PSA and sent to Kot Balwal jail in Jammu. 64 year-old Mohammad Abdullah Mir was recently arrested in Budgam district of Central Kashmir on charges of stone-pelting.
Stating that arrests were a normal issue, minister for law and parliamentary affairs, Ali Mohammad Sagar in an interaction with the media, on 3rd of March, said that till February 15 this year, 4030 persons were arrested across the valley and 195 were booked under the draconian Public Safety Act. “This is nothing new…” he said.
Many of the incriminated youth are booked under harsh laws like 302 Ranbir Penal Code (murder) and 307 RPC (attempt to murder). Other charges like 436 RPC and 13 Unlawful Activities Act have also been applied as well. Even after they are released the cases against the majority remain pending in the police stations, and they are called routinely to report to the police stations. Most suffer for years. Denied ‘clearance’, it becomes almost impossible to get documents like passports or government jobs.
Fear of Facebook
Repressive laws and their wanton usage are an old trick in Kashmir. The dreaded (J&K) Armed Forces Special Powers Act, for example, allows armed forces to shoot any person on mere basis of suspicion. The (J&K) Disturbed areas act prevents assembly. The structure of laws in place is aimed at preventing dissent, or at least stopping its expression in public domain subject to the direct state control.
On 17th of February, the police arrested Shakeel Bakshi, chairman of Islamic Students League and moved him into an undisclosed location. Though he was officially detained for an FIR registered against him in 2008-09 for conducting a seminar, there were suggestions that the leader could have been arrested for his ‘online activities’. Bakshi maintains a Facebook page on which he would daily write update on ‘today in history’ focusing primarily on the human rights violations and political happenings that have taken place on that day, particularly in Kashmir. Besides, he also maintains a blog – Kashmiri Prisoners – a compilation of stories pertaining to the condition of Kashmiri prisoners languishing in different jails.
The government is also worried about online activities where many popular groups like Aalaw (meaning ‘call’), Frontline Kashmir, etc., have emerged, with followers running into tens of thousands, which keep a tag on political events in Kashmir and often give calls for ‘revolutionary action’. The groups had become popular during last year’s protests, long before ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ or ‘6th of April Youth Movement’ came to limelight during Egyptian uprising. Some of them like Bekaar Jamaath (meaning ‘Idler’s Club’) were also hacked. Frontline Kashmir was hacked, and later restored.
Also, during last summer’s protests, when Mirwaiz of South Kashmir was arrested, one of the charges against him was incitement to violence on Facebook. In another case a warrant was issued against a user who had uploaded a video, which showed the scene of three boys after having being shot in a compound of the house at point blank range by the police, on 29th of June, in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, contradicting official claims. One of them Ishfaq Ahmad was 15 years old, while other two Ishfaq Ahmad and Shujat-ul-Islam were 17 years old.
Remembering Jaleel Andrabi
On February 21st, a former Indian Army Major Avtar Singh, who is sought in the case of the murder of the prominent Kashmiri human rights lawyer Jaleel Andrabi in March 1996, apart from 10 other people, was recently located in California’s Selma city (after his wife lodged a complaint for domestic violence). Singh had an Interpol red-corner notice issued against him by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) in February 2010. The CJM had asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to get the warrants executed but the CBI didn’t take any step to arrest or extradite him.
Arrested on March 8th, while he was driving home along with his wife, by a battalion of 35th Rashtriya Rifles, led by Major Avtar Singh, the mutilated body of 42 year old Andrabi was found on the banks of Srinagar’s Jhelum river on the morning of March 27, 1996. He had been shot in the head and his eyes gouged out. An autopsy confirmed that he had been killed just days after his arrest. Just weeks before his arrest and eventual murder, Andrabi has spoken at an international seminar in New Delhi on the nationalities question, where he had talked about the ongoing human rights violations and the movement for self-determination in Kashmir.
A case under FIR no. 139/96 was lodged in Saddar Police Station, Srinagar and is pending in the CJM court ever since. Singh has been evading arrest. In 2005 he was traced in Canada. Later he again went into hiding and went to US. He is now living in Selma, Fresno County in California where he runs a trucking business. Kashmir Dispatch, an online Kashmiri news portal, quoted Lt. Christie Ediger, a Selma Police official saying that he was relieved from custody “…on bail and since then he is a free man”. No clear guidelines of his extradition have been given.
Andrabi is one of the most remembered sons of the soil in Kashmir, along with many others like Maqbool Bhat, whose memories evoke a lot of respect for their deeds, as well as anger at the fact that their killers roam free and the structure that backs them goes on boasting about its democratic credentials.
In Kashmir, people are killed as a matter of routine. People have developed coping mechanisms to deal with the phenomenon of death. Death, in Kashmir, is an event, no longer a tragedy. Memories, however, remain. And they haunt the survivors, as well as the murderers. June is never far away in Kashmir, neither is the March of Million.