Thank you for having me here and As-Salaam-Alaikum.
Today I will not be speaking about past human rights violations in Kashmir which of course have been horrific and have remained unpunished to this day. There is much literature on the subject, and thankfully activists continue to highlight the atrocities all the time, making sure the victims are not forgotten. Just a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the University of Muzaffarabad about what I witnessed in Kashmir.
Instead, today I would like to describe the current situation and the complete absence of CIVIL RIGHTS in the Valley which has dehumanized and traumatized Kashmiris to such a degree that they are now mere shadows of themselves. A Valley of Zombies it has become. The changes in Kashmir have left people in deep distress, dilemma, disempowered and completely dispossessed. As Anuradha Basin describes it in her new book “The Dismantled State,” Kashmir has been turned into a “giant prison” with people trapped inside like “mice in mousetraps”. She explains in detail the use of harassment, intimidation, detention, humiliation, raids, molestations and psychological traumatization to prevent a law-and-order situation. The institutionalization of fear, she writes, makes protesting impossible.
Since the illegal annexation of Kashmir in August of 2029, the Indian State has assumed complete control over all information, absolute control over the internet, total control over media, control over internal propaganda and all external disinformation campaigns.
It has placed even larger numbers of security forces and local informants in every nook and corner of the Valley, making it impossible for Kashmiris to trust anybody and forcing them to stay at home even without curfew, out of fear for saying the wrong thing anywhere to somebody who might turn them in to the authorities. Prisons are filled to the brim and people across ideologies, parties and classes are made to sign a bond to walk out on a promise of good behavior. The pro Freedom leadership stands arrested and the Hurriyat office has just been repossessed by the state.
The Indian State is all powerful and cannot be resisted because it has the gun and the power to arrest anybody under draconian laws. Like in Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s, these are the semantics of total speech control, total thought control and ultimately total behavior control. And in some ways, it is much worse than the human rights violations committed in the past. Many of them were part of a civil war like struggle, and the people were expressing their will while fighting. Now the control over the people is so absolute that this will has been crushed and with it their ability to resist.
On Indian media, there is daily force-feeding of a steady diet of lies presented to the world at large. Normalcy has returned to the Valley and Kashmiris are liking it, India says. To support this claim, it has hired smart propagandists, some even foreign, to paint the wrong picture of the situation. It has produced films like “The Kashmir Files,” which portray Kashmiris as blood- thirsty Islamist terrorists killing all others and especially non-Muslims in their way with the help of Pakistan. Most recently there was an article by a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute about the “new normalcy” in Kashmir, and how Kashmiris are enjoying their new path to peace and development and total integration with India. While researching his piece, he was housed by the Indian army in Srinagar, and his local guides were collaborators trained and funded by Indian agencies.
Meanwhile, all other journalists or visitors who might be able to report the truth are being kept out, and visas are no longer possible to obtain by any outsider planning to assess the real situation. Much of the Kashmiri diaspora has been silenced for fear of their relatives at home being harassed or arrested by the police. This happened to Danielle Khan who is working with me.
Just last week, my closest journalist friend from the Valley called me after having spent several days in detention for simply knowing me! It followed a new dossier that the JK Police and the Indian State produced against some of us because of our links to Pakistan. They labeled us Pakistan sponsored “handlers” of terrorists in the Valley and directing violence by militants. My friend used to run an online news portal which I helped edit. It was a vehicle for the young to write their hearts out about their resistance to India. Fortunately, he was released but he no longer believes that anybody outside is willing to come to the aid of Kashmiris. I have never heard him being so cynical.
All this is of course only Act 1 in a sordid play in which India sees itself hosting the tourism segment of the G20 meeting in Srinagar in its final act. And this is really why I am speaking to you here today. I am speaking to ask you to help us raise awareness about the real situation in the Valley and urge lawmakers to not agree to attend such an obscene event. It would be like listening to chamber music at Auschwitz, which was organized by the death camps for visitors to show that the camps were really labor camps where inmates continue to play music in their free time.
The G20 event will hopefully be a much-needed trigger for the diaspora to wake up again and get involved. To that end:
The diaspora must get the message out about the inhuman conditions under which Kashmiris are forced to live. They must talk about the total absence of civil and political rights of any kind, and the continued human rights violations if anybody dares to speak up or resist.
The US in particular cares about civil rights, much more than human rights. It is a language they understand from their own history. It is why our appeals to hold hearings about Kashmir succeeded in the fall of 2019. We must do it again and try at least.
Help us point out how the Kashmir dispute is still an international one, a recognized legal dispute involving Pakistan and the Kashmiri people. And that by attending an event which aims to prove that the dispute has been solved and normalcy has returned, guests would actually be taking side in this dispute in favor of India.
Help us point out how the event would make an already intolerable situation even worse. During past high-level events, Kashmiris were often shot on sight by trigger happy security forces tasked to stop anybody from roaming about. Of course the internet and phone service were always snapped for the duration. Weeks before the frisking began people were harassed both inside and outside their houses and their movements severely restricted.
Help us get the word out by writing to and calling lawmakers and others who matter and even plan protests wherever we can. However, protests only matter if attended by large crowds as they were in 2019 when Imran Khan spoke at the UN about Kashmir. Almost 50000 came out then and television stations and other media picked it up. Small protests do not work and make us look as though we have no support.
Organize seminars around only this issue so people can talk about Pakistan’s and the Kashmiris’ legal position in-depth and how the positions have not changed.
Help us sustain an effective social media campaign once India has announced the date of the event. Tag lawmakers, the State Department, Human Rights Organizations, and Foreign Ministries of member states of the G20.
Write articles or opinion pieces against the event if you can.
Do anything except be silent. We can speak up, organize, mobilize, and demand truth and justice for IIOJK unlike Kashmiris who no longer have the opportunity to do so. They depend on us to be their voice.
And remember Milan Kundera’s words “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Let’s never forget the plight of the Kashmiris and how we can “never bury the past” or “move forward,” regardless of who suggests it! And no politician should ever say “we have learned our lesson” because too many Kashmiris have died and are still being taught lessons for their undying allegiance to Pakistan.
Good evening and As-Salaam-Alaikum. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this special event.
For once, I have actually prepared a speech because it is still very hard for me to talk about many of the things I witnessed while living in Kashmir, and I would like to remain focused. The memories never fade enough for me to become more composed when I talk about them. In 2019, when I met Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, I broke down while telling her about the Machil Fake Encounter. In 2008, I wrote this for a local Kashmiri daily: “I saw many of the villagers near starvation because they could not break through the giant barricades erected around their entire district as part of a collective punishment for speaking out. All the way home from Baramulla to Srinagar, while seeing new and even higher barricades being erected and more and more people being rounded up on the side of the highway, I wondered not only how I could rescue them all, but what might happen to me if I wrote about what I saw and felt.” Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about it here. As a German, it is never easy to talk about Genocide. We grew up with images of piles of bodies found in camps that had been liberated. Much later, I always wondered how the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda could have happened after the entire world had said “never again.” Of course, nobody can ever really imagine the tragedy of millions dying and often in relatively short time frames. And usually too much deliberation goes into the mere management of crises to effectively prevent mass killings anywhere and then to clearly define the meaning of genocide. That is why at first I had problems using the term “genocide” when it comes to the crimes against humanity committed in Kashmir. I had always thought it needed to be much more massive in scale and more concentrated in execution to qualify. But then over the years and with killings never stopping around me, I realized that genocide is also a process that can happen in slow motion, and often spread over decades, or even longer. It can also involve demographic changes not only through mass killings like during the Jammu massacre of 1947 but also through ethnic flooding as is happening now in the Valley at an accelerated pace. Therefore, I am now using the term genocide for Kashmir without a moment’s hesitation. But again like with all genocides anywhere, it is very difficult to fully envision numbers of the dead and disappeared in their totality. In Kashmir also, while the statistics in the many reports prepared by Kashmiri civil society groups may induce a sense of shock, it never quite hits anyone at the core. I have resolved that tragedy is individual, and while statistics may be meaningful in history books, stories of individual victims must be remembered and be told again and again for anybody to really understand the cruelty of the murders. With that in mind, I would like to talk about some of the killings I personally witnessed while in Kashmir, and also the circumstances under which they died. And even after being publicized locally, NOTHING ever changed and NOBODY has ever been brought to book.
Starting in early 2006 and into 2007, my first years in Kashmir, there were a series of fake encounters which perhaps for the first time ever were investigated. There was Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Ganderbal; Showkat Ahmed, a daily laborer from Budgam, Ali Mohammad Padder, a carpenter from Kokernag, Nazir Ahmed Deka and Ghulam Nabi Wani, both bakers from Ganderbal. All of them were exhumed for identification and subsequently declared innocent. Police had picked them up, branded them Pakistani terrorists, and killed them in fake encounters together with the army and the CRPF. All the officers received hefty cash rewards and promotions. None was ever put before a civilian court or prosecuted for murder anywhere. But it was the beginning of Kashmiris becoming more vocal about crimes committed to them and openly demanding justice. In 2008, the massive crackdown following the uprising caused by the Amarnath Land Row resulted in the death of at least 60 protesters and grave injuries to thousands who had been unarmed and were protesting completely peacefully without a single stone in their hand. The most prominent protester killed during the Muzaffarabad Chalo was Sheikh Aziz, a Hurriyat leader, who was shot by security forces no more than 200 feet from me. I still remember our panic over how to save his life. Of course the scene was too chaotic to get him any medical help. Most of the other protesters were young boys and villagers who were shot dead without ever having been a threat to anybody. Of course the Indian media claimed that they had been Pakistani militants having infiltrated into the crowd and shooting protesters themselves to create more chaos and anti-India sentiment. During that time I spent most days taking journalists around in my own car because I had a press curfew pass from a local daily and knew that security forces would not harm a foreigner nor beat up the journalists with me. Much of that time we drove severely injured protesters, including women and children, to emergency wards of local hospitals. Among them were several Sumo drivers whose cars had been attacked with petrol bombs by Hindutva fanatics on the Jammu Srinagar highway and who had sustained life threatening burns all over their bodies. Many never made it out of the hospitals. The brutality of the crackdown was the beginning of the Kashmir Intifada which stretched all the way past 2016 following funerals of local rebels. It was also the political awakening of an entire new generation of Kashmiris which was much angrier and more uncompromising than their elders ever were. In 2009, we woke up to news about the discovery of the bodies of Neelofar and Aasia from Shopian in South Kashmir. Neelofar was 22 and Aasia 17. Both had been raped, killed by security forces, and deposited at the banks of a nearly dry riverbed not far from the local SOG camp. All hell broke loose when the news about their rape and murder leaked. After the initial forensic investigation confirmed rape and murder of both the girls, special forces policemen attached to the camp were arrested. A team of crisis managers was then flown in from Delhi, and soon the entire sordid story was rewritten by security agencies. The girls were exhumed and a revised forensic examination by a doctor selected by the agencies claimed that neither of the girls was raped and that they had drowned on their way home in the “rapids” of the river. When I took a journalist from
Delhi to the exact spot where the bodies had been found, he admitted that the water level was so low that not even a small child could have drowned. But he insisted that it could not have been rape because the security forces at the camp were Hindus and Hindus did not rape. After all, he had once written a piece about how the gang rape of Kunan Poshpara was nothing but a plot by Pakistani propagandists to turn locals against the army and India. The protests that followed the murders of the girls were mostly localized but severe enough that dozens of youths were gravely injured and several died. It was the first time that hospitals were asked to connect the bodies of dead protesters to life support machines so police did not have to report them as dead all at the same time. This practice was perfected in 2010 where the death count was so high that authorities wanted to release the news of killings incrementally. 2010 began with the cold-blooded killings of Whamid Farooq, a 13 year old boy who was playing cricket near his and my house when a teargas shell fired from close range broke his skull. Only two weeks later, a 16-year-old boy, Zahid Farooq, was standing at the roadside talking to his friends after school when a BSF jeep stopped, one of the soldiers got out and shot him in the head for no reason except perhaps target practice. Because it happened right outside the CRPF headquarters, it was captured on camera and the jeep was identified. While the soldier was transferred for “using excessive force during crowd management,” he was never prosecuted for the barbaric act he had committed. Then in May of that year, the news of the Machil Fake Encounter broke. At first there was an announcement by the army that three Pakistani infiltrators had been killed near Machil in Kupwara district. But because the families of three boys who had disappeared began inquiring about their whereabouts, the horrible truth soon became evident: Shehzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad, and Mohammed Shafi of Nadihal in Rafiabad, all still in their late teens, had been lured by a local Territorial Army recruit to the army camp at Machil near the LoC with the promise of a few days of labor for good pay. After the boys were delivered to the commanding officer of the camp, they were shot in the faces, dressed in militant attire, and quickly buried after some photos had been taken. Because the families cried foul, the bodies were exhumed and identified as the local boys who had gone missing. A few days earlier, the major commanding the camp had received orders to be rotated out of Kashmir and wanted to earn one more monetary award and promotion for killing militants before being transferred. While the army did not deny what had happened, the case was not tried before a civilian court because of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. All of the culprits were released on bail from a military jail after Modi assumed power. For me this was an earth-shattering event. I had lived in the upper reaches of Rafiabad for a year to work with timber smugglers and knew two of the three boys and their families very well. I never stopped pursuing the prosecution of the killers wherever and whenever I could until I was forced to leave Kashmir.
This gruesome fake encounter and the subsequent killing of a teenager, Tufail Mattoo, who was on his way home from tuition when a teargas shell almost decapitated him, were the triggers for the 2010 uprising where more than 140 boys died while protesting for justice and against the Indian occupation. It was also when we lived through a 4- month-long continuous curfew that was so severe that anybody attempting to break through it was shot on sight. Every evening during that time we did nothing but count the dead. Following 2010, protests became routine, especially after prayers on Fridays. Scores of young boys were arrested on a regular basis and only set free after their families paid huge bribes to the police. Many of the young boys were tortured and humiliated while in custody. This was also the time when many local young boys began joining rebel groups because of the treatment they had received while in custody. Much of this was inspired by Burhan Wani and his group who reminded people that armed resistance against a brutal occupation was not only sanctioned by the UN Charter but also one way to fight back after all political initiatives had failed. All of them are dead now. When Manan Wani was killed, we cried for days. He was our philosopher rebel who had told the youth that they did not need to pick up a gun but could also pick up a pen as long as they resisted in some way. He like Burhan had never even fired his gun before being killed. Why all this detail, you may ask? Because I think it is so important to go beyond statistics and remember individual victims who have been killed under the most brutal circumstances and stand to be forgotten while we mostly focus on their leaders. They died for the cause of liberation and have to be remembered by us all. They died without any fault of their own, and because India does not consider Kashmiris human beings worth protecting. In Kashmir, graves are full of not only unidentified bodies but of those many of us have known and cared about and will always miss. As Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being “The struggle of man against power is often the struggle of memory against forgetting.” If I may, I would like to conclude this with part of another piece I had written at that time: “Yesterday, I was sitting near the river under the darkest of curfews, listening to the wailing voices of funeral singers and distant gun shots, mourning the deaths of boys I have never known and will never be able to befriend, and longing to sit at the lake again in the darkness of night where truth can be so easily hidden from someone’s view. The sky was laden with dark clouds, and rain was falling on the graveyards of the old city where the dead were being buried. Yesterday, it seemed the sky over Kashmir would never clear again, and light and sunshine had now permanently vanished from my portrait of the Valley. I thought of the people I have met, the respect I have for those who have been struggling against darkness for so long, the families who have been reduced to tears, and the complete powerlessness one feels in the face of unstoppable human tragedy. I
wanted to reach out and say to people to please still believe in the faint illusion of justice, fairness and the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted to assure them that people did not die in vain. I wanted someone to tell me that the sadness and anger I felt would fade, making it possible to see bright light again in a place that so often seems to plunge into permanent darkness. But most of all, I wanted to tell people that I had now become a Kashmiri, regardless of how unbearable it may be at times, and that their reality had very much become my own, even if I might never be able to fully comprehend the full range of its dark colors and hues. “ Thank you for listening.
Thank you for asking me to participate in this event. I apologize for the camera on my computer not working and the other technical difficulties with my sound.
When you first asked me to participate in this program, I hesitated because I felt all of us must focus on the political solution, and both human and civil rights, rather than anything else, and especially not development which has become such a bad word for most locals. But then I thought about all those years working on sustainable development throughout the Valley, and how dealing with the authorities and security forces represented just another dimension of disempowerment and humiliation for everybody trying to do something. Anything! And in that sense, it fits most other topics we have been covering lately. Moreover, there is also the need to talk more about the real facts on the ground while India has made “development” and good governance in Kashmir part of its extensive disinformation campaign in the rest of the world. Just recently, I saw a glossy brochure the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is planning to disseminate to member states of the UN. It is a fictional depiction of a Shangri La type of Kashmir which in actuality has probably not looked as neglected as it does now since the worst years of the Dogra regime. This is quite different from when I was there when we had some breaks in between the horror and when people were still dreaming of some sort of a future. Now they have simply given up, and it sometimes feels like the Valley of the Walking Dead. For me development has never meant large industries, big hotels, huge infrastructure building, or employment of youth that requires displacement from the rural areas, unless in search of opportunities that might match their higher education if they were privileged enough to obtain it. This is of course what India is now telling the world it will bring about. Much of what I can talk about is as always personal experiences while working on small scale community-based development funded by the UNDP for that very purpose. This included horticulture, Agri Forestry, and rural tourism development. And since the funds were disbursed by the State Government, I had my share of battles with MLAs and Ministers of every political hue and of course bureaucrats who are anything but facilitators. When I was there, J & K twice made it to the very top as the most corrupt state in India. My first project, one out of six, took me to North Kashmir, where I lived for a year in the upper reaches of Rafiabad which is halfway between Uri and Handwara. No internet, mobile phone connection except on some hill tops, and of course no roads. Healthcare nonexistent with the closest small hospital two hours away in Baramulla. I stayed with a family of ten and no sanitation and electricity except perhaps for one hour here and there and most certainly not every day. I worked with 60 villages throughout the belt, most of which had never been electrified, and where life had not really changed much for hundreds of years. What had changed, though, was the villagers’ awareness of government entitlements, often promised by local politicians during election campaigns. Much of it never came except in rare cases, and then often just before one elected politician was replaced by another without never having implemented anything promised. Development initiatives never seemed to get out of the Detailed Project Report preparation stage in Kashmir. It took bureaucrats years to prepare one at the request of a local MLA or Minister, only to have it shelved after being asked to prepare another by the next leader. If it had been sanctioned it went into a black hole of project funding, later to be disbursed as salaries or some such to those in the department that had been put in charge. I also prepared detailed project reports. But I was not only responsible for getting the projects funded but also to have everything implemented and documented in utilization reports to be filed with the UNDP. And that after struggling for months to have the funding released by state government officials. This took endless journeys from district collectors, to directors of the departments, to their accounting staffs, to the infamous Commissioner Secretaries, who were rarely Kashmiri Muslims and literally hated me for working so comfortably with communities they so clearly despised. All of it could take more than a year and sometimes more with the Durbar Move delaying everything for an additional six months while all files were travelling back and forth on the Srinagar Jammu highway between the summer and winter capitals. That is of course another relic from the Dogra years and their wish to spend the cold winters somewhere else besides the freezing Valley. These are all standard operating procedures for Kashmiris working on anything involving the government and of course anything requiring a permit or a mere signature for anything. While much of this is probably common in much of the region, what adds to the extreme frustration in Kashmir is the involvement of security forces and intelligence agencies every step of the way. While on my way to launch a project brochure in the upper reaches of Rafiabad, I was arrested on the Srinagar Baramulla highway and put under subsequent house arrest, one of many to come. This with the excuse that some “chatter’ had been intercepted that I was going to be killed by terrorists later that day. I was being arrested for my own protection, they said. Since I immediately informed the local media, the police then claimed they had actually stopped me from leading an election boycott rally on behalf of so called anti-national elements. I was not. This was followed by two weeks of closely watched house arrest and daily interrogations by the CID. My project was then completely stopped when the newly elected MLA of Rafiabad was trying to get access to the project funding to be spent on a part of Rafiabad that had voted overwhelmingly for him. Similarly, a bit later in Lolab and accompanied by a senior tourism official to scout out some areas for potential tourism development near Kalaruss, I was intercepted by the Indian army, my camera was confiscated, and I was ordered to leave the area immediately. Earlier in Rafiabad an entire foreign trekking group I had brought as part of my project had been arrested by the army, claiming they were in a restricted area which they were not. I had to move hell and high water to get my guides released from custody. I found out later that both was reported as my having tried to cross the LoC to meet my Pakistani handler, a General Mustafa whose name was made up! If it weren’t so sad it would almost be funny. Why am I telling all of this in such detail? Because this of course happens to Kashmiris day in and day out while dealing with every level of government, regardless of whether it is just a Sarpanch or block level worker or anybody else all the way up to district and state officials. And nothing gets ever done. Add to it the endless curfews during which all comes to a standstill, the internet and phone interruptions, the winters when not much of anything is done because of the weather and absence of all officials in charge, and now of course and worst of all the place having become a huge ghetto where nobody dares to venture out for fear of uttering one wrong word that may lead to instant arrests or disappearances. Then the new DDC elections that just happened which in my view will only empower an entirely new cadre of the incompetent and corrupt, but this time directly selected by Delhi and often backed by the army. They will now oversee most block level funding and more than likely only approve works for their kin or those who supported them during the election process. None of these will have any political powers and thus will not be able to represent the sentiments of the people in any way. This is in sharp contrast to former elected state politicians who at times at least acted as a buffer between the security forces and the people. And that is in no way defending how much they betrayed the people politically. But now there is literally nobody to go to with real grievances. This winter has been the coldest and snowiest in decades in Kashmir. It has also been the one with reportedly the worst governance ever while people were trying to deal with the fallout of the extreme weather conditions. There was nobody to contact in an emergency in remoter areas except perhaps the army, which is of course what is being hoped by India. Then desperation will be hailed as people appreciating the Sadbhavna program and reaching out to the benevolent forces! Last but not least here is part of my response to lies by the Indian Ambassador in the US published in the NYT right after the illegal annexation of Kashmir when he claimed it was done for “good governance, to speed up development, and take J & K out of the dark ages….” And things of course went only from bad to worse instead! (1)The J & K Right to Information Act was much stronger than the Indian law now in force which has been watered down again and again since 2014; in fact, RTI was used in Kashmir more than anywhere else and there was an influential civil society RTI Movement educating locals about this right; (2) Women could very much participate in Panchayat elections, and if needed I can provide a list of names of some who won in 2011, including one Kashmiri Hindu panch at Tangmarg; (3) The inheritance provisions contained in Art 35 A and prohibiting women who married an outsider from claiming their inheritance were struck down by the J & K High Court years ago and were already no longer valid; (4)Economically J & K had always been much better off than most states in India, including and especially Gujarat; (5) All important socio economic indicators have always been much better in Kashmir, including nutrition, health and education and especially for women and children; (6); J & K never experienced the kind of poverty levels India experiences because of Sheikh Abdullah’s land reforms. They were revolutionary at the time and made it possible for every Kashmiri to own land (land to the tiller) and prohibited large landholdings to remain in the hands of the rich and privileged; no Kashmiri will ever be homeless unlike the poor in India. Mind you, I am no fan of Sheikh Abdullah and I think this is the only good thing he ever did for Kashmiris. (7) Funds appropriated by India for “the development of Kashmir” have always been utilized primarily for paying the salaries of government employees, the number of which is ridiculously high. Among other things, Delhi always felt providing and funding government employment would create loyalties to the Indian state and never discouraged it! (8) According to his statement, there will be an additional 50,000 state government jobs added to an already hopelessly bloated bureaucracy!!! This will drain “development funds” even further.” (9) The communications blackout was not lifted at all as he claimed then. Landlines were restored in many areas, but the saturation of landlines has been poor for a long time. Many people disconnected their lines and switched to mobile telephony long ago; now of course all internet has finally been restored as a result of the Biden Administration coming in and many expressing outrage over the farmers’ protests and the internet cuts near Delhi. At least this is what most of us believe. (10) There were always thousands of low caste migrant workers from India in Kashmir. All of them said they were paid higher daily wages and treated better than in India. Add to that hordes of beggars from India having created a begging mafia in the Valley and not wanting to leave! Now of course they may all qualify to become permanent settlers! (11) There were several “investment conferences” in the past like the one planned for this coming summer. Nothing ever came out of it, despite companies being able to lease land for 99 years the terms of which were renewable (The Taj and other hotels built properties that way in Kashmir); the main problems for investors is the overwhelming presence of security forces, no all-weather road communication and the dismal power situation which is not only a function of poor management, discriminatory policies, most of the power generated being added to the Northern Power Grid of India, but also the water levels getting lower and lower during winters because of climate change. Also nobody will ever want to invest in a place where one will be considered part of an occupation! Development will thus be mostly the building of colonies for outsiders, including the dreaded Sainik Colonies (12) The armed rebellion has nothing at all to do with economic/ job issues. In fact, most of the “New Age Militants” since 2016 have been from well-to-do families, and some left jobs as teachers/ lecturers to fight for the cause. Armed rebels join primarily because they have been abused by security forces and/ or because they demand secession from India. Not because they have nothing to do!
From reports on the ground, I do not see any of the dismal governance I have described improving any time soon, if ever. If nothing else, it has gotten worse with people having given up on having any of their problems addressed and no longer even trying to reach out. Now in addition to local administrators who do not care or are incompetent, Kashmir will have more nonlocal bureaucrats coming in and especially in top positions. They will neither understand any of the local needs nor care about the people whom they would like to see permanently caged without ever voicing any demands. No brochure handed out by Indian diplomats will ever reflect local realities. It is up to us to continuously point them out. The disinformation campaign is alive and well. And one last point: I had the privilege to visit AJK last August and must say the difference between the regions could not be more pronounced. Ever since that I have become quite militant with anybody claiming that Azad Kashmir is occupied. It is most definitely not. Thank you.
The Honorable Ambassador Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu
Ambassador of India to the United States
Mr. Randhir Jaiswal
Consul General of India- New York
3 East 64th Street
New York, NY 10065
Ref: Recent murder of 3 innocent civilians in a “staged encounter” at Amshipora, Shopian by the members of RR 62 regiment of the Indian Army on July 18, 2020 lead by Captain Bhoopendra Singh.
Ambassador Sandhu and Consul General Jaiswal;
I am writing to follow-up on the subject issue in which three civilians, one allegedly a minor, killed in a premeditated encounter determined as “staged” by the concerned investigating authorities, by the members of RR 62 regiment, Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian Army. These young boys identified as Mr. Mohd Imtiyaz (18), Mr. Mohd Abrar (16), and Mr. Abrar Ahmed (25) were allegedly lured day before the encounter by the Indian security forces from Rajouri district under the garb of providing seasonal employment and then murdered in a “fake encounter” at Amshipora in Shopian district lead by Captain Bhoopendra Singh alias Major Basheer Khan of RR 62 regiment. The charge sheet alleged that the Captain Singh conspired with two civilians to grab reward money of Rs. 20 lacks ($26,666) in this encounter[i]. The post-mortem report published in the local media provides chilling details of the injuries sustained by each of these three innocent civilians which caused their death in a “fake encounter.”[ii]
The ruthless character of Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian Army is often on public display on the streets of Kashmir and has been a source of many reports documenting gross human rights violations in Kashmir. The lack of response and accountability by the international institutions/community to the gross human rights violations in the region have further emboldened the members of the Indian Army and now even 16-year-old Kashmiri boys have become their legitimate targets.
Mohd Imtiyaz Dob: Feb 01, 2002 (age as of date of encounter: 18 years 5 months and 17 days)
S/o Mr. Sabar Hussain and Mrs. Shameem Akhtar
R/o Darsakri, Koteranaka, Rajouri
Jammu and Kashmir 185132
Aadhar number: 7347 0286 8641
Cousin of victims 2 and 3, grade 12th pass, his family comprised of two brothers, two sisters, and his parents. Mohd Imtiyaz was the 2nd oldest son, and the 3rd oldest among the siblings. One of the two older sisters is married. He wanted to save money for his college education. He has been a regular seasonal worker in Shopian for the past 2-3 years during the apple season when there is great demand for seasonal labor.
Victim #2: MINOR
Mohd Abrar, Dob: Feb 25, 2004 (age as of date of encounter: 16 years 4 months and 23 days)
S/o Mr. Bhaga Khan Sakri (father working in Saudi Arabia) and Mrs. Sifat Jan
R/o DharSakri, PP. Peeri, Kotranka
Rajouri, Jammu & Kashmir 185132
Mohd Abrar is the brother-in-law of victim #3. He was about to enroll in grade 12 and wanted to pursue a prearranged seasonal job to support his educational expenses. The family comprised of two brothers, two sisters and parents, with father working in Saudi Arabia. Mohd. Abrar was the 2nd oldest among the siblings. His oldest sister is married to victim # 3. In the absence of his father, victim #2 had assumed the role of head of his household, despite his young age. He wanted to contribute financially to his family and save some money for his education, so he travelled to Shopian to pursue a prearranged seasonal work in an apple orchard and support the family financially during COVID. This tragedy hit them most. This family lost both their son and son-in-law (victim #3) in this staged encounter.
Abrar Ahmed, Dob: Aug 25, 1994 (age as of date of encounter: 25 years 10 months and 24 days)
S/o Mr. Mohd Yousaf and Mrs. Malika Khatoon
R/o Kotranka, Rajouri 185132
Aadhar number: 5071 6731 2679
Abrar’s family comprised of two brother, three sisters, his parents and they lived in a joint family. He was married and the couple had their first baby boy, 15 months old. He worked in Kuwait for the past roughly 3 ½ years and was scheduled to return to Kuwait but his departure was delayed due to COVID pandemic. He was earning Rs, 90,000/month from his job, working in a Korean company in Kuwait as a certified rigger. Abrar Ahmed got married in 2017, his wife is age 21 and appeared in her 10th grade exam in 2016.
Victim #1’s father, and mothers of Victim #2’s and Victim #3’s are siblings.
Victim #1 and #2 families live 10 minutes walking distance of each other, and victim #3 family lives roughly 10 kms away from them.
As per family, on July 17th, victim #2 and #3, started early morning and walked through jungles and steep slopes with a small bag, slung across the shoulder, containing clothes and other belongings to reach Shopian from their hometown in Rajouri, excited to pursue a prearranged seasonal job opportunity. Victim #2’s mother prepared and packed meals for them to carry and eat on their way. They trekked 70 kilometers to reach Shopian to meet up with victim #1, who had already arrived two weeks earlier on July 2, 2020. The young boys were promised contract seasonal jobs working at an orchard which would fetch each up to Rs 1,000 – Rs. 1,500/day. Along the way they took breath taking pictures and recorded videos which they promised to share with the family once they settled down at the rented accommodation. Upon reaching Shopian around 4:30 PM that day, as per the surviving family, they made a video call from victim #1’s phone to their families in Rajouri to inform them that they had reached safely, that they had checked into the rented accommodation and were going out to purchase household items and groceries. Around 7:30 victim #1 called his family to confirm that they had done their grocery shopping. Between 8:00 and 8:15 PM victim #2 spoke briefly to his sister on the phone and informed that they would call again around 10 PM once they settled down. That call never came and their families initially thought that the boys were quarantined for 21 days due to COVID restrictions by the local civil administration since they travelled from another district. That same evening all three were allegedly abducted by the team lead by Captain Bhoopendra Singh and became victims of enforced disappearance by the Indian Army, the same gang who had lured them for a pre-arranged seasonal job. The family allege that their children were killed in cold blood for money, medals and out-of-turn promotions by personnel of the Army.[iii]
The next morning, on July 18, 2020, the Indian Army claimed they were foreign “hardcore terrorists” who had been killed in an encounter with security forces after they opened fire on a security team during a cordon and search operation.[iv] The charge sheet, according to the news agency, has statements of four army personnel — Subedar Garu Ram, Lance Naik Ravi Kumar, Sepoys Ashwini Kumar and Yougesh — who were part of Capt. Singh’s team at the time of the incident and were asked to cordon off the area from different directions.
The army initially claimed they recovered “arms and ammunition and IED material” from the foreign terrorists at the alleged encounter site. The Police statement said: “On 18-07-2020, an information was received by Police Station Heerpora that three unidentified terrorists were killed in an operation at village Amshipora by 62RR and 02 pistols with 02 magazines and 04 empty Pistol cartridges, 15 Live cartridges & 15 empty cartridges of AK series Weapon and other objectionable items were recovered from the encounter site. Consequent upon the information, a case FIR No. 42/2020 U/S 307 IPC, 7/27 Arms Act, 16 ULA(P) Act was registered in P/S Heerpora and investigation was set into motion”.[v]
During the press conference[vi] subsequent to the Amshipora encounter, 2 Sector Commander, Brigadier Ajay Kotach stated, “We are hopeful that there will be low recruitment of youths in terrorism and movement of Pakistani terrorists will be under control and we will neutralise them soon.” Brigadier Ajay Kotach added, “We got information about the presence of four to five terrorists in the village. At 0245 hours on July 18, while the cordon party was in the process of laying the cordon, they came under heavy fire from the fringes of the cordon and after 5 minutes they came under fire from the centre of the cordon.” The Brigadier further added, “The cordon party was redeployed and additional troops rushed to the spot to strengthen the cordon. By 0430 hours, the police and CRPF had reached the operational site.”
“At 0530 hours, after there was visibility, a search party was moved into the target house which was a newly constructed single house. While the search party moved in, they came under fire and in the ensuing action, three terrorists were neutralized,” Brigadier Ajay Kotach said. He further stated, “that the dead bodies with arms and ammunition along with IED material were handed over to the police as per the standard operating procedures.”
It has now been revealed in the charge sheet that these young boys were killed even before the alleged encounter started, their bodies stripped of their id’s and illegal weapons placed on them to justify the “encounter”, several hours later, contrary to the false and misleading statements made by a senior member of the Indian Army, Brigadier Ajay Kotach, in a press conference on July 19, 2020 surrounding this encounter. The investigation has revealed that they were abducted by Capt. Singh and his accomplices in crime the night before the staged encounter.
““There are inputs that terrorists would try their best to target the yatra, but we have got our systems and resources in place to ensure that it goes on unhindered and peacefully,” Brigadier Vivek Singh Thakur, Commander, Two Sector, said in a press conference in south Kashmir. The officer added that “systems and resources” were in place to ensure that the annual pilgrimage goes on unhindered.
According to a report, security forces have inputs about terrorists planning to carry out an attack on Amarnath Yatra.”[vii]
The news report claimed that 48 militants have been killed in South Kashmir in the past month of June.
The murder of these young boys portrayed as foreign “hardcore terrorists” in an encounter coincided with the visit of the Indian defense minister, Mr. Raj Nath Singh, to the Amarnath Yatra site in Kashmir on July 18, 2020, the news flashed on Indian TV, “Amid terror threats, Rajnath Singh visits Amarnath temple.”[viii]
Since Captain Bhoopendra Singh and his team’s wrongdoing have been exposed during the investigation into the “fake encounter”, does the Govt of India (GoI) have any intentions to extend investigations into all other encounters in the area, at least in those in which the exposed and disgraced Captain Bhoopendra Singh of the Indian Army and his team participated to access the damage he has done?
The media reported on or about Oct 8, 2020 about the visit of Lt. Governor Mr. Manoj Sinha to the families of victims to offer condolences and offered the family of each victim killed in this staged encounter a check in the amount Rs 500,000 ($6,666.00) as compensation. It is utterly shocking to learn that the surviving families of the victims of this staged encounter would be paid such a meagre amount to compensate for the criminal acts of the Indian Army which resulted in the death of innocent young boys.
May I remind you that an Indian citizen, Mr. Sarabjit Singh, was convicted of terrorism and spying by Pakistani court. Mr. Singh was arrested in Pakistan in 1991, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for a series of bomb attacks in Lahore and Faisalabad that killed 14 bystanders in 1990. Born around 1963, Mr. Singh died of a heart attack on May 2, 2013 at age 49 after being attacked by fellow inmates during his incarceration in a high security Pakistani prison. When Mr. Singh’s dead body was returned to his family in India, “The Punjab government had given Rs 1 crore to the family of Sarabjit Singh and jobs for his both daughters. The Delhi government gives Rs 1 crore to a martyr’s family. The Haryana government gives Rs 50 lakh” as per news report.[ix] The compensation offered to Mr. Singh’s family was close to half a million dollars at a prevailing exchange rate of Rs 55/dollar in 2013. (Today that exchange rate is around Rs. 75/dollar). Mr. Singh’s eldest daughter was allotted a government job and appointed as a revenue officer as compensation after the cabinet approved it on May 28, 2013.[x] Mr. Singh’s wife and second daughter were allotted an “LPG distributorship.” [xi]
“I have handed over a cheque worth 25-lakh rupees, on the behalf of the India government, to this family from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. I think it is insufficient. I have requested the Indian Government to help them as much as possible”[xii] referring to the additional compensation provided to Mr. Sarabjit Singh’s surviving family from Vice Chairman, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe.
Furthermore, “An Indian diplomat’s daughter who was suspended, arrested and forced to spend a day in jail during her senior year in February 2011 on cyber-bullying charges, has won a $225,000 settlement from New York City” quoted an Indian TV news channel. Ms. Krittika Biswas, an Indian citizen and the daughter of the diplomat, was around 18 years old when the alleged incident occurred in New York City. “Alleging that the investigation leading to her arrest was a “sham”, and lacking any real evidence, she had initially sought $1.5 million in her 2012 suit against New York City.”[xiii]
Given the two scenarios above, does the government in India think that rupees 500,000 ($6,666.00) is a fair compensation provided to each surviving victim family in a wrongful death as a result of this encounter which has been determined as “fake” by the investigating agencies? One victim was a minor attending school. The other had returned from a job overseas in Kuwait. The 3rd wanted to enroll in a college. They had their full lives ahead of them. The deceased family members were deprived of the loss of love and companionship. The families of these victims are devastated and must live through the emotional trauma and the loss of relationship with their children killed in a “fake encounter” by the Indian Army for the rest of their lives. No amount of money can replace the loss of their loved ones, but at least the government in India can make a sincere attempt to compensate them fairly for the heinous crimes of the Indian army perpetrated against these families. Victim #3 was recently married and supported his 21-year-old young wife, an infant child in addition to the rest of his family members. They have been deprived of the financial support due to the death of a main family member in a “fake encounter.” The family is also entitled to punitive damages to punish the culprits.
We trust that the good sense will prevail and the government in India will revisit the decision in determining the fair amount of compensation to the survivors to mitigate their pain and sufferings caused as a result of the criminal actions of Indian security forces. The community is awaiting your comments and the reaction of the Govt of India on this pressing issue. Additionally, the community would like to know if GoI will allow the perpetrators of these murders to stand trial in a criminal court. The prevailing restrictions imposed on account of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Forces Act) in effect in Jammu and Kashmir requires prior permission granted by the central government for prosecution of uniformed members in criminal courts.[xiv]
Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns or need additional information to process this pressing humanitarian request.
6120 Grand Central Pkwy A201
Forest Hills, NY 11375
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Gregory Meeks
Rep. Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Grace Meng
Rep. Thomas Suozzi
Mr. Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy
US Embassy, New Delhi
US State Dept, Washington DC
European Parliament-Subcommittee on Human Rights
UN DPPA/DPO, New York
[i] “Press Release”, Kashmir Zone Police Media Center, Dec. 27, 2020.
[ii] “Exclusive: “Contents of brain were coming out,” post-mortem of trio in Shopian fake gunfight”, Kashmirwalla, Jan. 18, 2021.
[iii] “Shopian ‘Encounter’ Involving Army Officer as an Accused is a Case of Murder: J&K Police”, The Wire, Dec. 27, 2020.
Reprinted with Permission of author Subhalakshmi Gogoi (Sentinel Assam)
A swollen river. A ramshackle boat. A frail boatman. Dare to cross the river? The wise will call it foolhardy. But, for the villagers of Phaneng, a hamlet situated in the easternmost corner of Upper Assam and 124 kms away from Dibrugarh, this river is a part of their daily routine. The only way to reach the National Highway-37 is by crossing the Tirap river. The ferocity of the river in monsoons does not daunt them, as they have no other choice.
Cocooned in verdant greenery, Phaneng stands unspoiled and pristine on the banks of the river Tirap. The Buddha Vihara that stands at the entrance of the village gives a touch of spirituality to the serenity, which reigns the place. Most of the houses stand on stilts. Almost every house has huge gardens of areca nuts, palms, fruit trees and bamboos. Every household seems self-sufficient. The peace that reigns in the village is a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the city life. They are blessedly untouched by the madness of today’s modern world.
The story behind how the village got its name makes an interesting history. When the first person, Aiong Khow Pomung came to settle in a place from Pomung, nine miles north of Margherita in 1950, the Tirap river could be seen from afar flowing down the Dehing-Patkai. The river water appeared like a red wall, red because of the mud that it carries during monsoons. So, the village came to be known as ‘Pha-neng’, ‘pha’ meaning ‘sharp incline’ and ‘neng’ meaning ‘red’. Thus, the name means an ‘inclined red wall’ in Tai-Phake.
The silence that prevails over the place, and which is broken by the cries of birds and animals only, hides in its fold many problems. The people of Phaneng do not enjoy the basic amenities, which their counterparts in the city have, like electricity, water supply, education, health and proper communication. The village has a population of around 175 families, out of which 23 belong to the Tai-Phake community, and the others are a composition of Ahoms, Kacharis and Nepalis.
A well, near Buddha Vihar, is the only source of safe potable water for the villagers. Hand pumps are few; boring a hole into the ground poses a problem, since the village is in a hilly area. It is also an expensive affair. Besides, the underground water level is very low. To top it all, the water pumped is rich in iron content. The river water is clear in winter, but once the rains come, the water turns muddy. So, the villagers head for the river, when the water level is low only to bathe and wash clothes. Health facilities in the village are non-existent; there is neither any health-care centre nor any qualified health workers to even cater to the simple ailment of a villager. The nearest place that patients from the village can hope to find a doctor or trained personnel is in Lekhapani, 13 kms away. The journey for a seriously ill patient of Phaneng can hardly be put in words. For, Phaneng has no roads.
The public works departments is in deep slumber. During monsoons, footwear adorns the hands of people. For a person, who is not used to walking on slippery and muddy roads, walking on the tricky tracks is no less an ordeal. The village is accessible by vehicles only during winter, when the river water recedes and the water level drops. On reaching the village, a portion of the stretch is gravel-strewn, thanks to the efforts of an NGO. After crossing the Tirap river, people have to navigate a small rivulet that has made a deep gorge. A fragile bamboo bridge connects the two sides of the rivulet, which clearly shows that it might give way at any moment. Even to cross the Tirap river, there is just a worn out boat. Ferry service is absent.
The village has had no supply of electricity for more than 10 years. The tall iron pillars are the reminders of the period when the village briefly enjoyed the facility. The transformer was put in a nearby village — Kengya, but soon, enough hooking and theft of electricity put an end to the story. Once the sun sets, people light their kerosene lamps. The households that have televisions use batteries to run their sets.
The village has only a primary school set up in 1952 and provincialized in 1956. The school has just two teachers. The present strength of children is 65. After the launching of the Sarbasiksha Abhijan, a centre has been set up in the village. But the children, after doing their primary schooling, either have to face up the daily ordeal of crossing the Tirap river and go to Ledo, 22 km away or to Jagun a few kms away for further studies. Those who can afford, they put their children in boarding schools. The number of graduates in the village stands at single digit. Most of the youth, after completing their schooling, get into subsistence farming.
The villagers are mainly cultivators. They grow sali rice and mustard. But slowly, few of them are venturing into tea cultivation and organic fruit growing. Women in the village supplement the family income by weaving clothes in their looms. The Tai-Phakes, in the village, wear their traditional dress — girls wear a wrap-around skirt with shirts and a long diagonally folded cloth across the shoulder, married women wrap colourful rihas round their chests, indicating there marital status, and the men wear lungis. The Tai-Phake women use natural dyes to colour muga threads; yellow and purple colours predominate their skirts.
The villagers have no expectations from the government. Over the years, they have just been neglected by the system. However, the fact that the island had remained cut off from the mainstream for so long seems to have worked to their advantage, if the recent developments are to be taken into account.
The village has recently been developed into an eco-tourist destination as part of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) livelihood program being undertaken by the Department of Forest, Assam — an integral aspect of which is the participatory involvement of the community at the grassroots level. In 2005, plans were drawn and estimates finalized for putting the required infrastructure of a model eco-tourist village into place. The work was finished in December of that year and the village was able to receive the first batch of tourists by January of 2006 for the Dehing-Patkai Festival. Carin Jodha Fischer, co-ordinator and advisor for the eco-tourism sector of the JFM, was all praise for the unstinting support she received from the department. Carin hopes that she will be able to shield the village from the spoils of unsustainable development by providing alternative employment avenues for the people through community based eco tourism.
Carin Jodha Fischer quotes a boy whom she met at a meeting that she had with the heads of the tribes and the officials at Lekhapani:
“Earlier, our only thought was how to leave this place for greener pastures. But now, we have realized the uniqueness of our place. We no longer think of leaving, thanks to you.” Carin Jodha Fischer was moved by the boy’s remark. Somewhere high above, the spirit of Aiong Khow Pomung must be smiling.
The Stilwell Road: Straight Ahead?
Here’s a land route that would not only open up the
possibilities for India’s Northeast to trade and
interact with its eastern neighbours, but as an
overland link would also work to cement relationships
between Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
by Carin I Fischer
The six-lane section of the Yunnan section of the
Hacked out of the jungle 60 years ago as part of the
Allied push to end Japanese military domination in
Asia, the Stilwell Road, if reborn, may soon instigate
a sea-change in the Asian economic balance. Further,
there’s little reason to believe that the
reverberations of such a shift would be confined to
the eastern hemisphere. While recent years have seen
increasingly fervent discussions of the rising – and
rival – individual mights of India and China, the
current momentum to reopen the link between the two
countries promises a whole new consideration: the
prospect of further aligning the two economies, which
jointly comprise 40 per cent of the global population.
While most of the men who built the Stilwell Road are
now dead, the Road itself remains: disused in many
places, crumbling in others, and in a few areas
impassable during heavy rains. Built by Asian labour
and American machines and travelled by trucks
constructed in Detroit factories, the Road was once a
testament to America’s emergence as an economic
superpower. At that time, India, Burma and China were
seen as little more than conduits and destinations for
goods made elsewhere. Today that dynamic has changed.
Perhaps more so now than during that era, the Stilwell
Road is not one road, but many roads. Passing through
South, Southeast and East Asia through fractious,
politicised regions, it is a very real, physical route
through difficult terrain. In November 2004 and April
2005, a series of overland surveys found that,
contrary to public perception, the road is very much
motorable. Except for a stretch of about 80 km in
Burma that remains impassable without a bridge during
the rainy season, the work needed for a revival of the
road is not nearly as extensive as the public has been
led to believe. Some of that work is already underway
or complete; the Chinese portion is essentially done.
China is also currently providing funds and working
extensively with Burma – including the creation of a
new shortcut that dramatically cuts the Burmese
portion in half.
In the wartime atmosphere when the Stilwell Road was
first laid, the task was physically daunting but
remarkably free of political complexities. Reopening
the Road, on the other hand, will involve several
governments and their bureaucracies. It is even
possible that the most important forces pushing
through the opening will not necessarily be national
governments, but the agitations of trade, modernity
and human connection.
While the Stilwell Road itself was put down in the
early 1940s, the mountainous course that it follows
had long been an integral part of the so-called
ancient Southern Silk Route. Based on new evidence,
historians now say that trade along this track between
China, Burma and India could have been going on in
full swing as early as the second century BC. Traders
bartered jade, silk, silver, tea and lacquerware,
while Buddhist and Hindu missionaries treaded the
route as a threshold to East Asia.
The shortest land route between northeastern India and
southwestern China, the Stilwell Road connects the
rail spur at Ledo in Assam to the provincial capital
of Kunming in Yunnan, over a distance of 1,736 km. US
Army General Joseph Stilwell, who was the regional
commander of US troops as well as Chiang Kai-shek’s
chief of staff, was defeated by the Japanese in Burma
in the spring of 1942. After retreating, Stilwell
prepared for a counterattack and ordered into
existence the supply link that would bear his name.
Fifteen thousand soldiers and countless local workers
laboured for two years, carving a muddy track and
parallel fuel pipeline through the heavily forested
mountains. The feat was an engineering marvel, a
labour nightmare – and, elsewhere as the war took its
own route, an unnecessarily massive effort. Completed
in 1945, the Japanese surrender of eight months later
brought the wartime need for the Road to an end.
Known as the Burma Road in China, the Ledo Road in
Burma, and the Stilwell Road in India, the course was
composed of around 57 km in India, 1,040 km in Burma,
and 639 km in China. The Indian part of the Road has
been closed since 1961, mainly for security reasons,
and some stretches have fallen into disrepair.
Similarly, about 80 km of the Road in Burma is barely
passable during the rainy season. China, on the other
hand, has built a six-lane highway from Kunming that
ends abruptly at the Burmese border. It is largely
stubborn determination on the part of the Chinese that
has given the reopening plan its current momentum.
While the old Stilwell Road is still used by local
border-crossing traders, significantly greater has
been the illegal trafficking between India, China,
Burma, and Southeast Asia. A reopening would convert
much of the contraband transport to legitimate trade.
The current movement towards reopening the Road was
formally initiated in August of 1999, when China,
India and Burma – as well as Bangladesh – met in
China’s southern province of Yunnan and officially
approved an agreement known as the Kunming Initiative.
On a broad level, the Initiative decided to improve
communications between India’s northeast and
south-western China. While general talk involved the
possibilities of developing rail, water, and air
links, specific emphasis was placed on revitalising
the old Southern Silk Route. Chinese and Indian
officials eagerly pushed for the infrastructure
project to get underway, however, a former Indian
ambassador to China urged the Kunming delegates to be
patient – to wait while New Delhi wrestled with its
own issues and doubts. That patience may now be paying
Back in 1991, while facing imminent bankruptcy, India
ushered in a series of belated financial reforms and
the first place it turned to was the burgeoning market
that was Southeast Asia. That year, India not only
took steps towards ASEAN partnership, policymakers
also put in place a Look East policy that positioned
the Northeast at the forefront of its strategy.
Despite this, it has only been over the past year that
New Delhi is finally placing serious focus on the
region as an eastern gateway. The largest component of
such a strategy would be the reopening of the Stilwell
Road, while there is an effort underway to reestablish
international trade through Sikkim (see accompanying
article pp). Undoubtedly, some of this flurry has to
do with a push for closer economic interaction with
Southeast Asia. Much of it also has to do with the
giant, hurried steps currently being taken by both
China and India towards one another.
That pace is partly to make up for lost time. Security
concerns have long played the most critical role in
formulating India’s regional foreign policy –
particularly the perceived ‘vulnerability’ along its
Himalayan frontier, which is a legacy of the 1962 war
with China. Trade, for the time being, took a back
seat. In the meantime, traditional trade routes
crucial to the local economies dried up, while new
land routes were rarely discussed. The Northeast has
faced a debilitating paradox as local crossborder
trade has been outlawed due to security concerns,
while trade between the secluded region and the rest
of India has failed to develop. The inter-community
and secessionist violence that continues to rack the
poor, agrarian region has only made New Delhio:’s
policymakers more skittish about opening it up to
international traffic and attention.
Even as New Delhi has waffled on the matter, the
northeastern states are overwhelmingly in favour of
reopening the Stilwell Road. Leading that charge has
been Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam’s Minister of Environment
and Forests, in whose constituency the Road begins. In
2002, Bordoloi participated in the Dhaka meet of the
Kunming Initiative – an unusually forthright action
for a minister; in so doing, Bordoloi essentially
bypassed New Delhi, taking his concerns directly to
the international delegates. Bordoloi is joined by key
politicians, as well as numerous local businessmen,
academics, tour operators, security experts, travel
writers, filmmakers, and – most importantly – the
tribal communities that live along the Road, whose
cultural and familial ties transcend political
frontiers. Northeastern academics, top-level state and
national politicians, as well as large corporate
interests have all expressed the view that
reconstruction of the Road is the ideal vehicle for
advancing vital economic ties between the Northeast,
ASEAN partner countries and China.
Since the 1999 signing of the Kunming Initiative, the
Stilwell project has received intermittent jolts of
energy. In October of 2000, India declared its section
of the Road a national highway (No 153). After China,
Bangladesh and Burma had officially endorsed the
agreement in 1999, the head of the Indian delegation
followed suit at the 2002 Dhaka meet. The Northeast
Council, a committee that focuses on economic
development of the region, also gave its formal
support to the project in November of that year. This
year, however, has seen a unique flurry of action –
kicked off on January 20 when a high-level Indian team
visited the Nampong-Pangsaw Pass, the border point
between Burma and Arunachal Pradesh along the Stilwell
Road. There, national officials publicly stressed the
need for creating basic infrastructure to promote
crossborder trade and promising all possible help from
New Delhi. A month after that official site visit,
Congress President Sonia Gandhi stated in a speech in
Arunachal Pradesh that the reopening of traditional
trade routes with neighbouring Burma (as well as with
Tibet and Bhutan) would give a much-needed boost to
the economy of the state and the region.
India’s movement on the Stilwell project follows a
thaw in its dealings with China. While tense
Sino-Indian relations long placed such talks off
limits, the successful settlement of the long-running
dispute over Sikkim and ongoing efforts regarding the
border at Arunachal Pradesh have soothed political
sensitivities. In February of 2005, during a visit to
the Assamese capital Guwahati, officials of the Yunnan
Provincial Chamber of Commerce (YPCC) strongly
recommended that the Road be opened to help traders in
the Northeast, Burma, and Yunnan. To that end, the
YPCC has taken the matter up with Chinese authorities
to help expedite the Road’s reconstruction. Two months
later, on the occasion of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s
historic visit to India, it was disclosed that China
had already started renovations to the Road in Burma,
in a unilateral effort to connect Yunnan to that
country and ultimately to India. The Chinese
authorities have now completed initial surveys and a
detailed renovation plan is near release.
To demonstrate its support for the reopening of the
transnational link, China has transformed its portion
of the Road into a modern superhighway. The major
artery-in-waiting not only leads directly to Kunming,
but also to the neighbouring province of Guangdong.
That powerhouse province’s GDP not only grew a
staggering 14.5 per cent last year, it is also
expected to top USD 250 billion by 2006. In the other
direction, the new highway ends abruptly at the
Burmese border. Despite China’s mining and logging
interests in Burma, there is only one reason to build
a massive thoroughfare to the middle of nowhere: the
future possibilities towards India. In a sense,
China’s entire relationship with Burma has long been
built on such a long-term view. While India used to be
Burma’s largest supporter, during the 1970s and 1980s
that relationship was neglected; Burma inevitably
realigned with China, its other monumentally powerful
neighbour. Now China is everywhere in Burma and
Chinese earth-movers are currently hard at work
reshaping and upgrading the Ledo Road – the obvious
extension of the six-lane mammoth that ends at the
Burma, indeed, has remained the project’s physical
lynchpin, as well as its most temperamental obstacle.
The formidable problems plaguing Rangoon’s military
junta – including the ones that it has brought on
itself – have included ethnic resisting Rangoon’s
strongarm tactics, as well as concerns over human
rights violations; both of these are centred directly
in the area through which the Road passes. Such issues
have weighed heavily on the minds of Burma’s
leadership and, despite tentative past agreements, as
of 2004 Rangoon had again definitively rejected any
possibility of reopening the Road to international
On June 15 of this year a news item from Rangoon
suddenly reported that Burma would reopen its section
of the Stilwell Road by 2006. This followed
discussions between the Burmese Ministry of Commerce
and the India-Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce
and Industry, held the previous month. Several joint
projects are currently underway between New Delhi and
Rangoon, including the planning of a major gas
pipeline from Burma to India via Bangladesh, as well
as linking ports between the two countries on the two
sides of the Bay of Bengal. While all of this
international bridge-building is undoubtedly a welcome
change from the resounding condemnation that the junta
typically receives, the country’s pariah status has
nevertheless taken a significant toll. Burma is
desperately in need of foreign currency and is now
actively propagating regional tourism as a key
In recent years, China has become poised to emerge as
the single most crucial component to India’s export
growth. According to recent reports, in 2004-05 China
became India’s second-largest trade partner, as well
as the second-largest destination for India’s exports
– both trailing only the US. Only two years earlier,
Chinese products were merely the sixth largest among
Indian imports. Total trade between the two countries
has gone from a few hundred million dollars in the
late 1990s to USD 13.6 billion in 2004. With efficient
overland routes such as the Stilwell Road inactive,
Sino-Indian trade has continued to be shunted by sea
all the way around the Southeast Asian peninsula.
A continuation of such stasis would only impede
current economic forecasts. With China’s rapidly
growing GDP, the demand for imports of raw materials,
components and parts is expected to continue to rise
in the near future. With China’s GDP set to grow
between 7.7 and 8.7 per cent between 2004 and 2008,
this means USD 20 billion in bilateral trade between
China and India by 2008. From this perspective, India
– and its northeastern states – must move immediately
to foster closer and more broad-based economic ties
with China. Despite the recent increases, current
trade between the two countries still makes up only
eight per cent of India’s total exports and only one
percent of China’s. At an August 2005 economic
conference in India, Chinese officials characterised
those figures as miniscule compared to the size of the
two countries and pushed to start talks on a
Sino-Indian free trade agreement. Given the enormous
expense currently necessary to shuttle goods between
the two countries via the 6,000 km sea route, an
efficient land link would be the only option for such
an agreement to result in the desired economic
The Northeast-Yunnan link
Given the proximity between Yunnan province and
India’s Northeast, a reopened Stilwell Road would be
almost as important as a region-to-region relationship
as a transnational one. Despite the recent boom in
trade between the two, none of India’s current exports
to China are sourced from the resource-rich Northeast.
Up until now, shipping costs have simply been too
high. China has, however, expressed significant
interest in importing rice, tea, neem, and a variety
of other agricultural products sourced from the
northeastern region. This would be a crucial
development for the area, albeit a happily problematic
one: as the Northeast has never had a significant
market for its agro-products, producers have never
placed much emphasis on capacity-building.
Currently, Indian imports from Yunnan include
chemicals, items used by the pharmaceutical industry,
mineral products and silk yarn. From India, Yunnan
imports oil seeds and mills, marine products,
pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals, iron and steel,
textiles, and raw silk. The Yunnan Provincial
Government is now anxious to import a variety of
additional agricultural products grown in the
Northeast. Yunnan’s interest in perishable items over
a relatively short distance would require a road (or
rail) link between the two countries.
If more direct transit existed between the Northeast
and ASEAN countries, tourists on the heavily
trafficked Southeast Asia circuit would be
significantly more inclined come this way. A recent
report states that if the tourism potential of the
Northeast were fully developed, within 20 years the
region could receive as many tourists as Singapore and
Bangkok. Such high expectations are based on tapping
into the Chinese tourism market which is expected to
boom. Currently the entire northeast with its
beautiful mountain landscape, its rainforests and
diverse cultures, is being exploited only by a small
number of tour operators specialising in ‘adventure’
Perhaps more than many others, the tribal and other
marginalised groups in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in
particular would benefit greatly from both a
transnational thoroughfare, as well as any growth in
tourism and associated infrastructure. Many of these
groups have had close historic ties that have been cut
due to border and travel restrictions. The Kachins of
Burma, for instance, are ethnically and culturally
nearly identical to both the Singphos in Upper Assam
and the Jingpaws in southwestern China. Members of the
three groups have little if any sanctioned contact,
however, as a result of current travel restrictions
along the Road. In addition to a long-awaited removal
of those obstacles, tourism is seen as the one
activity that would trickle down to all segments of
society, in particular benefiting local communities.
Increased tourism from a reopened Stilwell Road would
be of great benefit to the northeastern regions of
Burma. All throughout Kachin state, new tourism
infrastructure is now visible, including the
appearance of numerous roadside restaurants. A tiger
reserve has been established near Tanai. Despite its
location, current trade negotiations look to use Burma
less as a partner than as a conduit. While significant
finances already flow between the country and China,
the present value of formal Burmese imports from India
is about INR 22 billion per year. According to a study
by the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, however, the
potential for additional trade with Burma, and
especially with bordering states in the Northeast, is
considerable. Informal Indo-Burmese trade is estimated
to be 44 times the amount of formal trade and includes
electronics, Chinese textiles, pirated media and
narcotics. Burma is interested in increasing its
pharmaceutical imports from India, as well as
encouraging more active trade in vehicle parts, cotton
yarn, branded foods, petroleum products and
construction materials. Although some of these items
would be able to be imported more cheaply because of
reduced shipping costs, Burma’s main benefits from a
new international trade route would be through transit
fees and tourism-related activities.
For the Northeast
While linking the northeast with Kachin state and
Yunnan would of course be welcome, reopening the Road
would allow the Northeast to emerge as a major transit
centre for both the SAARC and ASEAN regions. Along
with a significant increase in transnational trade,
such a development could also provide a resounding
answer to one of India’s longest lingering dilemmas:
the largely ignored employment problem in the
country’s cloistered Northeast. It is a problem that
began with the British, when colonial mapmakers
created security barriers at the edge of the hills and
severed ancient routes of trade and cultural exchange.
With the loss of nearby trade partners to both its
north and east, the Northeast became completely
dependent on mainland India for trade options through
the 37 km-wide Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. While
both colonial and independent India have utilised the
Northeast as an important resource garden, the long,
circuitous routes that the indigenous products have to
take to exit the region have made them prohibitively
expensive for any market.
Due in large part to its geopolitical placement, the
Northeast is widely acknowledged as India’s economic
laggard. With roughly 40 million people – 30 per cent
of them from tribal communities – the Northeast makes
up less than four per cent of India’s population. The
economic deprivation that has masked the northeast,
whose overwhelmingly rural populace (90 per cent)
earns nearly half that of the rest of India.
That inertia has fed the lingering separatist violence
that the rest of the Subcontinent associates with this
region. With arms, illegal drugs, and ideology already
coming from across India’s borders, many have voiced
concern over the years that reopening sanctioned
international border crossings would only enhance
those negative effects. But others, more circumspect
observers maintain that the reopening of trade routes
such as the Stilwell Road would boost the economy as
well as help still at long last the many rebellions in
the Northeast. The former Director General of the
Indian Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan posited in
a 2005 essay that, “Roads are the first enemies of
insurgents. Denied of a hinterland, he has no place to
retreat. Today this is the first step to be taken by
the Government of India.”
Current restrictions and the absence of legitimate
customs points have also been a reason for the
voluminous entry of smuggled goods from China and
Burma into India. According to customs and security
experts, the reopening of the Road and the regular
movement of endorsed traffic would significantly
reduce contraband movement through the area. Since the
demand for these goods is already high, many would
greatly benefit from legitimising that trade through
the collection of customs fees, excise taxes and tolls
along the Road. While there are valid concerns that
local produces may take a beating on the arrival of
cheaply produced foreign products, there is good
reason to believe that local manufacturers are already
being hurt by the current inflow of illegal goods.
Either way, the market already exists; at the moment,
however, that market is being exploited without
regulation, or payment of customs fees.
There are other countries in the Stilwell equation
besides Burma, India and China. Since participating as
an original signatory to the 1999 Kunming Initiative
and re-pledging itself to the process in 2002 when the
meet was held in its capital, Bangladesh has been
largely invisible in the Stilwell project. Many
observers urge Dhaka to jump on the “Sino-India
bandwagon”, warning that a westward extension of the
trade route to Calcutta would otherwise bypass the
country through Siliguri. Notwithstanding perennial
tensions between Dhaka and New Delhi, those critics
maintain that fostering stronger ties with China is
not only in Bangladesh’s best interest, but that the
opportunity has rarely been closer at hand as
presented by Stilwell.
Thailand, on the other side of Burma, is particularly
keen to increase trade relations with the Northeast
and has expressed interest in seeing the Stilwell Road
reopen. The country recently announced its intention
to expand trade ties with the area, with a special
focus on tea, fruit and food processing sectors; it is
also actively looking into joint eco-tourism ventures
The economic viability of increased trade between
India, China, Burma and other Southeast Asian
countries largely depends on the reopening of the most
direct land routes connecting the countries. According
to the Indian multinational Hindustan Lever, which
actively trades with most ASEAN countries, the costs
of container shipping of many products via sea routes
from any part of India, in particular the Northeast,
are prohibitively high.
If, as a result of reopening the Road, the Northeast
were to become a major regional distribution centre,
transit times and transportation costs between the
partners could be reduced on average by an estimated
30 per cent. From the border point at Pansau in
Arunachal Pradesh, exports from India shipped via the
Road could reach Kunming in two days, Rangoon in less
than three days, Bangkok in four days, and Singapore
within six days. All this may sound fantastic and
unreachable at the moment, but they are within the
realm of possibility. The Stilwell route could lead to
a snowballing of market linkage between India, China
and Southeast Asia. Free trade agreements are already
in place between India, Thailand and Singapore.
Additional accords are due by 2016 with the rest of
ASEAN countries, while similar discussions are
starting with China. With all of this high-level trade
talk, there should be little wonder that momentum has
picked up towards creating an economically feasible
way with which to move those goods and products that
will need moving.
Down the road
Whether on the six-lane superhighway from Kunming to
the Burmese border, the sometimes barely discernable
track within Burma, or the bustling two-lane stretch
in Assam, at the moment, travelling the Stilwell Road
is an admittedly lively adventure. While that
hair-raising excitement will have to be toned down to
allow for a regular commercial flow, but make no
mistake: emerging with the Road’s new tarmac is a key
to the continued transformation of Asia as a whole –
linking Southasia, East Asia and Southeast Asia all at
once. Although it was wartime Americans who brought
the Road’s original earthmoving machines, the effort
to build the Road, the fighting that secured it, and
the communities that have incorporated it have always
been multinational. While it would be foolish to
underestimate the geopolitical obstacles facing the
push to reopen Stilwell, the simple fact is that the
Road will inevitably come into greater use as India,
Burma and China continue to become more economically
powerful, independent, and intertwined. And with them,
the rest of Asia.
Remarks at the Kashmir Boot Camp Seminar, University of Lahore, Aug 10, 2020
Good morning and As-Salaam-Alaikum. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this very special seminar. For once, I have actually prepared notes because it is still very hard for me to talk about many of the things I witnessed while living in Kashmir, and I would like to remain focused. The memories never fade enough for me to become more composed. Just last fall when I met Rep Sheila Jackson Lee after a Congressional hearing on human rights violations in Kashmir, I broke down while telling her about the Machil Fake Encounter. Kashmir is the place where I learned how to cry, and I still sometimes don’t know how to stop. In 2008 I wrote this in an opinion piece for a local daily:
“I saw many of the villagers near starvation because they could not break through the giant barricades erected around their entire district as part of a collective punishment for speaking out. All the way home from Baramulla to Srinagar, while seeing new and even higher barricades being erected and more and more people being rounded up on the side of the highway, I wondered not only how I could rescue them all, but what might happen to me if I wrote about what I saw and felt.”
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about it here.
As a German, it is never easy to talk about the topic of Genocide. We grew up seeing images of piles of bodies found in camps that had been liberated. Of course that was many, many years later when the Holocaust was finally permitted to be taught in school. Then as students we tried to grasp the enormity of millions of people having been slaughtered for their racial and religious identity. Similarly, much later I always wondered how the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda could possibly happen after the entire world had said “never again.” Of course, nobody can ever really imagine the tragedy of millions dying and often in relatively small time frames. Usually too much deliberation goes into the management of crises to actually do anything to effectively prevent mass killings anywhere and also clearly define the meaning of genocide. That is why at first I had problems using the term “genocide” when it comes to the crimes against humanity committed in Kashmir. I had always though it needed to be much more massive in scale and more concentrated in execution to qualify. But then over the years and with killings never stopping, I realized that genocide is also a process that can happen in slow motion or spurts, and often spread over decades or even longer. It can also involve demographic changes not only through mass killings like during the Jammu massacre of 1947 but also through ethnic flooding as is happening now at an accelerated pace. I am now using that term for Kashmir without a moment of hesitation. But, like with all genocides anywhere and much before our time, it is very difficult to fully grasp numbers of the dead and disappeared in their totality. In Kashmir also, while looking at the statistics in the many reports prepared by Kashmiri civil society groups and others may induce a sense of shock, it never quite hits you to the core. Why else could people and policy makers all over the world just ignore such never ending brutalities even today? I have resolved that tragedy is individual, and while statistics may be meaningful in history books, stories of individual victims have to be remembered and must be told again and again for anybody to really understand the cruelty of their murders. With that in mind, I would like to talk about some of the killings I personally witnessed while in Kashmir, and also the circumstances under which they died. Many of them were very highly publicized locally, but still NOTHING ever changed and NOBODY has ever been brought to book.
Starting in early 2006 and into 2007, my first years in Kashmir, there were a series of fake encounters which perhaps for the first time were actually investigated. There was Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Ganderbal; Showkat Ahmed, a daily laborer from Budgam, Ali Mohammad Padder, a carpenter from Kokernag, Nazir Ahmed Deka and Ghulam Nabi Wani, both bakers from Ganderbal. All of them were exhumed for identification and subsequently declared innocent. Police had picked them up, branded them Pakistani terrorists, and killed them in fake encounters together with the army and the CRPF. All the officers received cash rewards and promotions. None was ever put before a civilian court or put away for murder. But it was the beginning of Kashmiris becoming more vocal about crimes committed to them and demanding justice.
In 2008 the massive crackdown following the uprising caused by the Amarnath Land Row resulted in the death of at least 60 protesters and grave injuries to thousands who had been unarmed and protesting completely peacefully without a single stone in their hand. One of the more prominent protesters killed during the Muzaffarabad Chalo was Sheikh Aziz, a Hurriyat leader, who was shot by security forces no more than 200 feet from me. I still remember our panic over how to save his life. Of course the scene was too chaotic to get him any medical help. Most of the other protesters were young boys and villagers who were shot dead without ever having been a threat to anybody. Of course the Indian media claimed that they had been Pakistani militants having infiltrated into the crowd and shooting protesters themselves to create more chaos and anti-India sentiment. During that time I spent most days taking journalists around in my own car because I had a press curfew pass from a local daily and knew that security forces would not harm a foreigner openly nor beat up the journalists with me. Much of that time we drove severely injured protesters, including women and children, to emergency wards of local hospitals. Among them several Sumo drivers whose cars had been attacked with petrol bombs by Hindutva fanatics on the Jammu Srinagar highway and who had sustained life threatening burns all over their bodies. Many never made it out of the hospitals. The brutality of the crackdown was of course the beginning of the Kashmir Intifada which stretched all the way past 2016 and later following funerals of local rebels. It was also the political awakening of an entire new generation of Kashmiris which is much angrier and more uncompromising than their elders ever were.
In 2009, we woke up to news about the discovery of the bodies of Neelofar and Aasia from Shopian in South Kashmir. Neelofar was 22 and Aasia 17. Both had been raped, killed by security forces and deposited at the banks of a nearly dry riverbed not far from the local SOG camp. All hell broke loose when the news about their rape and murder was broadcast. After the initial forensic investigation confirmed rape and the subsequent murder of both the girls, several policemen attached to the SOG camp were arrested. Shockingly, a team of crisis managers was flown in from Delhi, and soon the entire sordid story was rewritten by security agencies. The girls were exhumed and a revised forensic examination by a doctor selected by IB claimed that neither of the girls was raped and that they had drowned on their way home from an orchard in the “rapids” of the river. When I took a journalist from Delhi to the exact spot where the bodies had been found, he admitted that the water level was so low that not even a small child could have drowned. But he insisted that it could not have been rape because the security forces attached to the SOG camp were Hindus and Hindus did not rape. He believed it might have been domestic violence instead. He of course was one who never believed what had happened at Kunan Poshpora and had written a piece about how it was nothing but a plot by Pakistani propagandists to turn locals against the army and India. The protests that followed the murders of the girls were mostly localized but severe enough in and around Srinagar that dozens of youth were gravely injured and several died. It was also for the first time that hospitals were forced to connect the bodies of dead protesters to life support machines so police could pretend they were still alive and did not have to be reported as having succumbed to their injuries. This practice was perfected in 2010 where the death count was so high that authorities wanted to release the news of killings incrementally.
2010 began with the cold blooded killings of 13 year old Whamid Farooq, a 13 year old boy who was playing cricket near his house when a teargas shell fired from close range broke his skull. Only two weeks later, a 16 year old boy, Zahid Farooq, was standing at the roadside talking to his friends when a BSF jeep stopped and one of the soldiers got out and shot him in the head for no reason except perhaps target practice. Because it happened right outside the CRPF headquarter at Nishat, it was captured on camera and the jeep was identified. While the soldier was transferred and for “using excessive force during crowd management,” he was never accused of murder nor prosecuted for the barbaric act he had committed.
Then in May of that year, the news of the Machil Fake Encounter broke. At first there was an announcement by the army that three Pakistani infiltrators had been killed near Machil in Kupwara district. But because the families of three boys who had disappeared began questioning their whereabouts, the horrible truth soon became evident: Shehzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad, and Mohammed Shafi of Nadihal in Rafiabad, all still in their late teens, had been lured by a local Territorial Army recruit to the army camp at Machil near Kalaroos with the promise of a few days of labor for good pay. After the boys were delivered to the commanding officer of the camp, they were shot in their faces, dressed in militant attire and quickly buried after some photos had been taken. Because the families cried foul, the bodies were exhumed and identified as the local boys who had gone missing. Earlier, the major commanding the camp had received his orders to be rotated out of Kashmir, and wanted to earn one more monetary award and promotion for killing militants before being transferred. While the army did not deny what happened, the case was not tried before a civilian court because of the Armed Special Powers Act. All of the culprits were released on bail shortly from a military jail after Modi assumed power. For me this was an earth shattering event. I had lived in Rafiabad for a year to work with timber smugglers and knew two of the three boys and their families very well. I still have nightmares about what happened to them. From the day it happened until I was made to leave Kashmir, I never stopped pursuing the prosecution of the killers wherever and whenever I could.
This gruesome fake encounter and the subsequent killing of a teenager, Tufail Mattoo, who was on his way home from tuition when a teargas shell almost decapitated him, were of course the triggers for the 2010 uprising where all in all more than 140 boys died while protesting for justice and against the Indian occupation. It was also when we lived through a 4-months-long continuous curfew that was so severe that anybody attempting to break through it was shot at sight. Every evening during that time we did nothing but count the dead. By then social media had begun to be used widely in the Valley, and we all talked to each other that way. Then the agencies had no idea about it and how much we all were coordinating and sharing information on it.
Following 2010, protests became routine and especially after prayers on Fridays. Scores of young boys were arrested on a regular basis and only set free after their families paid huge bribes to the police. Many of the young boys were tortured and humiliated while in custody. This is also the time when many local young boys began joining militant groups because of the treatment they had received. Much of this was inspired by Burhan Wani and his friends who reminded people that armed resistance against a brutal occupation was not only sanctioned by the UN Charter but also one way to fight back after all political initiatives had failed. Most of them are dead now. Many never fired a gun. When Manan Wani was killed, we cried for days.
I will stop here now because I am sure you are exhausted from the details. But I do think it is extremely important to go beyond statistics and remember individual victims who have been killed under the most brutal circumstances and continue to be eliminated every day even now. They died for the cause of liberation and have to be remembered by us all. As I said in the beginning, tragedy is individual, and just as reading the The Diary of Anne Frank finally made me understand the meaning of the collective guilt of Germans, I think the world must be made to remember all these boys and young men who died without any fault of their own, and because India does not consider Kashmiris human beings worth protecting. In Kashmir graves are full of not only unidentified bodies but of those many of us have known and cared about and will always miss.
If I may, I would like to conclude this with part of another piece I had written at that time:
“Yesterday, I was sitting near the river under the darkest of curfews, listening to the wailing voices of funeral singers and distant gun shots, mourning the deaths of boys I have never known and will never be able to befriend, and longing to sit at the lake again in the darkness of night where truth can be so easily hidden from someone’s view. The sky was laden with dark clouds, and rain was falling on the graveyards of the old city where the dead were being buried. Yesterday, it seemed the sky over Kashmir would never clear again, and light and sunshine had now permanently vanished from my portrait of the Valley. It was a picture of a place that people who have always lived here have accepted as reality painting, but that I have yet to become emotionally equipped to hang on my wall.
I thought of the people I have met, the respect I have for those who have been struggling against darkness for so long, the families who have been reduced to tears, and the complete powerlessness one feels in the face of unstoppable human tragedy. I wanted to reach out and say to people to please still believe in the faint illusion of justice, fairness and the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted to assure them that people did not die in vain. I wanted someone to tell me that the sadness and anger I felt would fade, making it possible to see bright light again in a place that so often seems to plunge into permanent darkness. But most of all, I wanted to tell people that I had now become a Kashmiri, regardless of how unbearable it may be at times, and that their reality had very much become my own, even if I might never be able to fully comprehend the full range of its dark colors and hues. “
Thank you for asking me to participate on this panel. I feel extremely honored to be here. As I told Hamzah, I am neither a scholar nor an academic. I also have not worked for think tanks, although I often participate in their events. For the past 12 years or so I have been a social activist which makes my language somewhat different from those who are researchers or professors. Almost everything I share anywhere is based on what I have personally lived through and which has made me what I am today. That gives me a very different vocabulary, one that is often more emotional and often quite angry. It would hardly pass as quantitative analysis, with advanced statistics having been the only course I ever flunked in graduate school. For me tragedy is much more individual,, and this is what I usually talk about. Salma has been on a couple of panels with me while I was talking about Kashmir and she probably remembers this very well.
You asked me to talk about Hindu Extremism and how it has promoted discord and conflicts in South Asia and affected countries such as Pakistan. I have been trying to wrap myself around this topic for the past two days because it is so very broad. But once again I decided the only way I can put it in some sort of context is by telling some of my own personal observations over the 16 plus years I lived and worked in India and then in Kashmir.
I moved to India shortly after 9/11. Right after the first bombing of Afghanistan to be more precise. I had opposed the War on Terror, and felt it was as good a time as any to say Good Bye to the US for good. I decided to move to India because I had been working there off and on for years and it was a familiar place, or so I thought.
Over the years the same impressions India has been creating about itself in the West had led me to believe that I was going to be safe ideologically from what was unfolding in many other parts of the world. I had fully bought the story of it being a secular democracy, based on Gandhian philosophy, and meaning no harm to anybody ever, neither friend nor foe. I of course knew very little about internal or regional conflicts at the time. I had also blissfully ignored some early signs of Hindutva mobilization amongst the Indian diaspora in the US, raising much money for the BJP. I also ignored having been told by an Indian trade delegation that a brochure we had printed for a US India trade council should not have the color green as its background and be changed to saffron, else we would not find doors open to us in India. Our graphic designer in the US had looked at the Indian flag and selected the color green. .
It was a huge shock for me upon arrival to find an India that had just dispatched all of its troops towards the border with Pakistan in the wake of the Parliament attack, and it looked as though the country was getting ready for war with its neighbor. Shrill, patriotic and war mongering frenzy was surrounding me everywhere and many were hoping India’s nuclear arsenal would finally teach Pakistan a lesson. It was impossible to overlook the communal undertones in the ranting and raving. Some journalists at the time were questioning the true intent behind the attack with a few suggesting privately that it may have been orchestrated by Indian agencies so India could formally join the War on Terror.
My next experience was travelling to Gujarat while finishing up a custom dispute I had worked on before I left the US. There I witnessed post genocidal conditions after communal riots had broken out and thousands were slaughtered by Hindutva zealots with Narendra Modi at the helm. It was very much the way I had always imagined the Kristallnacht in Germany which of course was the beginning of the Holocaust and the extermination of almost all of Europe’s Jews. Something Hindutva zealots and the RSS never tire to describe as “the Germans having had the right idea.” I don’t think many people witnessing the scenes in Gujarat have ever found the right words to describe all or any of it. It was simply too gruesome. I will never forget any of it. And to this day I will never be able to digest that one of the architects of the pogrom is the Prime Minister of a country that is now a strategic partner of the US.
This was also the first time that I felt this all-pervasive anger in the streets of India. The anger that gets suppressed for short periods of time but only to explode at the slightest of trigger, and more often than not ending in communal riots of one sort or another. I witnessed this anger day after day in the neighborhood I lived in, whether it was directed towards Dalits, Muslims, people from the Northeast, or even animals. Often the anger turned into rape, often committed by gangs of young men, and this is something most foreign and all Indian women fears whenever out at night or moving about in more deserted places.
Later while working on tribal issues in Assam, I saw how the RSS had spread out everywhere, pretending to be social workers while convincing some tribals, who were mostly Animists or Buddhists, that they had actually been Hindus all along and had to return to their religious roots before being able to benefit from developmental schemes. That is also when I first saw demographic change systematically planned and implemented by the Indian State and its agencies. In predominantly tribal areas where Schedule 6 of the Constitution had guaranteed tribal autonomy, Nepalis who had served in the Indian Army and their families were resettled in huge numbers so the districts would no longer meet the demographic thresholds to be considered tribal majority. Of course throughout Assam and other parts of the Northeast religious hatred towards Muslims was constantly being stirred up, with all Muslims being portrayed as illegals from Bangladesh, and most recently leading to the segregation of Muslims and others considered foreigners in concentration camps built for those not able to prove their citizenship. Sadly when protests broke out in Assam over the new citizenship laws, making it possible for undocumented non-Muslims to remain in Assam and other parts of India while only Muslims cannot, the protesters were not demanding a role back of the discriminatory law, but wanted it to be even more stringent and cover all groups and not only Muslims. Meanwhile Hindutva zealots, the RSS, and religious hatred increasingly reign supreme in a state that used to be proud of its own language, unique culture and diversity. Obviously neighboring countries like Myanmar and Southwestern China have not been unaffected by the communal frenzy. In fact. India is one of very few countries never having criticized Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya and instead having begun persecuting as possible terrorists those who had escaped the violence and settled as refuges in places like Jammu.
Deeply disturbed by the true nature of the Hindu state in so many different parts of India, I had grown much disenchanted with the country before even moving to Kashmir. There of course I lived through ten years of absolute terror committed on the people by the Indian state, a communalized army, and the military occupation. Most of you know about the atrocities being committed there because they have now been relatively well documented, and because Pakistan has been speaking about the human rights violations at every possible forum for years. I could talk for several days about what I witnessed personally, and some of the people I knew who have been killed or tortured. All of it has been going on for decades, but for much of the past having raged as more of a political than a religious dispute.
The nature of the dispute changed completely when the BJP under Modi came to power both in Delhi and in IIOJK in 2014. All over sudden the rhetoric everywhere had changed and the lives of Kashmir Muslims were no longer worth preserving. And this is an important point to make. With Modi assuming power, it was not only a government having changed. It was an entire nation becoming fueled by lethal Hindu majoritarian aspirations, almost from one day to the next. It was the ordinary people, like it had been ordinary people in Gujarat, who were now baying for the blood of Kashmiris. It was everywhere, on television, in print editorials, and in the behavior of troops on the streets of Kashmir. Pakistan was no longer just a troubled neighbor but a place that needed to be defeated once and for all, so that the true Bharat spanning every nook and corner of the entire subcontinent could be restored. Kashmiris were attacked throughout India, Muslims were lynched at the mere suspicion of having slaughtered a cow, Hindutva terrorists were released from prison with some being elected to Parliament. It felt like a Saffron tidal wave. Jammu which had already become radicalized and heavily dominated by the RSS since the uprisings of 2008 was now able to openly organize Hindutva flag marches through neighborhoods with Muslim populations. The marchers were fully armed with swords and trishuls. And of course the history books were being rewritten, describing the Valley of Kashmir as the original abode of Hindus with Muslims being nothing but an aberration. When a small Muslim nomad girl was abducted and brutally gang raped before being killed, much of the country thought it was a lie and an attempt to smear Hindus of Jammu. Nothing has happened to the killers.
All of it finally culminated in the illegal annexation of Kashmir by India in August of 2019 and the abrogation of articles that had guaranteed a measure of autonomy for the Kashmiris, and more importantly some protections for their religious and ethnic identities. Now we are witnessing the implementation of new land laws aimed to accelerate ethnic flooding by Hindus and more than likely resulting in Muslims of the region becoming a minority. This of course had already been successfully done once by the Maharaja in Jammu in 1947 when his troops and Hindu fanatics slaughtered up to two hundred thousand of Jammu Muslims and driving out just as many, making it a Hindu majority region. Today it will be done through administrative action instead of slaughter.
With all of this happening how can Pakistan, a legal stakeholder in the Kashmir dispute, be unaffected and remain uninvolved? Similarly, after unilaterally altering the entire region by turning a former state into Union Territories, China has already reacted militarily to protect its interests and territory from an expansionist India that feels no longer bound by any bilateral agreements. Moreover, night after night, Indian channels debate the need for India to take over Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, both of which India claims as its own territory. And the Hindu nation is cheering on a government that promises that it will conquer what belongs to India at the earliest, with defense analysts and generals saying the army is merely waiting for the orders.
And now comes the detailed dossier prepared by Pakistan and proving India’s sponsorship of terrorist activities inside its country. Anybody having lived in India and especially Kashmir and following the aims and activities of Indian agencies throughout the region would never ever doubt any of what has been presented in the report. After years of watching what Indian agencies are capable of in Kashmir and then blaming it all on its neighbor in its neverending propaganda war against Pakistan, there is no doubt in my mind that all of it and much more is the absolute truth. Just as an example I personally came to know about the Indian Territorial Army recruiting local boys in Kashmir for the purposes of exfiltrating them from Northern Kashmir into Azad Kashmir to later bring them back as “Pakistani infiltrators” for the purposes of convincing the world of continued state sponsored terror by Pakistan committed in Kashmir.
Lastly, closely watching RAW’s increasingly supporting RSS and anti-Pakistan linked think tanks and advocacy groups throughout the West, one is only beginning to understand the challenge India’s hybrid war represents on every level and the need to strike back where it counts. I personally hope that the accusations will be presented to all international bodies that matter so that India can stand exposed for what it is and not what it persistently tries to project about itself.
I could go on, and of course most of this is known to everybody on the panel and everybody listening in. I have gone into such detail because I feel the writing has been on the wall for so many years, and what the Modi government has been implementing is just the culmination of everything that had been happening for so many years before and in so many different places. Hindutva was always there from the very beginning. What is new is the close marriage of Hindutva Extremism with intelligence agencies and both acting in tandem to create havoc throughout the region. And at the root of it is both a majoritarian and an expansionist philosophy envisioning a South Asia dominated by India and more specifically Hindus. It is a fictional historical claim not dissimilar to that of the Nazis who spoke of creating a Lebensraum for the German race, or the Zionists who use the bible as the moral justifications for expansion of territory. And nobody seems to care enough again.
With all this in mind, I feel the time for trying to strike a balance while speaking about regional tensions is gone. In fact it seems unconscionable to me when South Asia Departments in Washington are trying to do that. There is a right and a wrong, and one has to choose. Watching what is happening in India silently or without intervening is criminally enabling, regardless of what may be happening in the South China Sea.
I urge IPRI and others to keep compiling facts and figures for all of us to use wherever we can to present the correct narratives about India to the world. Too much of the history of the region wass written by the occupying power and those drunk on Hindutva supremacy fantasies. It needs to be exposed and stopped now.