Any news from Kashmir to the outside world is mostly related to the armed confrontation that gives details of the exchange of fire between militants and Indian security forces. Then, the clashes are claimed to have killed “terrorists” who were equipped with heavy arms and ammunition. For a long time now, there has been a successful attempt to create this perception around the world that Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has become a den for terrorists, sometimes linking them with ISIS or Taliban, which automatically justifies the deployment of millions of troops to eliminate them.
Government press conferences often reiterate that the militant leadership is almost eliminated and that there are now a handful of “terrorists” against whom the military operations are continuing.
Obviously, these reports are only investigated and confirmed to the extent that so many killings have taken place during the military operation in such and such area, so many houses have been demolished or burnt and of those killed and mutilated, their bodies have been buried in some unknown places. But there is no way of checking or investigating or finding the reality as to whether the victims were really militants or civilians. Were they trained in fire arms or did they just have a passion to fight for freedom?
Relatives of the slain youths do not dare to tell the truth. And, no one even tries to find out the truth because everyone is worried about the safety of their lives in a terrified environment.
The Kashmiri media has been made so occupied and conditioned that no one dares to check the credibility of official statements as no one knows what punishment they will have to bear after questioning the authorities; they could face end of their journalistic career. Since the new genre of journalism has been created in the world, the freedom of raising questions has been almost finished. Ironically, many independent and honest journalists prefer to quit their profession.
Peter Cohen, a teacher of journalism, says the “School of Journalism was buried at the time many reporters were embedded with the coalition forces during the Iraq war who were tasked to disseminate the news information they were fed by allied forces. The murder of impartial reporting took place in the countries where the freedom of expression and speech was founded. When it comes to questioning the controlling of media in other countries, they justify it by quoting Iraq war embedded journalism”.
At least a hundred “terrorists” are claimed to have been killed in dozens of encounter operations in Kashmir in the last six months. The latest operation took place in the heart of Srinagar which until a few months ago was declared militancy free zone by security forces. Three suspected militants were claimed to have been killed. The only information about the encounters is provided by the police or the security agencies.
Local journalists have long been kept off the scene or only those reporters who are affiliated with pro-government channels and often broadcast official version of the events are allowed to enter the encounter sites. If any other reporter dares to visit the site of the encounter and tries to get information from the local population, it does not take long for him to attend interrogation centre or the news of the registration of the FIR reaches him before he arrives home. Local journalist organisations dared to complain against this to authorities several times but complaints were never entertained, not to talk of getting any relief from intimidation.
A senior journalist from Jammu who has been associated with a leading newspaper for a long time says, “After this climate of fear and the implementation of new media policy, who would dare to ask that you are killing teenage boys and then declaring them dreaded terrorists? You trap them in their houses, gas them, burn them and then claim to have seized arms and ammunition from them, you blow up their houses and ten or fifteen neighbouring houses with explosives. How absurd it looks when you say that the bullet was fired from the house. The entire valley has been turned into a big cage and its media has been locked up in an archive. How will one earn his livelihood, it has just become a biggest worry at the moment”.
The Indian government has repeatedly said that the infiltration of militants has been stopped by securing the border with Pakistan, where, according to India, militants used to receive weapons and training. Where do the militants come from? Or the weapons or ammunition which the security forces claim to have recovered during encounters? It has become a big question mark in a volatile Valley these days.
The young and teenagers are branded as “terrorists” and are killed without leaving any trace of them. Families are not even given chance to bury them. Who can confirm when this young boy became militant? Where did he get weapons and why he took refuge in a house during encounter? All these apprehensions are buried under the pile of official press notes and not a single study or investigation has been done that could have shed some light on the life of the youth who got killed in mysterious encounters.
Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has repeatedly pledged that he would not allow his territory to be used for “terrorism” under any circumstances. He went to Muzaffarabad and urged people not to use weapons for the freedom of Kashmir. Despite this, Indian security forces have repeatedly accused Pakistan of sending trained militants across the border and continued support for armed movement in Kashmir.
Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? It gets shrouded up in dark clouds that keep hovering up over the Kashmir skies but in this dilemma Kashmiris are being killed every day and every moment inside their own houses or on line of control. No one seems to care about the precarious situation twelve million people are caught up in. Many public organisations have repeatedly demanded that the international community must find out the truth as locals have been caged and gagged but these voices are always drowned out by the tune of ‘terrorism’.
A retired local police officer who was recently discussing his autobiography at a social gathering, whispered to someone, “Why would we need weapons from Pakistan when we have all those weapons that had been captured from militants during the 1990s. You can call anybody a terrorist by placing a weapon in his hand”.
In most of the encounters, local youth between the ages of 12 and 30 are being killed. Most of them come from well-off and well-educated families.
The mother of a teenage boy who recently got killed in one of the army actions in South district of Shopian says her boy was not a terrorist and did not carry a gun or did not kill anybody. When I asked her about his connection with militants and the gun he fired on security forces as claimed by security forces, where her son got the gun and why he picked it up despite being educated. She took a deep breath and spoke in a whisper, “My child had a passion for Azadi, not a gun. He had a dream to move freely but he had faced hurdles and humiliations. Teenagers who are classified as terrorists are, in fact, the ones who have endured so much abuse and exploitation at the hands of security forces that they no longer feel to have a life of dignity and honour. They have opened their eyes in the shadows of the gun and witness no end to barbarism, they think they have no choice but to embrace death and call themselves militants so as to die with dignity at least. My son was one among them”.
International human rights organizations have raised an alarm about the perilous conditions that have been created in the Valley to force local youth to give up on their right to live a dignified life. They feel trapped into the darkness. The local mainstream and separatist leadership has been overthrown, discredited and eliminated. Youth are getting killed under one pretext or other. Line of Control has become another death trap for poor population and the process of settlement of Hindus is being carried on with new legislations and machinery.
No one dares to ask the government, why is it punishing the Muslim population with undeclared emergency measures? Who is providing weapons to teenagers when every inch of Jammu and Kashmir is studded with military bunkers and every road is under the surveillance of India soldiers.
Recently, when I enquired from a leading human rights activist in Delhi if he had ever tried to find out when and why these boys have took up arms and where do they get them even there seems to be no infiltration, he replied that “thousands of young Kashmiri in the 1990s openly took up arms which directly came from Pakistani Kashmir. Most of the weapons were seized by the Indian Army and the militants were eliminated. We witnessed a little bit of calm for few years until Burhan Wani got killed in 2016. At the moment, teenage boys just claim to be militants who have no arms, training or support. This makes task easier for the Indian forces. Easier to kill them and declare them terrorists. It serves the Indian propaganda at the international forums. Every terrorist movement in the world runs on government support, be it a democratic country or a dictatorial system. They use it for their benefit”.
There are many questions in the minds of the people on the highly volatile situation in Kashmir. Crackdowns, encounters, killings and persecution policy have much bigger objective behind than to only scare people to keep them away from protests or demanding political rights. Is the killing of youth to end the people’s movement of Azadi and change demography under the leash of security control? Or do these young people really get weapons and training from Pakistan? If so, is the Pakistani Prime Minister lying then?
Obviously, no one is ready to answer these questions. But many civil society activists strongly believe that this must be an important matter of concern for independent research and investigation and international community must come forward to protect Kashmir and its population from total annihilation…
Writer is an ex editor of BBC, Penguin author and Independent Urdu columnist