Last year the Prime Minister made a promise to the people of Kashmir.
But, think of how hollow and meaningless, even cruel, that promise must sound today to Ghulam Rasool Padroo. What can “zero tolerance for human rights violations” mean to an ageing father who had to helplessly watch a body pumped with bullets pulled out from a grave, only to confront the horrible, inescapable fact — the body was that of his young son, an ordinary carpenter deliberately murdered in a fabricated encounter, so he could be dubbed a militant.
“Even if I were blind, I would know this is my child,” is all that 65-year-old Padroo said, his voice dropping to a whisper, as the shovels came down on the shroud and the dust flew up to stop his tears.
For once the political and security establishment swung into swift damage control mode. The state’s Inspector General of Police was quick to order action against his own officers; the Chief Minister announced a judicial probe and forensic teams were flown in to investigate four other custodial killings masquerading as ‘encounters’.But none of this is enough.
The street protests in Kashmir should be a wake-up call for New Delhi: the Prime Minister has personally pushed the peace process with Pakistan; now it’s time he turn more of his attention to the Valley. Reaching out across the border is necessary, but building trust at home is even more important.
It’s not as if men in uniform have not suffered in the killing fields of Kashmir. Five thousand security men from the army, the police and the paramilitary have died since insurgency took roots in the Valley almost two decades ago. So, what drives some of these men to murder? Is it because for too long there has been an unofficial, unspoken acceptance of ‘encounters’ as a way of tackling terrorism? Or is it because promotions and gallantry awards are within tantalising reach if a soldier stacks up the ‘kills’? And what about the fact that the state’s Special Operations Group is flooded with former militants — men who were once invaluable as informants, but who over the years have become more like armed bandits ruling over private fiefdoms of terror.
When will New Delhi realise how desperately the Valley needs a rehabilitation programme for surrendered militants? Once the photo-ops are over and the headlines have faded where are the “boys who put down their guns” supposed to go? Most spend the rest of their life in the twilight zone between a violent past and a fearful future.
There is a horrible sense of déjà vu every time a fake encounter hits the front pages in Kashmir. The script is always the same — the devastated family, the angry street protests, the exhumation of bodies at the graveyard, the promise of justice by politicians, and then the judicial probe — till the next time a young man goes mysteriously missing. And the story begins all over again. It is no longer wise or fair to treat Kashmir’s fake encounters as isolated instances of injustice. Even conservative, official estimates say more than 1,000 men have “disappeared” in the last two decades. Why then should this judicial probe be limited to investigating just five complaints? Why can’t the Prime Minister create a panel of eminent citizens or even a judicial commission that will investigate every such disappearance since 1989?
As I wrote last week, there is no one truth to the tragedy of Kashmir; the suffering has been indiscriminate and equal across every conceivable divide. And the wounds need much more than political bandages to heal. Perhaps, that’s why it is time to seriously consider the South African example and create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Valley. Why should the outside-the-box ideas for peace be limited to gambles with Islamabad? How about starting a brave, new experiment in our own backyard?
Yes, every barbaric act of terrorism is a grave human rights violation as well, and yes, what was once a homespun political movement is in danger of being entirely hijacked by mercenaries and religious fundamentalists. That is why it has become important, more than ever before, for New Delhi to engage with the voices of moderation.
The political leadership of Kashmir’s Generation Next holds out the promise of real change. The Mirwaiz has just returned from Pakistan where he called for militants to give up arms and join the peace process. Sajjad Lone, whose father was assassinated for his willingness to talk to New Delhi, has just written an immensely pragmatic 300-page paper on ‘Achievable Nationhood’ for Kashmir.
Yasin Malik, one of the oldest faces of separatism in the Valley, crossed the border — this time legally — and bluntly told a stunned gathering in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that its leaders were guilty of romanticising militancy. Omar Abdullah rarely takes a political position that any sensible person can disagree with, and Mehbooba Mufti’s outspoken passion is always compelling.
These men and women are roughly the same age; some of them even went to the same school in Srinagar and all of them genuinely want peace for their land, even if they rarely agree with each other.
Not all of them say things that are palatable to the Indian mainstream. Even conservative demands for greater autonomy for Kashmir are still treated as outrageous and anti-national by many people. Parties like the BJP officially oppose Kashmir’s special status — they happily forget that the original architect of the peace process was former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who declared that anything was possible in Kashmir, as long as it was within the bounds of humanity.
So, just as the Prime Minister took a huge political risk and made a gigantic leap of faith, by agreeing to a joint anti-terror agreement with Pakistan, he needs to lead the way in Kashmir. The Prime Minister’s round tables with the Kashmiri leadership have not worked terribly well so far. His challenge is to bring the disparate, younger voices of the Valley onto one platform. Perhaps he could start by asking them to come together on the issue of Kashmir’s missing people. Perhaps, he could make a public statement or a personal phone call to the father whose son was killed for no good reason by men meant to be guardians of the law.
Or else, despite the tourists, the skiing tournaments at Gulmarg, the property boom and the flood of mobile phones in the Kashmir Valley, the stoic face of a heartbroken old man will remain the abiding image of a tragedy that shows no signs of ending.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7