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Where Belfast ends and Kashmir begins

When we strongly defend crimes committed by our armed forces, we insult many in uniform who do their jobs conscientiously, writes Dilip D’Souza.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2010 00:15 IST

The best answer I got was at a convenience store, where I bought a paper and asked my question. The man looked puzzled, then nodded across the road. “Think it’s down there,” he said, “but I’m not sure. Take that street and ask.” As I walked, odd stares from behind fences, behind lacy curtains. Somewhere a muscular young man strode up and asked in that lilting brogue, “Where’re you for, then?” I told him. “Just cruisin’ the ‘hood, eh?” he observed, and walked off.

My quest had started some days earlier, when I read these lines in a book: “[H]eavy military searches in the Kashmir area in February provoked a bitter reaction from local women. This escalated into serious rioting.”

I might have read these lines in any of hundreds of news reports over the last decade or so, but where I did not expect to read them was in this book: a history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over the years, it told me, some of the troubles of the Troubles have happened in the “Kashmir area” of Belfast. I began reading about Northern Ireland because it seemed there were parallels there to our own Kashmir. Who would have thought that the parallels begin with the word ‘Kashmir’ itself? And that’s why I roamed Belfast, searching for Kashmir.

And here’s one more parallel. Earlier this month, the British government made public the report of an inquiry into the infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident of January 30, 1972: in Derry, British soldiers shot dead 14 young men who were taking part in a protest march that day. This morning, I find on my front page news that in Srinagar, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel shot dead a teenager participating in a funeral procession that turned into a protest.

And as an aside, the funeral was of a young man who had died after being beaten up by other CRPF men on June 12. In turn, he was part of a protest over the killing of yet another young man by security personnel on June 11.

So it goes, it seems, in Kashmir.

After Bloody Sunday, the British government instituted an inquiry by a judge, Lord Widgery. His was a “disgracefully short and lazy report”, as Robert Fisk described it recently: he submitted it in April of that year, without even calling for eyewitness testimony. Widgery blamed the demonstrators for their deaths. Some of them were armed, he wrote, and fired at the soldiers. Thus: “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Naturally, Widgery’s whitewash of a report left Northern Ireland spluttering in outrage. Arguably, it was responsible for decades of hatred and violence that have killed more than 3,500 people. Twenty-six years later, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair set up another inquiry, this one by Lord Saville. Saville took over a decade to complete his work, and he interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses. It is his report that the British government has just made public.

His conclusions are shocking. That is not merely my assessment from half the world away. British Prime Minister David Cameron used the word to refer to Saville’s report. Speaking to his packed and hushed Parliament, Cameron said plenty more too: “What happened should never, ever have happened … The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.”

Even if it comes 40 years later, a prime minister’s apology is something. Even if, as Bono commented in the New York Times, “Thirty-eight years did not disappear in an 11-minute speech”. Yet, what struck me as even more significant was something else that Cameron said to his country in that speech: “You do not defend the British army by defending the indefensible. We do not honour all those who have served with distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth.”

Yes, it remains to be seen whether Cameron’s government actually punishes the policemen who fired and killed on Bloody Sunday. But his words are a reminder to too many who wave away reports of crimes by security forces by saying they never happened, or if they did happen they were justified, or come on, some amount of ‘collateral damage’ is inevitable and acceptable, dammit, because those guys are protecting the country! And, of course, any move to punish such crimes will ‘reduce the morale’ of the forces.

I know enough times that our security forces have been accused of criminal conduct and have had others among us — and I don’t mean just ministers — leap to their defence with arguments like those above.

The truth is simple: some crimes are indefensible. When instead of punishing them, we try to defend them, try to hide the truth — then we only insult the many men in uniform who do their jobs selflessly and conscientiously. Men who uphold the best standards of professional and personal conduct.

Back in Belfast, I never did find Kashmir. I’ve always thought of that as a metaphor of a kind, the quietest, saddest parallel of all.

(Dilip D’Souza is the author of Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Jun 28, 2010 00:08 IST