In July 1995, an Islamic fundamentalist group called Al Faran kidnapped six foreign tourists, including two Americans, in Kashmir. For a few weeks, the world’s attention was fixed on the Himalayan valley as the allegedly Pakistan-backed militants negotiated with Indian security officials and foreign diplomats.
Eventually, one of the Americans escaped. Another hostage, a Norwegian, was beheaded. The other four were never found.
“The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 -- Where the Terror Began,” a staggeringly well-researched new book by two respected journalists, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, concludes that the hostages were killed by local mercenaries funded and controlled by Indian army and intelligence.
The authors argue that the drawn-out negotiation, during which Indian intelligence allegedly knew the hostages’ whereabouts, was a charade, part of India’s larger effort to portray Pakistan as a sponsor of Islamist terror, thereby delegitimizing the Kashmiri struggle for freedom.
Certainly, India today no longer needs to highlight the role of the Pakistani army and intelligence in sponsoring extremist groups. It has also succeeded in shifting international attention away from the appalling facts of its counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir -- tens of thousands killed, and innumerable many tortured, mutilated and orphaned. The tallying in 2009 of 2,700 unmarked graves containing the remains of people (often buried in groups) killed by security forces barely provoked any comment in the international media, let alone expressions of concern by Western leaders.
Killers in Khaki
But India’s diplomatic and public relations success has been achieved at considerable costs: the rise of militaristic nationalism, the assault on civil liberties, and a dangerously enhanced role in politics for men in uniform.
Most of the million-plus men and women in the Indian military still manifest what Shashi Tharoor once described as “increasingly rare” qualities in India: “high standards of performance, honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice, incorruptibility, respect for tradition, discipline, team spirit.” As a child, I had myself wanted, like many Indians of my generation and class, to acquire the virtuous glow of an army officer’s uniform, and even attended a military school.
It was therefore shocking and demoralizing to encounter, during a visit to Kashmir in 2000, accounts of extrajudicial killings and torture and rape by Indian soldiers -- stories that, though commonplace in Kashmir, were largely kept hidden from the Indian public by a patriotic media.
But to those who reported from Kashmir in the past decade and a half -- as opposed to the many more who were content to disseminate briefings from Indian army and intelligence officials -- “The Meadow” presents a disturbingly familiar picture.
I was there when, during Bill Clinton’s visit to South Asia in March 2000, Indian army officers allegedly kidnapped and killed five Kashmiri villagers and presented their mutilated corpses to the international news media as the Pakistani killers of the 35 Sikhs who had been murdered by unidentified gunmen just hours before Clinton’s scheduled arrival in India. It has taken 12 years for India’s legal system even to acknowledge this well-documented atrocity: Last week, the Supreme Court gingerly asked the army how it wishes to prosecute the officers suspected of the coldblooded murder.
Since 2000, the number of armed militants has steadily decreased in Kashmir. But the human rights situation has not improved. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in effect in Kashmir and the northeastern states (where the Indian army was first deployed in counter-insurgency), soldiers can kill on the basis of mere suspicion while continuing to enjoy near-total legal immunity.
Regime of Impunity
The result is a regime of impunity. A coalition of Indian human rights groups in a report to the United Nations this year documented 789 extrajudicial killings in the northeastern state of Manipur alone between 2007 and 2010.
In recent years, the army has also been dragged into Operation Green Hunt, the Indian state’s extraordinarily big, armed offensive against Maoist insurgents in central India. Predictably, the use of scorched-earth tactics once deployed in border areas has undermined the general rule of law in the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
The widened powers of the military against the new electronic media’s background chorus of hypernationalism have given army officers a public role they never had. Breaking with old protocols, the previous army chief openly speculated about a “limited” war under a “nuclear overhang” with Pakistan.
It is also not at all clear if there is any proper governmental oversight of the Indian intelligence agencies, which, mimicking the doomed Pakistani quest for “strategic depth,” have been trying out potentially useful proxies in Pakistan’s Balochistan province as well as Afghanistan. These adventurist spies and the perennially belligerent men in uniform now seem to constitute as formidable a lobby against peace between India and Pakistan as the Islamic zealots on the other side of the border.
Backed by Hindu nationalist leaders, they even dare to overrule elected politicians such as Omar Abdullah, Kashmir’s chief minister, who has been pleading in vain for a withdrawal of the much-despised special powers act.
Their jingoism, echoed by hawkish think tanks and websites (India’s own military-intellectual complex), goes necessarily together with dubious arms purchases. India is now the world’s biggest arms market; a series of scandals have not stopped spending sprees that, as the recent outbursts of the outgoing army chief reveal, do little to prepare India for any conceivable war.
No Banana Republic
Things are about to get worse. The next Indian army chief comes into office later this month, trailed by allegations of his involvement in an extrajudicial killing in Kashmir. He was also in charge of Indian peacekeeping soldiers accused in 2008 of sexual misconduct in the Congo.
Unlike its Pakistani rival, the Indian army remains firmly under civilian control. A sensationalist recent story in a major Indian newspaper claimed that unauthorized movements of soldiers near New Delhi earlier this year had “spooked” the government. But it is hard to imagine the foolhardy army officers who would attempt a coup in India. Although beset by internal wars and draconian laws and chaotic governance, India is very far from degenerating into, as an exasperated Ratan Tata feared last year, a “banana republic.”
Yet there are plenty of reasons for alarm and dismay over a process that, starting in obscure battles in the northeastern states in the 1960s, was accelerated during the two previous decades in the valley of Kashmir. Levy and Scott-Clark’s book mainly excavates one of the many murky incidents of the 1990s. But its revised draft of history also sheds light on the present -- how a democratic state’s addiction to colonial-style dirty wars has damaged not so much the Kashmiri cause of freedom as India’s frail democracy and one of its last uncompromised institutions.
(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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