By Farah Bashir
In the course of the last ten years, that I have been away from home, I have met many people from various parts of the world. After I would introduce myself as a Kashmiri, either they have had something to share about Kashmir or they have wanted to hear about the life there.
Most of them would either talk about their honeymoon in Kashmir and fondly recall the time spent there or some would reminisce about a vacation that they had taken years back in Pahalgam or Gulmarg; two popular tourist destinations.
But a few months back, at a literary event, I met a former military personnel who had served in Kashmir in the 1990s. Ramesh Kumar (identity changed) introduced himself as an ex-counterinsurgency cop who was posted in Kashmir in the early 1990s (peak years of the armed rebellion that broke out against the Indian rule in 1989).
While growing up in Kashmir, among other things, our mothers also taught us a few war etiquettes: never laugh or giggle when the men in uniform are around and keep one’s gaze lowered near military bunkers.
Following this code of behavior, talking to an Indian soldier was out of the question- not that one ever wanted to.
But that day, at the event, it was a rare opportunity to talk to someone I would, otherwise, have never spoken to in Kashmir.
I wanted to hear ‘his stories’ about Kashmir. Therefore, we met, one more time, for coffee.
THE UNFINISHED CONVERSATION
In my mind, I had prepared a set of questions to ask the ex-trooper. I was ready to talk with someone who might have killed young Kashmiri men or raped Kashmiri women. How wrong had I been!
Other than talking about his favorite literary narratives, Ramesh Kumar spoke about some of the counterinsurgency policies they would adopt in some of the disturbed areas.
But I was there to talk and know more about what he did in Kashmir, and I finally broached the subject.
(Below is an excerpt of the conversation)
Me: When were you posted in Kashmir?
RK: Twice. Once before and once after 1989. After 1989, it was in a village near the border (Line of Control; the de facto border between Indian and Pakistan).
Me: Did you kill anyone?
RK: Arre, we used to kill so many of them.
Me: Were those foreign terrorists?
RK: Nahin, locals the, Kashmiri. Kitnoon ko maara (We killed so many). In villages and near the border, we would shoot them, take a nap in between, wake up and shoot them again. Hum kehte the, saale marne aate hain (We would say they just come here to die).
With that response of his, my mind went blank. Here was a man sitting in front of me, swaggering about killing my brethren; I lost the desire to talk to him about Kashmir, even though I had wanted to.
I wanted to know what they did to the bodies of the men they killed “in dozens” but could not muster up the courage to ask. I felt sick; and all I wanted to do was leave.
QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY THE DEAD
The conversation haunted me for months; so did the stinging regret of not asking him about the fate of the corpses. That is when I came across “Buried Evidence”, a report published by The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered-Kashmir (IPTK), a group of human rights activists.
The report documents ‘the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves of unidentified people in three northern districts of the Kashmir valley, close to the Line of Control.’
“After the summer of 2010, when 117 people were killed, the officials from the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a semi-autonomous body related to the Kashmiri government approached the IPTK. The SHRC’s police investigation wing had finally decided to pursue the report of unmarked graves after international and local rights groups and activists petitioned the commission. This August, the SHRC submitted its report on the unmarked graves, which marked the first acknowledgement from any Indian official body of the presence of mass graves and murdered civilians being buried after being falsely described by Indian troops and police as foreign terrorists”, reports Basharat Peer in, “What Lies Beneath”, his piece on Kashmir’s mass graves.
Finally, it all made sense. I got answers to the questions that I did not have the courage to ask Ramesh Kumar who had been posted in the villages near the LOC, some of which remain the main sites of the unmarked mass graves. Perhaps he and his team had handed over the bodies, that they had killed, without a flinch, to be dumped somewhere in a ditch.
“In another instance, local communities buried cadavers that had been thrown into a ditch by the security forces”, IPTK says in their comprehensive report.
Those ‘clandestine graveyards often unnamed and unmarked and undecorated’ house no ordinary graves; those are the symbols of yet another war crime committed on Kashmiris by the Indian state.
SOLDIERING OR MURDERING?
In a lawless and ‘densely militarized place’ such as Kashmir, the only laws that prevail are AFSPA (Armed Forces Special powers Act), DAA (Disturbed Area Act) and PSA (Public Safety Act) which not only ‘give the troops immunity from persecution’ but also sanctions them the permission to kill thousands of people because they know they will never be tried in the court of law.
The security forces kill indiscriminately without caring whether the person they are shooting is a militant, a militant suspect or just another innocent civilian. It is because they are aware that they can kill with impunity in conflict zones such as Kashmir.
The fact that Ramesh Kumar can travel the world despite his past being dotted with reckless killings is because he knows he is protected well, and the chances of punishment for him or the soldiers like him are very low. On the contrary, they could very well be sipping coffee, in some swank corner of the world, laughing away while narrating the horrific tales of their killing sprees.
Till the day the said draconian laws exist, such horrors will be committed and repeated, and the lines between a soldier and a murderer will remain blurred.
Farah Bashir works as a qualitative researcher and is based in Singapore.