The Forgotten Massacres of Kashmir

Article by Laura Schuurmans:

On the morning of January 20, 1990 there was a demonstration on the streets of Srinagar. In itself this was not an unusual occurrence. The 1987 elections, which were widely regarded as having been rigged, had deprived Kashmiris of any effective political voice. Street demonstrations were one of the few remaining avenues open to different interest groups wishing to express publicly a dissenting point of view. Accordingly in the period following the elections street demonstrations became a feature of life in Srinagar. This particular demonstration, however, was to prove especially significant.

Just prior to the demonstration the government of Farooq Abdullah had been dissolved and the province placed under the direct rule of the Indian President. The President, looking for someone able to crush dissent in the Province appointed Jagmohan as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. The new Governor came with the reputation of being strongly anti-Muslim. Anticipating increased social and political unrest as a result of this appointment the Indian authorities deployed police paramilitaries and launched a series of night time raids against the civilian population targeting families of alleged activists and taking many people away for questioning.

Despite the raids, several thousand Kashmiris assembled in Basant Bagh, Habba Kadal and Gawkadal and started moving towards Lal Chowk, one of Srinagar’s main squares. The march was entirely peaceful. The Indian authorities, however, became alarmed by the size of the crowd and placed the city under curfew. Additional armed police were mobilized and put onto the streets. The demonstration was still entirely peaceful. The marchers reached the narrow wooden Gawkadal Bridge where they were confronted by armed paramilitaries from the Central Reserve Police Force. As the demonstrators moved forward the police fired on the marchers with live ammunition.

Official figures issued by the Indian administration put the number of casualties at 35 dead. Local human rights organizations put the figure at around 200 dead including those demonstrators who jumped off the bridge into the river to avoid the shooting and subsequently drowned. The incident quickly became known as the Gawkadal Massacre.

The killing of unarmed demonstrators triggered massive protests throughout Kashmir and left a long-term legacy of social unrest. Many young Kashmiris left home and crossed into Pakistan either to avoid arrest and torture or to seek arms and training to continue the struggle for freedom.

The period following the Gawkadal Massacre was one of the most violent in the history of Kashmir. Both the freedom fighters themselves and ordinary civilians paid a terrible price. It is only recently, however, that the full extent of the human rights abuses that took place at this time has become clear. A study by the Kashmir-based organization International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice led to the publication in 2011 of a report entitled Buried Evidence. Research for this report was undertaken by Parvez Imroz, a Kashmiri human rights lawyer who holds the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize.

The report makes a horrific reading. Between 1989 and 2009 an estimated 70,000 people died from causes directly resulting from the conflict while a further 8,000 people have disappeared their whereabouts being unknown. The report identifies some 2.700 unmarked mass graves in the Kashmir Valley containing more than 2,943 bodies. The report also cites evidence of the systematic torture of prisoners by the Indian security forces.

Under the Geneva Convention civilians are protected during periods of armed conflict. Thus Article 3 of the Convention demands humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without distinction and specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trials.

In the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, however, the Geneva Convention has been disregarded. Instead India has claimed that the armed conflict in the region was not a liberation struggle by the local population but was actually a war against foreign militants fighting on behalf of Pakistan. The vast majority of people who were killed in the conflict were ordinary civilian Kashmiris who found themselves caught between pro-independence and pro-Pakistan fighters and the Indian security forces.

The disappearances have created another quite special dilemma for Kashmiri society. The wives of men who have been taken by the Indian security forces, whose whereabouts are unknown and where no body has been received for burial have come to form a new class of ‘Half-Widow’. These women are often seriously disadvantaged. Instead of being considered as widows and treated accordingly the Half-Widows of Kashmir are often neglected by the husband’s family who do not consider themselves responsible for the Half-Widow and her children. The Half-Widow has to struggle to bring up her children alone, to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing her husbands fate and is denied the possibility of finding economic security through re-marriage.

The International Community has largely ignored the Kashmir question. In 2008, the European Parliament passed a Resolution about the Mass Graves. This resolution called on the Indian government “to urgently ensure independent and impartial investigations into all suspected sites of mass graves in Jammu and Kashmir, and as an immediate first step to secure the grave sites in order to preserve the evidence”. Regrettably, no action has been taken to follow up on this Resolution.

The silence of the International Community, including the United Nations, on the question of human rights abuses in Kashmir is hardly surprising. For Europe struggling to lift the Euro zone out of recession, the issue of expanding trade with India is seen as a top priority. Europe’s leaders have been reluctant to broach any issue with the Indian government which might have negative consequences for trade relations. For the United States on the other hand, the focus has been on its programme of nuclear cooperation with India and on its geo-strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. Here the priority is to counterbalance the perceived threat from the rising political influence of China in the region.

A political solution to the conflict in Kashmir is not possible in the absence of a thorough independent investigation into the killings, forced disappearances and mass graves. Undertaking such an investigation requires that the experiences of the Kashmiri people and the abuses of their human rights that have taken place are recognized and their existence acknowledged. Only by confronting the reality of the situation will there be any prospect of bringing a lasting peace and political stability to an especially volatile part of South Asia where two nuclear powers confront each other across a poorly defined international border.

—The writer, a Jakarta-based research analyst, writes exclusively for Pakistan Observer.