Featured image based on illustrations by Mir Suhail for Torture: State’s Instrument of Control in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir.
On Friday August 2, confusion and panic hit the people of Kashmir, in the wake of several orders claiming there is a serious situation in Kashmir, urging yatris and tourists to return and the deployment of thousands of additional troops. But, on my social media feed, there were voices of humour and resilience reminding Kashmiris of what they collectively as a people have suffered and endured through the years, of how the Indian state has persistently viewed Kashmiris as the “other” and sought ways of repression. Scrolling down one searing image went through my mind. It is that of Mir Suhail’s illustration of a man in checked headgear and greying beard that accompanies the report, Torture: State’s Instrument of Control in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir.
I recognise it as that of Qalandar Khatana of Kalaros, Kupwara. In 2011 I first saw him on Channel Four’s documentary by Jezza Neumann entitled Kashmir’s Torture Trail, where, in a chilling, blood curdling account he spoke of Papa II, the infamous interrogation centre where torture was routinely carried out in the nineties by India’s armed forces. Accused of acting as guide for militants to cross the border, Khatana was tortured in various camps for many years. It was at Papa II that a crude attempt was made to hack off his legs below the knees. His torso was slashed at a number of places and he was forced to nibble at the pieces of flesh given to him. When his wounds got terribly infected, amputations were carried out at the Badami Bagh Cantonment Hospital and he was released.
In May 2017, I met Khatana in person, where as one of the members of the informal group “Survivors for Truth and Justice” he appealed to the international community and UN to look into such gross human rights violations. After hearing his story, I asked him whether he had spoken out against the unconscionable acts of savagery meted out to him, back in 1996 after his release. He replied, “I was terrified then. It was as if it had had been drilled into me that I had no right to live. I could not be certain of being allowed to live even after my release.”
This stark statement not only pierces the heart, it plunges directly into the crux of the comprehensive torture report brought out by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society namely how torture has been used by the State as policy and weapon of intimidation against the Kashmiri people.
Khatana’s case, like hundreds of others, shows how “torture emerges as one of the ways of retaliation by the State against the Kashmiri ‘other’, seen as a challenge to its very legitimacy. But it also emerges as part of routine, intrinsic to the very existence of the Indian State in Kashmir.”
The expressions of over-riding fear by this simple shepherd, who lives near the Line of Control, explains partly the conundrum of how torture, though widespread and used indiscriminately even on minors, has remained under-reported in Kashmir. It emphasizes challenges in recording people’s testimonies.
Shazia Ahad, one of the researchers and writers of the report, explains the main problems human rights researchers/activists face when it comes to documenting torture cases. The chief one is the impunity with which it is carried out. “People don’t expect anything to change as a result of such documentation. They have lost faith in institutions including the judiciary. They don’t believe they will ever get justice or even reparations. When we went for our field work we were almost always faced with the question, ‘Isse kya hoga?’ asked more in scepticism than as a genuine query.
“Then there is the fear of reprisals from the state. The victims believe they are lucky to have come out alive from the torture chambers. They do not want to get further entangled in the mechanisms of the State which can lead to the cycle of more arbitrary detentions, torture or then continuous harassment.
“These factors make torture the least reported of human rights violations in Kashmir in the media. It makes identification of cases of torture difficult for researchers. So we have to increasingly depend upon local volunteers who know the victims personally or then on snowball sampling, both of which limit the speed of the documentation.”
Khatana also mentioned to me his wife’s death and added she had been severely beaten and tortured during the years he was imprisoned. Viciously kicked in the ribs one day by security forces who came into the house, she sustained an injury that incapacitated her, forcing her to be in bed for several years before her death.
As the report observes, “Further as many deaths due to torture-related injuries are not immediate but may occur after years or even decades, accurate figures of such fatalities and morbidities are extremely hard to estimate.”
Khatanga’s narrative (case number 350) is, just one example in this study of 432 cases, whereby exhaustive and extensive research brings about insightful, historical understanding of the practices of torture. It is this integral feature that, perhaps, leads Juan E Mendez, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (2010-2016) to call it a landmark report and “model for dispassionate and precise language even when discussing tremendously tragic suffering.”
As a journalist who has been visiting Kashmir for a decade, I t heard of a torture case on my very first field trip in October 2010. Dr Khursheed Ali Khan of the Kreeri Block Hospital confirmed that the body of young student Farrukh Bukhari brought for post mortem contained visible marks of torture. Farrukh’s father later showed us an image on the cellphone. I flinched away from the sight of a face disfigured with acid and a hand that had been amputated. The father told us his son stepped out of the house during a protest in the turbulent summer of 2010 and never returned home. His disfigured body was found flung outside the Chaura police station.
In 2011, a fellow journalist and I visited Shopian, where two youths and a community leader spoke of how commonplace it was in the nineties to find unknown dead bodies flung on streets, in drains and in the fields with eyes gouged out, cuts on the throat and other marks of torture. Often grave diggers were given mutilated bodies and ordered to bury them.
This subject of torture was raised during our conversation and in connection with the enforced disappearances and the mass graves. But, at that time I did not probe much into how such mass torture came about.
It is a question that Ahad says she faced when she began working on the testimonies of torture that were already documented in The Informative Missive, a monthly human rights journal produced by JKCCS. “The magnitude and the gravity of torture that Kashmiris have faced and continue to face, shocked me. During the field work I realized how human rights violations including torture have been normalized in our society.”
Reading the report I gained an understanding of how to view the dead and mutilated bodies, of the crucial link between militarization and military-policing operations like cordon and search operations (CASOs) and mass torture as a form of collective punishment.
The report establishes the politics behind the widespread practices of torture within the context of authoritarian rule and later the armed conflict. It buttresses the statement that torture is a major weapon in counter insurgency warfare.
Through the report I got an overview of how torture and inhuman treatment of people, in total violation of local and international law, remained a consistent feature in Kashmir even during periods of lull or so called normalcy. It was torture and terror that itself that was “normalized.”
Crackdowns of nineties: Mass torture, collective punishment
Significantly, CASOs, colloquially known as crackdowns, which were dreaded and widespread in the nineties, are now increasingly being deployed again. In this military operation, an area is sealed off and access is restricted. Announcements are made for people to come out of their homes. Sometimes the women are allowed to stay indoors but there is nearly always segregation on gender lines. Men are made to crouch outdoors, often in hostile weather conditions, whilst searches are conducted inside the houses.
In the nineties, Mukhbirs or informers would be used to “identify” suspects _ militants, those who had crossed the border for arms training and those who aided militancy_ and they would be whisked away for interrogation where third degree torture could be used. Sometimes existing structures like schools and panchayat buildings were turned into “interrogation centres” for collective punishment. Some of the worst atrocities ranging from mass sexual violence, torture, illegal arrests leading to eventual enforced disappearances or custodial killings were perpetrated during these crackdowns. Out of the 432 cases documented, 80 were tortured during CASOs.
The report quotes a 1995 Amnesty International Report that speaks of crackdowns in which hundreds were arrested and bodies “simply thrown on the roads, in rivers or brought to the Police Control Room with multiple injuries and marks of torture.”
A 1993 Amnesty report An Unnatural Fate drew the connections between pattern of routine arbitrary detentions, unrecorded detention, torture and enforced disappearances.
In August 1992 Operation Tiger was officially launched by India as a counter insurgency tactic. Kashmiris refer to it as “catch and kill” an operation whereby suspected militants or those suspected to have aided militants, were picked up during crackdowns and killed. Later claims would be made that they had been killed in encounters.
Special Task Force: Incentivising torture and terror
Another development in the nineties was incentivising torture and terror tactics, the report explains. There was a breakdown of trust between the army and civilian authorities and, to counter the lack of cooperation between the police and army, a new force or the Special Task Force militia was raised. (Later they became the Special Operations Group SOG). Ethnic minorities from Jammu were specially trained and deployed, in a manner reminiscent of the colonial divide and rule pattern. The lure of money and promotions as incentive spurred the STF to become notorious for excesses, especially where torture and reprisals were concerned. STF camps also harboured corruption and communalised the warfare operations.
Ikhwanis and renegade militants: Outsourcing torture
In the latter half of the nineties, the phenomenon of the “sarkari militants, state-backed militants colloquially known as Ikhwanis or naabids was established. Renegade militants or those who had surrendered were deployed to unleash savagery. Since they were clandestinely employed in counter insurgency operations and lacked any official status they could operate with total impunity and lack of accountability. Some of the worst atrocities on human rights activists, doctors, officials were perpetrated by them operating in tandem with the Special Operations Group.
In Case number 03 of the report, the torture victim cites the name of Sheikh Tahir alias Tahir Phoph, a well-known Ikhwani, as having led a posse into his home and then handing him over to Assistant sub inspector Kaka Battaa of the SOG who brutally tortured him and his son. The Public Safety Act or PSA was then slapped against him and he was imprisoned for some years.
In Case 27 Abdul Kabir Dar narrates how Kukka Parray, another dreaded Ikhwani and the 16th Rashtriya Rifles picked him up for his association with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a socio-religious group. He was subjected among other forms of torture to electric shocks.
In 2017 I was in Kashmir when Rashid Billa, the Ikhwani commander for Kukka Parray, who became an MLA was shot dead. In an interview with the family members, one relative interchanged the name of the Ikhwani outfit that Rashid Billa worked for with the term Indian army, thereby letting slip the open secret that Ikhwanis were nursed and consecrated by the Indian army.
Voting at point of the gun: Normalizing torture
One of the most shocking roles of the Ikhwanis was their deployment in enforcing elections in 1996 as the torture report details.
Anxious to prove functioning of democracy, the State decided to hold elections but, as an Indian fact-finding team in its report: Voting at the point of the gun: Counter Insurgency and the farce of elections in Kashmir, noted the holding of elections was itself used as counter insurgency exercise. There was coercion, brutality and all vestiges of legality were swept away. Many candidates that were fielded by the State campaigned openly carrying arms and with military backing. The National Conference, during its campaign, pledged to disarm the Ikhwanis but, after gaining power, they did nothing and these militants were absorbed into the Territorial Army and other outfits. They continue to operate and custodial torture continues to be practised _ the only difference is that perpetrators now have official designations. Those who could not be regularized still enjoy official patronage and impunity even standing for elections. Torture has become normalized.
Targets of torture. Age, gender, combatants, non-combatants no bar
Who is targeted by Indian agencies? The study of 432 cases reveals that torture used by various Indian agencies was without distinction of political affiliation, gender or age and that the mode of torture are similar in cases of combatants and non-combatants. Out of 432 cases 301 were those of civilians and five were ex. Age, militants, people who had already shunned militancy and had no involvement in any militancy related activity were not exempted from torture.
Out of 432cases, there were 119 militants who were tortured and their detentions were not registered with the police on the exact date of arrest, a prerequisite even under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), thereby making their detentions illegal. The torture of militants is a form of punishment for their political standing states the report.
The understanding that militants were punished for their ideology when they should have been seen be seen from the perspective of being prisoners of war and not criminals, is argued by case number 34, Abdul Qadeer Dar, a former militant. He makes that statement in an interview _ ‘From the Torture Chambers and Back’ by Nawaz Gul Qanungo published in A Desolation Called Peace, Voices from Kashmir, Edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat.
Dar, as a student, was a supporter of the Muslim United Front, the organization that decided to fight democratic elections but, after the rigged elections of 1987, he went across the border for training and joined the militant group known as the Muslim Janbaaz force. Dar argues that that if the militants were nabbed, they should have been disarmed, arrested and a legal course of action should have taken place.
Dar, who underwent several detentions and was tortured for nearly 17 months describes some of the torture centres in the book:
He observes, “We had injuries and scars on our bodies due to torture. And we have forgotten those injuries. They are healed. But the scars on our souls, we cannot forget them.”
So has the torture report then helped the survivors to get acknowledgment of the grave injustice done? Has it helped in being “a building block towards public awareness of the tragedy of torture, as Mendez asks in his introduction? Can it “spearhead democratic debate about measures of public policy needed to re-establish the rule of law in this extremely sensitive area?”
Advocate Parvez Imroz, President of JKCCS, says that unexpectedly, the report has been well received by the international media with publications like The New York Times and Independent covering it. Nils Meizer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has called it an amazing report and international organizations working on the subject of torture have hailed it. For the first time, says Imroz, the issue of torture in Kashmir, has been given the weightage it deserves.
Unfortunately though, he says, the Indian mainstream media and Indian civil society groups have not given the report the expected indulgence. Even the local media did not cover it as it should have done, probably because of intense pressures.
However social media has taken good cognizance and it was widely commented upon.
There was no response at all on the part of the state government or the Indian State, he notes.
(In fact the Indian Permanent Mission to the UN said it would not engage further with the UN Special Rapporteurs accusing them of bias.)
Commenting on the recent deteriorating situation in the Valley, Imroz says there are fears that there are even worse days to come.
There are apprehensions that the troops have been deployed to quell the expected mass agitations if the government attempts to a Palestinisation or demographic changes through removal of Article 35 A.
Amidst the grim forebodings one can only go back again to the very first page of the torture report and the words
Till I am alive, I will continue to fight for justice and speak truth to power
A Kashmiri torture survivor