Kashmir Report

I was a human shield: In Kashmir, India is surrendering its humanity

Major Gogoi’s recent act is not an exception. We should stop being in denial about it.

The first time I remember being slapped was not at home or in school. It was on the road outside my grandmother’s home. I was slapped by a soldier for failing to shout “Jai Hind, sir” as a column of soldiers sauntered down the street. I was eight.

At 14, I – along with my cousin John Mohammad Lone and neighbours Naseer Ahmad Ganie and Mohammad Ashraf Bhat – was stripped down to the waist, forced to lie prone in a stream that flows by my village in Rafiabad, North Kashmir, and beaten with a willow stick as thick as a man’s arm. We were being punished for failing to report on the militants who soldiers insisted we had seen sneak past the willow grove we were grazing cattle in. I came off with only a swollen, tissue-torn elbow. I was last into the stream and so farthest from the bank. Only the soldiers’ sticks reached me, not their boots and rifle butts. The others had it worse.

The January before I turned 17, as a friend and I walked to our tuitions in downtown Sopore one freezing morning, two Central Reserve Police Force patrolmen from across the road signalled us to take our arms out of our pherans. My friend followed their instructions, but I was too cold to care. They called us over to them. My friend crossed the road. I do not know what came over me and I kept walking. About 15 minutes later, a posse of CRPF men surrounded the tutor’s, ordered the class out to the alley and forced the boys and girls into separate queues. I was dragged out of the line, and four or five of the men slapped and kicked me around, shouting expletives. The entire class watched, frozen with fright.

Herded like cattle

The previous spring, my village, about 8 km northwest of Sopore town, had endured three Army crackdowns in a single month. As per practice, the entire male population was driven, like cattle, to the school ground. Several groups of boys my age were picked out, each forced to walk in front of the soldiers as they searched houses, granaries, cowsheds and mosques.

My group of five boys was assigned to the search party led by the commanding officer himself. We started with the big house just across the road from the school and since the senior official himself was overseeing the search, whispers that militants were hiding inside gained credence. We hesitated to go in, but one soldier grabbed me by the shoulder, set his rifle barrel down on the other and pushed me up the stairs to the first floor. Room by room I went, cupboard by cupboard, wondering if we would be greeted by a burst of fire from behind a door. I do not recall if I was silently reciting the kalima as I did whenever I felt scared. Perhaps I was too overcome with fear to remember. But I won’t ever forget the damp handprint that soldier left on the shoulder of my blue kameez.

It was years before I learnt that what we had experienced was a war crime, that we had been used as human shields.

Yet, this was the life of an average Kashmiri boy in the early noughties. The 1990s, by all accounts of family and friends, had been much worse. It isn’t any better now.

In April, I watched the video of Farooq Ahmad Dar tied to an Army jeep as a human shield, the expression on his face a lament no words can describe, and I remembered the handprint on my shirt.

Where’s humanity?

A man’s body is his last refuge, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, and destroying its sanctity is the ultimate violence. The military’s history in Jammu and Kashmir is a perpetual effort in the degradation of the soul – three unceasing decades of massacres, mass rapes, custodial killings, fake encounters, torture and enforced disappearances. For a long time, this degradation was invisibilised by the impunity enforced by the state and, whenever it was revealed, whitewashed by so-called civil society and the media. Now, when smartphone-armed Kashmiri youth, steeped in the politics of violence and conscious of their destiny, are baring the truth to the world, many respectable Indians pretend to bruised conscience.

Institutional structures of impunity are not erected overnight or firmed up without the acquiescence of the citizenry, the section with a voice anyway. Yet, Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi’s decision to use Dar as a human shield is being played down as a singular incident, an individual’s lapse of judgment (but a lapse deserving of reward, apparently). The truth is more violent: Major Gogoi is the culture of impunity gone berserk.

As is its nature, violence brutalises the victim but also the perpetrator. It is no coincidence that the ideological persuasion that condones the military’s conduct in Kashmir, or for that matter in India’s Adivasi heartland or in the North East, is the one justifying lynchings on the streets of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand or Rajasthan.

By awarding Major Gogoi a commendation, the Indian state has lost the moral argument. By justifying the award, India’s citizens are surrendering their humanity.

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