“Kashmir has become a mess,” a retired Indian official who worked on Delhi’s Kashmir policy told me as news of the latest fighting trickled in. “We have squandered the chance at peace.”
On April 1, at least 13 militants and three soldiers were killed in a series of gunfights. Five civilians were killed and dozens wounded when the security forces cracked down on protests that followed. The government then blocked mobile internet in parts of the Valley and postponed school examinations.
Many Indian leaders and officials like to place all blame for the violence in Jammu and Kashmir on Pakistan because it contributes arms, training, even fighters to the insurgency. But they have ignored activists, academics, and numerous commissions established by various governments over the years that have repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of justice for serious human rights violations by the Indian government.
This has built up rage in recent years. Kashmiris have been coming out onto the streets in protest and throwing stones at the security forces, who frequently respond with shotgun pellets and bullets. It is young Kashmiris who are leading the militancy now and they have the support of vast sections of the population.
The Bharatiya Janata Party leads not just the central government but is also part of the coalition that governs Jammu and Kashmir. Its stridently nationalist campaign draws upon the targeting and displacement from India’s only Muslim majority state of Hindu Pandits in the 1990s, and opposes Kashmir’s historical demand for a promised plebiscite to choose between India and Pakistan. BJP supporters consider protests by Muslim Kashmiris anti-national; even peaceful protests by students can lead to charges of sedition.
Tens of thousands have been killed in Kashmir in nearly three decades of insurgency. Yet, impunity is the norm. The army has opposed calls to repeal the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, used to deploy the military in internal conflict. The law requires the defense ministry’s permission to prosecute soldiers accused of even grave abuses. Since 2001, the Jammu and Kashmir government has sought permission for prosecution in 50 such cases; the central government has denied it in 47.
In May 2017, Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi was commended rather than criminally investigated for unlawfully using a bystander as a “human shield”. Other military officers accused of egregious abuses, including the killing of civilians and falsely claiming them to be militants, have not been properly prosecuted.
Though protests in Kashmir can be violent at times, the response of the security forces should always be proportionate. Lethal force should be the last resort, used only when lives are threatened. Promptly investigating allegations of abuses and prosecuting those responsible is key to resolving this “mess”.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.