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Wounds that never heal: what torture in Kashmir says about India

  • Mohamad Junaid
  • 23 May 2019

Torture may shatter the world of its Kashmiri victims, but it is Indian society that is becoming irretrievably corroded.

Qalander Khatana, a torture victim poses with his amputated and prosthetic legs on August 8, 2016 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. 45-year old Qalendar Khatana from Kalaroos area of Kupwara district says he was picked up from his home by the 36 Batallion of India's Border Security Force(BSF) on December 15, 1990. ( Yawar Nazir / Getty Images )

In the 2012 UK Channel Four documentary film Kashmir’s Torture Trail by Jezza Neumann, an older-looking Kashmiri man Qalandar Khatana enters a room supported on crutches.

Both his feet are missing, and his legs just above where his ankles should be are heavily bandaged. The bandages look damp with a mix of betadine disinfectant, dirt, and coagulated blood. The wounds look old but still raw, and you feel the twinge as he struggles to sit down with pain visible on his face.

A local Kashmiri interviewer asks him to tell his account. Twenty years previously in 1992, Khatana was grabbed by the Indian paramilitary Border Security Force from his native village in North Kashmir and brought to the capital Srinagar for “interrogation.”

They accused him of being a “guide” for local militants crossing over the border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. His world-shattering ordeal had just begun.

“These don’t move at all,” Khatana tells his interviewer, showing his hooked fingers, which, he says, the soldiers had beaten out of shape. The soldiers stomped on him, and then one of them just took out a knife and chopped Khatana’s feet off from above his ankles. Khatana tells of how he saw his detached feet quivering in front of him as the blood squirted out of his legs. As if this wasn’t enough, the soldiers cut off chunks of flesh from his thighs and forced him to eat it. As he lifts his kameez to show knotted skin on his cratered side, Khatana’s voice rises, and he assumes the tone of his torturers. The soldiers, while feeding him his own flesh, were jeering at him: “Bastard, don’t you ever dare again mention Kashmir will be free!”

Khatana’s experience is gruesome but not singular. Many others in Kashmir share similar experiences at the hands of the Indian military. The 550-page new report titled Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir by two Kashmir-based human rights organizations, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), has found trends and patterns in its examination of 432 other cases to reveal that torture is “routine, intrinsic to the very existence of the Indian state in Kashmir.”

It is worthwhile to quote from the report to show the extent to which this is the case:

“Apart from verbal abuse, the other forms of torture that we have come across during this research include stripping the detainees naked (or down to bare minimum), beatings with wooden sticks, iron rods or leather belts, roller treatment whereby a heavy wooden log or an iron rod is rolled over the legs of the detainee, with extra weight applied to it by forces personnel who sit on the opposite sides of this rod, water-boarding, electrocution, hanging from the ceiling, dunking detainees’ head in water (which is sometimes mixed with chilli powder), burning of the body with iron rods, heaters or cigarette butts, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, sexualized torture including rape and sodomy, among others.”

Legal cover

Based on the case studies, the report points out that most victims of torture are civilians (70 percent) and more than one in every ten tortured Kashmiris never survive the ordeal. Those who do survive end up with lifelong grievous internal and external bodily harm that permanently incapacitates them.

Despite overwhelming evidence that Indian forces use torture systematically against Kashmiris, this routinised form of violence has hardly ever become an issue worth public scrutiny within the Indian government, media or the general public sphere.

Though India signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1997, it has not ratified it. This has meant no effective legal or institutional mechanisms have been put in place to prevent torture or prosecute those in the military or police accused of using torture.

But there is a far more pervasive reason why the Indian military’s use of torture in Kashmir has been so widespread and unaccountable. Indian forces enjoy near-total immunity from civil legal proceedings for their abuses of human rights in the region.

Under the refurbished colonial-era emergency law Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which the Indian government imposed in Kashmir in 1990 and remains in place, the soldiers have been given a free hand to deal with Kashmiris suspected of “separatist” activities.

The vicious power of the AFSPA gets heightened under the nationalist regimes in New Delhi. Proving one’s nationalism in India has come to mean either remaining silent on atrocities committed by the state forces against Kashmiris or demanding an even tougher approach.

Top-down culture

The rise of Narendra Modi as the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India has further emboldened his extremist loyalist supporters who cheer when Kashmiris die and circulate images of dead, injured or humiliated Kashmiris as trophies.

Modi has himself publicly reiterated several times to the Indian military in Kashmir that they have a “free hand” to do whatever it takes to finish Kashmiris demanding or supporting independence.

Since 2016, the Indian military has taken Modi’s carte blanche as a signal to carry out what it unhesitatingly calls “Operation All Out,” killing, injuring, blinding, and arresting hundreds.

Despite the slowly growing international attention to its abuses against Kashmiris (a UN report detailing human rights violations in Kashmir came out in June 2018), the Indian government has mostly managed to dodge wider criticism.

Since the early 1990s, India has used several strategies to keep state violence against Kashmiris beyond the threshold of international visibility. These strategies have ranged from invisibilizing the military violence in Kashmir to an outright refusal to accept any criticism.

Invisibilizing the violence takes the form of putting pressure on local newspapers and journalists to abstain from covering violent events involving Indian soldiers unless such events are reported in the Indian nationalist idiom of the military defending the nation against Kashmiri “anti-nationals” and “terrorists.”

Photojournalists face a particularly harsh reaction if they don’t follow such dictums. Many local photojournalists have experience one or other form of physical attack.

The case of Aasif Sultan, a journalist from South Kashmir, in prison since 2018 is a case in point. Sultan has been charged with supporting a militant narrative instead of reporting on “development in the state.”

International observers or activists visiting Kashmir have either been prevented from doing so, denied visas, or deported.

There are other forms of invisibilizing. One such form, for instance, was the barefaced effort to rehabilitate the most notorious sites of torture in Kashmir and to disguise their bloody legacy.

While many of these torture centres, euphemistically called “Joint Interrogation Centers,” are back in action, during the brief, relatively calm interregnum before 2016, some of these sites were renovated and painted over to turn them into luxury residences for pro-Indian establishment figures in Kashmir.

In an article in for a local publication Kashmir Life, a Kashmiri reporter described in detail how such dreaded places like Papa-2, Cargo, Butcher House, Kawoosa House, and Hari Niwas Palace were given a facelift. Yet, some of the Kashmiris who had been tortured in these places told the reporter that images of chopped fingers and severed toes lying on the floors and blood on the walls would continue to haunt them for their entire lives.

Only demilitarisation will end the torture

The new report on torture meticulously identifies “at least 144 Indian armed forces camps (Army and paramilitary), 52 Police Station/Posts, 19 SOG camps, 15 JICs and 9 Ikhwan camps…where torture has been perpetrated on detainees.”

Beyond these formal sites, the report points out that during cordon and search operations, “the government buildings in a particular area, like schools, Primary Health Centers, Rural Development Offices etc., and sometimes even the houses of local people, would be turned into makeshift torture centers.”

Amid the nationalist backing for violence against Kashmiris, the Indian government has petulantly disregarded international scrutiny. Earlier this week, India told the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council that it would no longer respond to or communicate with its Special Rapporteurs.

The body’s three current Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Executions, Torture, and Right to Health, Agnes Callamard, Nils Melzer, and Dainius Puras, had asked India whether it had taken steps to address the human rights violations in Kashmir listed in the June 2018 report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

India has persistently disallowed Special Rapporteurs access to Kashmir and then ironically accused them of building their report (2018) based on press reports rather than their own investigations.     

In his prologue to the APDP-JKCCS report, Juan Mendez, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and now a professor of Human Rights Law, praises the report as a “landmark.”

Mendez expresses renewed hope that the report will draw international attention to India’s human rights violations in Kashmir, even though he also says that the report by itself may not stop practices of torture against Kashmiris. He states that torture and other human rights violations in conflict zones like Kashmir are a result of the default state use of the military to quell civil unrest, arguing that military is trained for combat and not investigations and that military is likely to violate rights in spaces where the line between legitimate military targets and civilians is blurred.

While a serious effort to eradicate torture in Kashmir then would require demilitarisation and the withdrawal of the AFSPA, the report itself in pointing toward torture being “intrinsic to the very existence of the Indian state in Kashmir” suggests there is a deeper issue behind the systematic use of torture against Kashmir.

In 2017, a Kashmiri man Farooq Dar was beaten and used as a human shield by Indian soldiers. Instead of causing outrage in India, the military officer responsible was given a commendation by the Indian Army and t-shirts celebrating the image of Dar tied to the hood of the military jeep sold briskly online. This celebration of torture against Kashmiris in the Indian public sphere—that has turned unabashedly rightwing in recent years and as Modi's second election victory proves—indicates that the report will most likely not be discussed in India.

Torture is devastating to individuals and communities, especially when it is backed by nationalist sanction. American literary critic Elaine Scarry in her 1985 book The Body in Pain, explains that culturally torture as the deliberate infliction of pain on unwilling bodies is not just wrong or criminal but a taboo, in that it marks the boundary between a community and what it considers beyond morally reprobate.

The influential American philosopher Richard Rorty, in his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, argued that torture is not just about physical pain but humiliation; the agony of torture is meant to prevent the reconstitution of the self.

Read in the light of these arguments, what the new report on torture in Kashmir says is that the Indian public sphere in its nationalist dehumanisation of Kashmiris has been willing to not only break the taboo but celebrate it in pursuit of the dissolution of Kashmiris as a people.

Listed as case number 350 in the report, Khatana’s torture wounds refuse to heal. A few years ago his wife died. Right after the Border Security Force personnel picked Khatana, his wife was kicked by soldiers in her chest, resulting in broken ribs.

Her eventual death came a result of the complications from those wounds.

Despite these enormous losses, Khatana’s picture, which stands on the front of the new report, shows him looking defiantly to his side. In the end, torture may shatter the world of its victims, but Khatana seems to be telling his torturers that it is their own society that becomes irretrievably corroded.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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