First-hand accounts of torture in the ‘Structures of Violence’ report are extremely disturbing. Ending human rights violations in Kashmir requires not only the repeal of draconian Acts but also respect for the law.
“Like all the detained youth, I was beaten, and hung upside down. I was kept naked, tied to a rope, my genitals and toes were given electric shocks, and a roller was run over my legs.” This is not the memory of a German concentration camp survivor, or of a torture victim in Congo. It is the testimony of a young resident of Anantnag in Kashmir, who was picked up and interrogated by the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir State Police in 2004. And this is just one among hundreds of similar testimonies presented in Structures of Violence, a monumental study of state violence in Kashmir released two years ago by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). The report has been widely read in Kashmir, but studiously ignored by the Indian media.
JKCCS was co-founded by Parvez Imroz and Parvez Khurram, two public-spirited individuals who have done sterling work on human rights in Kashmir for many years. I met them on the occasion of my third visit to Kashmir last October, and spent some time with their team. The JKCCS researchers, many of whom are volunteers, share the spartan premises of a small office in Srinagar but they work with passion. While preparing this report they travelled far and wide, collected countless testimonies, submitted numerous RTI applications and tried their best to identify those guilty of human rights violations.
Most of the torture victims who spoke in this harrowing report were not “militants”, as armed insurgents are called in Kashmir (the militants are simply killed, so their testimonies have been lost). Many of them are relatives or neighbours of suspected militants, who were thought to have information of interest, such as the whereabouts of militants. Others were accused of having sheltered militants, hidden weapons on their behalf or engaged in so-called anti-India activities. Others still, it seems, were just being punished for acts of rebellion or defiance.
Some aspects of the testimonies are extremely disturbing. The details of torture, for one, are unbearable. Significantly, the same methods are described again and again in different testimonies from multiple locations. This shows that the facts are not made up or exaggerated by the victims. It also means that torture in Kashmir is not a matter of occasional abuse perpetrated by drunk, deranged or disobedient army officers. It is planned, systematic and based on standard methods that must have official sanction. Many of the victims quoted in the report mention being stripped naked, beaten with sticks, held under water, trampled under heavy rollers, hung upside down and electrocuted – not for a few minutes, but for hours on end. Other standard methods include pulling out nails, inflicting burns (with cigarettes,rods, stoves or melted polythene) and stretching legs at 180-degree angle. Once in a while, an innovation is reported. For instance, one victim states that a hot needle was inserted in his penis.
Another disturbing fact is that torture is not reserved for adult men – women are also tortured from time to time, and even children. One of the most horrific testimonies comes from a minor girl (perhaps 14 years old) in Palhallan: “The army and the gunmen were interested in the whereabouts of my neighbour who was a militant with HM [Hizbul Mujahideen]… First, the gunmen, on the instructions of Liyaqat, stripped me of all my clothes. Then they beat me with sticks, many of which kept getting broken. Then the two employed a thick roller on my legs. They poured melted polythene into my vagina. After that I lost consciousness.” Her brother, a 10th-grade pupil, was also badly tortured the same day. Like many victims’ families, these children’s family did not lodge a complaint as they “feared retaliation from Major Liyaqat.”
Also disturbing is the realisation that torture is not just a matter of short-term pain, but also, quite often, a lifelong tragedy. Many victims suffer long-term health damage such as disability, impotence, depression or chronic pain. The costs of health care compound the economic loss due to reduced earning abilities. To this must often be added the cost of ransom money, prolonged litigation, or protection from further harassment. Some victims had to sell their land or other assets to cope with these losses and costs.
Structures of Violence, however, is not just a detailed account of torture and other acts of state violence (including sexual violence, enforced disappearance, extra-judicial killings and massacres). It is also an insightful analysis of the institutional structures that underlie this violence – not only the army, the para-military forces and the police but also sections of the judiciary and legislature. The analysis builds on the notion of “command responsibility”, that is, the idea that army and police officers are responsible for the actions of persons who act at their command. The report examines the command structures involved in the reported atrocities, and goes out of its way to identify and name responsible officers.
The actions of these officers were made possible, in part, by a series of authoritarian laws, such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) and Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA). These laws give the army and the police sweeping powers to arrest, detain, question and sometimes even kill offenders or suspected offenders. But this is only one part of the story. The other part is that the army and the police often go well beyond what is permissible under the law, with virtual impunity. For instance, none of these laws permit torture, yet torture is routine in Kashmir and (with rare exceptions) nobody is ever held accountable for it. The problem is not just the law, but also the climate of lawlessness and the impunity with which the security forces operate. To illustrate, the prosecution of army personnel under AFSPA requires the state government to seek the sanction of the central government. Sanction has never been granted so far, according to the state government’s response to an RTI application, presented in Annexure 8 of the report.
Interestingly, in some cases where the victims of torture did lodge formal complaints, monetary relief was granted or recommended by the courts. But despite the admission that torture had taken place, the perpetrators were protected by government authorities. The structures of violence also have economic aspects, such as institutionalised corruption. The families of the victims of incarceration and torture are routinely asked for money to secure the release of the victims. In some areas, arresting young men and then extorting ransom money seems to be good business for army or police officers.
Also read: Detained Under Public Safety Act, 80-Year-Old Kashmiri Political Activist Completes a Year in Jail
Some of the methods discussed in the report bear an uncanny resemblance to similar patterns in other areas where counter-insurgency operations are taking place. Much like the Special Police Officers (SPOs) in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the so-called Ikhwanis have been deployed in Kashmir to outsource some of the security forces’ shady work to desperate local youth. These armed youngsters are often out of control and supplement their “official” work with criminal activities, such as extorting money or settling scores. Feared and reviled by the local population, they often end up being killed. Some of them were tortured or liquidated by their own handlers in the security forces, after they turned inconvenient.
The Structures of Violence report does not deal with atrocities committed by the militants – that is not its subject matter. However, it is clear from some of the testimonies that militant outfits also commit atrocities from time to time. In Kashmir, as elsewhere, armed struggle has often had a corrupting influence. Judging from the report, it is not uncommon for youngsters to join a militant outfit with high ideals but later find themselves misusing their power, turning informers to protect themselves, joining the Ikhwanis, or returning to civilian life as corrupt politicians. The structures of violence extend beyond the state, but the state has a special responsibility to abide by the law and democratic principles.
The atrocities described in the report happened in the past, from the early 1990s onwards. As I pored over it, I kept asking myself whether the same methods were still being used today. When I put this question to one of the JKCCS volunteers, she said, “Of course!” If things have actually changed, let the government show some evidence of it, and also prosecute those responsible for past atrocities.
Jean Dreze is a visiting professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.