The Indian state has routinely practiced torture as an institutional method of control in Kashmir, according to a report documenting 432 cases, in which 70% of victims were civilians, between 1990 and 2017.
The report was released by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an amalgam of research and advocacy organisations based in Srinagar, and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an advocacy seeking to end involuntary and enforced disappearances in Kashmir, in February 2019. Torture qualifies as a war crime as per the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Geneva Conventions.
The report, endorsed by former United Nations (UN) special rapporteur Juan E Mendez, accuses the Indian state of violating international human rights law by practicing torture against civilians, destroying property such as homes, and causing widespread psychological distress.
“For the worldwide struggle against torture, this report will constitute a landmark,” Mendez wrote. “It is to be hoped that it will be an example to other civil society organizations in India and in other countries, as a model for dispassionate and precise language, even when discussing tremendously tragic suffering.”
Jammu and Kashmir is considered among the most militarised regions in the world, indicative of an alarming human rights situation. JKCCS estimates that 650,000-750,000 Indian troops are present in the state; Ajai Shukla, a defence expert, contested those numbers in July 2018, estimating the number to be 470,000 instead.
Another 38,000 were deployed in early August 2019, bringing the presence between 700,000 and 800,000--more than one armed forces personnel per 15 civilians, as per JKCCS’s figures.
On August 29, 2019, the BBC reported that civilians in Kashmir had complained of being tortured by the Indian security forces since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019.
The JKCCS report relates to the period between 1990 and 2017. Its release comes at a time when Union home minister Amit Shah, on August 28, 2019, suggested that the police do away with the age-old third-degree torture and adopt new, more scientific methods of investigation.
However, the report has received no coverage in the mainstream Indian media. The two largest newpapers in India, The Times of India in English and the Hindi Dainik Jagran, with a combined readership of nearly 90 million, have not covered the report to date, despite reporting on allegations of torture carried out by the Indian security forces and publishing more than 3,000 stories on Jammu and Kashmir this year, an IndiaSpend analysis has shown.
The home ministry, The Times of India, and Dainik Jagran did not respond to emails for comment sent on August 25 and 29, 2019. This story will be updated when they do.
Some experts view the report as indicative of a general disregard for Kashmiris’ human rights, particularly since Article 370 was removed. “Given what has happened since August 5 [the abrogation of Article 370], what rights? What humans? The way they’re being treated, the very idea of human rights for the people of Kashmir is an absurd farce,” said Nitasha Kaul, associate professor of politics and international relations, University of Westminster, London. She is of Kashmiri origin.
Others said the report must be seen in the perspective of the situation across India.
“I don't think this [torture] is a special practice of the Indian state in Kashmir,” Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend. “It is well known that torture is widely used by police forces across the country. Of course, it does not serve the interests of the Indian state. To the contrary, it negatively impacts it.”
Among the report’s findings: 27 of the 432 cases studied (6.25%) made it to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), of which 20 received favourable recommendations; in 2017, the state government accepted seven of the 44 compensation recommendations the commission made. The government has accepted 58 of the 229 recommendations (25%) made by the commission since 2009.
The report alleges that armed forces in Kashmir are responsible for the destruction of civilian property and life, alongside causing significant psychological distress due to the practice of torture.
In 1993, Mohammad Shafi Hajam, a barber from Anantnag, was questioned by armed forces regarding the whereabouts of weapons, the report documents. Despite initially denying any knowledge, following extensive torture, he revealed the location to be a ditch near his shop. The next day, the army made all surrounding inhabitants including Hajam enter the ditch, filled with human refuse, to find the weapons. Upon not finding anything, an army officer slammed Hajam’s head onto a rock, causing him to lose a few teeth. He was subsequently taken back to the camp and continued to be tortured, the report added.
Based on the responses of each case, the report found three major reasons why people were tortured: as a punitive measure (50 victims, 12% of the total), a method to gain information, mainly about militants (118 victims, or 27%), and a means to elicit confessions (11 victims).
Some victims said they provided false information to their interrogators just for respite.
One of the victims documented by the report, from Anantnag, said he was doused in petrol and set on fire. Another, Bashir Ahmad, claimed that boiling water was poured on his back.
Torture methods documented in the report include physical brutalisation, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation; and being forced to remain in uncomfortable positions such as aeroplane posture, burned, coerced to ingest contaminated substances and get in unhygienic contact with animals. All of these count as war crimes as per ICC rulings.
Some 326 of the 432 victims studied reported being beaten by sticks, rods and belts. Another 93 people claimed that they were physically brutalised, including the smashing of glass bottles on their faces. One person reported being kicked down a hill.
Nearly 70% or 301 of the total victims studied were civilians, of which 258 had no political affiliations. Twenty were political activists, six were students, three journalists, two human rights activists, and 12 associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a politico-religious activist group banned by the government in March 2019 for its “close touch” with militant outfits.
Civilians were mainly targeted for information regarding militants, or in response to militant activity in neighbouring areas, the report said.
Nearly 119 victims were militants (28%) and five were former militants (1%). Two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Police were found to have been tortured.
In the cases where militants were tortured, the report stated that most of the cases of arrest were not registered with the local police on the day of arrest. Doing so is a requirement under point six of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
In 32 cases, the report found that the families of the victims were targeted in addition to the victim. Article 3 of the Geneva Convention states that those “taking no active part in the hostilities” must be treated “humanely,” specifically prohibiting “violence to life and person” and “outrages upon personal dignity”. The principle is also mentioned in the ICC guidelines regarding war crimes.
Further, 27 of the 432 victims studied were minors, of which one was female.
From a total of 1,086 juvenile detentions from September 2013 to April 2017, 623 (57%) were for pelting stones, the report found.
Lasting effects on victims
At least 222 victims of the total 432 (51.4%) reported health complications from being tortured--209 reported chronic health problems, frequent aches, fatigue and sexual impotency; 49 reported acute chronic ailments such as cardiac issues, nephrological problems, internal organ injuries and amputations. All 222 victims said they had been bearing the costs of healthcare by themselves, without any compensation or support.
Sixteen victims reported dislocated joints, in addition to 15 respondents who had suffered fractures. Three people had to undergo amputations after being tortured. One victim, Mohammad Qalandar Khatana, said that he was forced to eat the cut flesh of his buttocks, after which his legs were broken. He wasn’t provided with any medical assistance. While imprisoned, his legs got infected by maggots, following which they had to be amputated.
At least 49 (11.34%) victims died during or after torture, of which 40 died due to injuries sustained due to being tortured, such as ruptured lungs, and a perforated liver and intestines. Eight were shot dead after being tortured, whereas another one was poisoned.
Around 42 (18.9%) victims suffered from various psychological disorders after being tortured, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, insomnia, and dementia, according to the report.
Earlier, a mental health survey undertaken in December 2015 by Medecin Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) said that 19% of Kashmir’s population showed several symptoms of PTSD; 45% of the population, or 1.8 million adults, in the Kashmir Valley suffered from significant mental distress; 1.6 million or 41% exhibited symptoms of severe depression.
Victims often poor
Aside from the physical and mental impacts of torture, a significant facet of torture is its economic brutality, as the victims are often underprivileged, the report said. The wife of one victim, Din Mohammad, met the initial costs of her husband’s treatment by begging for money in 1999.
Many victims it documented were manual labourers, who were unable to resume their occupation due to the significant physical distress caused by torture, the report said. At least 31 victims reported an inability to perform any physically exhausting labour; almost all of them previously farmers or manual labourers.
At least 36 victims (8.3%) and their families lived in abject poverty because of the loss of livelihood or the death of the breadwinner of the family, the report said. Four families have subsequently died due to their dire situation.
Twenty five cases also involved the payment of bribes ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 2 lakh to various agencies to secure the release of their loved ones, or to protect families from relentless harassment.
Report ignored by mainstream Indian media
In February 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) compiled a report stating the necessity to “control” the mosque, madrassa, print and TV media to enact effective “perception management”, The Indian Express reported. The report listed TV channels and newspapers as pro- and anti-India, recommending that the former be promoted while the latter “discouraged”.
The Indian Army’s doctrine on sub-conventional operations of 2006 notes that such operations are “essentially information campaigns”, emphasising the importance of the government, the security forces and the civilian population understanding the campaign in the “correct perspective”. This makes the role of the media critical.
The JKCCS report acknowledged that the primary challenge while researching torture is under-reporting, due to the reluctance of victims to reveal details, and the political hurdles faced by journalists. The Indian government has repeatedly withheld permission from several journalists who wished to work in Kashmir; Greater Kashmir reported on one such prominent instance in August 2019.
“The Indian government is interested in perception-management, not in actually finding a solution, because the dominant lens with which they see Kashmir is an Islamophobic one, and because their own idea of India is to capture the state and convert it into a Hindu nation, in line with the Hindutva ideology,” said Kaul.
“To call it a perception-management strategy is perhaps to overstate it, because the emperor has no clothes. The situation is clear to everyone globally, outside the hypernationalist Indian televisual bubble. India’s narrative has no ground to stand on anymore,” Kaul added.
As we said, despite the report on torture being the first ever comprehensive documentation on the subject, the dominant media in India have not covered it to date.
The Times of India, the largest English-language newspaper of the country with a readership of 15.2 million, despite publishing one story almost every two days on the state, did not cover the report. In 109 stories covering Jammu and Kashmir as listed on their website, over eight months between the start of 2019 and August 27, the word ‘torture’ was mentioned only four times. The word appeared four times in a single story, which covered the Indian Army denouncing allegations of torture and excesses committed by the Indian security forces by Shehla Rashid, member of the Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Movement, as “baseless” and “unverified”.
Similarly, Dainik Jagran, the largest newspaper in India with a readership of 73.6 million, published 3,296 stories on Jammu and Kashmir from January 2019 to late August 2019--almost 14 stories per day, but did not cover the report released on torture. However, it also covered Shehla Rashid’s allegations, on August 19 and August 20, and the case filed against her for doing so.
Coverage of Jammu and Kashmir, per se, spiked during August 2019, the month in which the abrogation of Article 370 was announced, for both these newspapers, our analysis shows.
“In all of this, the signs of optimism and prospects for peace is the humanity and resilience of the Kashmiri people. Prospects for peace can only come from millions of people who are going to read, think, know and understand what cannot and must not happen,” Kaul said.
No government action on previous reports
In June 2018, after protests erupted following the killing of Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) terrorist outfit, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the United Nations released a report on the human rights situation in Kashmir for the first time.
The security forces had killed 130-145 civilians between July 2016 and March 2018, in addition to 16-20 killed by militant groups, the report noted. In a subsequent report published in July 2019, the UN body reported that the security forces had blinded 1,253 people with the use of metal pellets from mid-2016 to the end of 2018. The government had detained over 1,000 people between March 2016 and August 2017 under the Public Safety Act (PSA).
The OHCHR said it had asked India for access to Kashmir to monitor the human rights situation, but the government had unconditionally refused.
“India has not allowed international monitors since it views Kashmir as an internal issue,” Joshi said, adding, “Second, it would be embarrassed by the findings.”
Some 4,000 people have been detained in the state since the abrogation of Article 370, The Hindu reported on August 18, 2019. The Public Safety Act violates several clauses of international human rights law, an Amnesty International report of June 2019 showed.
“Where else do you have protestors being blinded by pellet guns, or an entire region being collectively punished by a siege? They [the Indian State] are doing it [blocking international monitors] because they can,” said Kaul.
Earlier, in 2016, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a US-based human rights NGO that documents human rights violations around the world, reported that the Indian state had obstructed access to medical care for protestors, prevented medical officials from treating injured protestors, and intimidated doctors and patients at the hospital. Security forces had destroyed 200 ambulances in the same year, another JKCCS report had found.
Denying civilians access to humanitarian aid or attacking humanitarian workers is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime as per the guidelines of the International Criminal Court.
There existed at least 2,700 unknown, unmarked graves containing more than 2,943 bodies across 55 villages between November 2006 and November 2009, a report by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK) documented, including photographic evidence. In November 2017, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) reportedly ordered a DNA probe into 2,080 unmarked graves in the districts of Poonch and Rajouri, but no information is available on any follow up.
(Mehta, a second-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, is an intern at IndiaSpend.) Republished with permission from IndiaSpend