Kalashnikov culture

October 27, 1994

Bilal Noor was more than an hour late for work this morning. Senior lecturer in law at Srinagar University of Kashmir, he faces a series of arbitrary and humiliating searches by the paramilitary Indian Border Security Force on his short journey to work. He is late most mornings.

"Every Kashmiri is facing routine and systematic harassment at the hands of India everyday," he complains. "We face curfews, crackdowns, searches, extra-judicial detention, torture and even cold-blooded murder. The young and the intelligentsia are targeted. It is easier to be kept as slaves if we are kept docile, illiterate and uneducated."

The leafy campus of the university was once one of the world's most beautiful. Overlooking the lotus pools and meandering shikara paddle boats of the Dal Lake, and framed by the rich green rambling Himalayan foothills, its serene beauty is shattered by the intrusion of the military.

Grimy grey-baked mud and sandbag bunkers, crudely trimmed with lashings of razor wire, nestle uneasily in shady corners. The barrel of a Kalashnikov protrudes from every orifice.

A soldier stops a passing student and nonchalantly empties the contents of his bag on to the ground. He rifles through its contents, finds nothing incriminating, and leaves the boy scrambling to retrieve his belongings. The soldiers clearly expect to be occupying the campus for a long time. Some have decked their bunkers and barricades with provocatively inappropriate pretty pot plants and flowers.

The Indian military, whether the Border Security Force or the regular army, has been in Kashmir since the state, virtually autonomous during the British Raj, was involuntarily ceded to India at partition in 1947. The Kashmiris were denied the plebiscite they had been promised to decide their own future, and now the predominantly Muslim state faces rule and dominance from the Hindu government in Delhi.

In 1987, after the electoral defeat of the United Muslim Front in Kashmir, the freedom movement spontaneously erupted in its present form, ensuring the vicious circle of Kashmiri rebellion and Indian reaction. Far-reaching Indian anti-terrorist laws have impinged on the life and freedom of every Kashmiri and provoking growing concerns from international human rights groups.

Last year, Parvais Hakim, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Students' Association was detained without charge or trial for three days in a security force interrogation centre. "They gave me electric shocks on my private parts and burnt me with cigarettes," he recalls. "At times it was beyond my comprehension whether I was on earth or in the sky. They wanted me to implicate militant students but the JKSA renounces violence in the freedom struggle."

Recently an International Committee of the Red Cross was denied permission by the Indian government to visit an interrogation centre.

Hakim was released without explanation or apology. "A fear psychosis has developed in our minds," he explains. "From one moment to the next we don't know what the soldiers might do. Students are arrested every day, many never return." Hakim began his two-year masters course in business studies in 1991. Three years later he has completed only two semesters.

The administration at the university is at a virtual standstill. The redress of student and staff grievances is almost impossible. In August, the Kashmiri student union groups jointly released a statement condemning Agit Kumar, university vice chancellor, for the disintegration of their educational institution. Kumar has not set foot on the campus in the ten months since he took office.

Professor Bilal has never met his vice chancellor. "He is a bureaucrat, a Hindu, and Indian and has no real academic background," he complained. "He is operating from miles away and his attention is hopelessly divided." The previous vice chancellor was an academic, a Muslim, a Kashmiri involved in the campaign for Kashmiri human rights. He was asked to leave three months before his term ended.

Officially, the vice chancellor's position is a temporary arrangement. This leaves him rather impotent. "I had to wait three months for permission to attend an academic conference in Delhi," said Professor Bilal. "It came too late. It's ridiculous. It's convenient to call it an ad hoc position when things need to be done but how can it be ad hoc when he been in office for ten months?" The vice chancellor was unavailable for comment.

Student protest is virtually out of the question. On July 31 last year, thousands of students staged a protest on the campus condemning random arrests and the rise of custodial deaths in the valley. Hakim led the demonstrators. "We raised slogans against the army and called for freedom," he said, "we were baton-charged and tear-gassed. Forty students were injured."

In October last year many students were among the 32 civilians killed by indiscriminate firing on a 1,500 strong demonstration at Bijbehera against the army's siege of Hazratbal shrine. "We still try to stage protests," says Hakim. "But many students are just too scared. Everyone knows someone who has been killed."

Martyrdom is depressingly common among the Kashmiris, with the inevitable consequence of increasing militancy.

In August this year, 17-year-old Amjad Bhat was leaving his tutor's home, having taken an extra curricular lesson, when he was taken into detention by the Border Security Force. Ten days later his dead body was handed over to his family. The post-mortem revealed that he had died of excessive torture. "He had marks around his neck where they had tied a rope," explained his father. "He had bruises on his back where he had been beaten with the but of a rifle. His arms were badly cut. My son was tortured to death."

Amjad's family and his tutor insist that the young man had no connections with militancy. "The only reason they took my son was because he was a good Muslim. He wore his beard with pride and was healthy and robust. The brutes are destroying our youth. Its not just oppression, it is genocide. They're forcing people into militancy."

Ghulan, codenamed "Doctor", picked up the gun and joined the Jujahadeen and the freedom fight at the age of 20. He crossed the border illegally into Pakistan and onto Afghanistan for his military training in 1990.

Ghulan was studying to become a doctor, hence the affectionate codename he was given. His parents had saved to send him to medical school but his father was killed. Now his life is dedicated to the freedom fight. He is ready to both kill and to die for Kashmir.

There was nothing inevitable about Ghulan's future as a militant guerrilla. "I took the gun as a last resort," he explains. "The Kashmiris have tried and tried to motivate India to give us the right to self-determination, but they will not listen to the language of the ballot. All they understand is the language of the bullet. I could not stand by and let them crush Kashmir."

He displays his kalashnikov with deep pride and palms a grenade with alarming indifference. He is used to the killing. "In India it is forbidden to slaughter the sacred cow. They face a severe penal code, yet the Indian paramilitary can kill dozens, hundreds of Kashmiris and nobody asks any questions. As long as we are oppressed, we will never give up the fight."

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