February 5, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

'Cease-fire doesn't mean anything for us Kashmiris'
'Cease-fire doesn't mean anything for us Kashmiris'

The slaughter of six Sikhs on Saturday and the resultant ongoing curfew in parts of Srinagar have set back the peace process initiated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Kashmir, once again, appears to be moving towards its prior status.

The changes, say Kashmiris, started a few days before Republic Day.

It's 1730 hours IST on a windy day in Srinagar, cold and a bit cloudy, but otherwise fine.

On the footpath along Residency Road, slushy with Sunday's snow that has melted in the 10 degree Celsius of Monday's sun, vendors are packing their wares -- cheap woollen socks, sweaters, jackets and caps -- into gunny sacks.

There is a cease-fire on, you know. So do they. But they prefer to reach home before dark.

"Haalat to bahut kharab hai (The situation is very bad)," says a vendor, without breaking his activity. "We need to get home. There will be checking in the night."

Nearly 10 weeks and two extensions into Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cease-fire, Kashmir is moving towards its earlier status.

An obvious indication: The return of frisking and vehicle checks, albeit with reduced frequency, in the capital city. A walk through the famous Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of Kashmir's political activities, convinces you it is a continuing process.

Saturday's slaughter and Sunday's curfew, that has spilled over to the next 24 hours, cap off a change that started a few days before January 26.

"Cease-fire doesn't mean anything for us Kashmiris," says Ahmad, a textile shopkeeper in the Pratap Park area. "It has not brought about any changes on the ground. After sunset there is still no life for us. We have between 8 am and 6 pm to do everything we need to do."

"Cease-fire? Where's the cease-fire?" asks Zafar Meraj, editor of the Kashmir Monitor, a prominent daily. "It is yet to cross the Banihal pass (that connects Kashmir with Jammu and the rest of India). Crackdowns are on, custodial killings are on -- so what's this cease-fire?"

There are many who voice this opinion. Does that mean there has been absolutely no change in the situation?

Well, there is some easing, they admit. "Unnees-bees ka faraq hai (There is as much difference as there is between 19 and 20)," is how one puts it.

The truth, as usual, is a cross between the claims of New Delhi and Kashmir. If the latter strives to put across that the Valley is calm and mostly contended, the former paints a picture that is one hundred per cent black.

There were susceptible changes on the ground initially: More freedom of movement, curtailed offensive activities despite the rejection of the cease-fire by the militants and no frisking on the roads. All of which had pooled to ease the harassment that the ordinary Kashmiri was facing from security personnel every day.

"You can put down our initial euphoria to this," reasons a government servant. "But, after Republic Day, the restrictions are returning."

There is one gentleman in Jammu and Kashmir who appears bent on hijacking Vajpayee's peace process. And that is the state's chief minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah.

He had followed the truce offer with statements calculated to cause trouble. Thus had come the one about shooting militants, as there is "no space in the state jails."

"He is worse than Pakistan," fumes Ahmad.

Many civilians have been killed. An estimate puts the number at 123 till January 31, of which 18 are allegedly custodial killings.

The latest is the slaughter at Mehjoor Nagar. This, in turn, was spurred by the murder of Bilal Ahmad Khan, an auto-driver, whose death led to violent protests in Srinagar.

Local people blame the J&K police's special operations group for Khan's death.

"Farooqsaab has succeeded in what he set out to do," says a Kashmiri journalist. "To the people, it doesn't matter whether it is the SOG or the army. For them, a killing is a killing and they put it all down on India's account."

"If India is serious about the process, why doesn't it rein him in?" asks an educated, politically aware Kashmiri.

Peace and the chief minister, as a keen Kashmir watcher in Delhi points out, cannot exist side by side. For, if there is peace, Dr Abdullah will not survive as CM. It is as simple as that.

Travel out of Srinagar, say the local people. Go to the villages if you want to see the difference that the cease-fire has not made.

One notes a marked change on the way to Baramulla, a hotbed of militancy. On that 60 km road, this correspondent's vehicle is not stopped even once. Neither are any others as far as one can make out, though one does see makeshift check-posts. But in the cold, dingy, ill-lit surgical ward of Baramulla district's hospital, one comes across painful proof of a brutal truth. Cease-fire and its benefits, for whatever reasons, have not percolated the far-flung villages in Kashmir.

Shah (not his real name) is from a village that will have to remain unnamed for now. He lies on his stomach.

He is, in medical terms, suffering from "soft tissue injury" -- a roundabout way of saying he was severely beaten up. His relatives lift his sweater and shirt; the extent of his injuries is horrendous. His back and buttock is a frightening mass of bruises.

His doctor says he is a prime candidate for renal failure. This is his story:

"The army came for searches on the evening of January 30. We were in the masjid. They called us out and asked us to accompany them for house-to-house searches. They took me and another person to a room and started beating us up. There were six of them, armymen and the SOG. They took turns with the sticks. They kept asking us, 'Where are the militants?' I didn't know, I was in the masjid."

After a long time -- as Shah says, "Who keeps track of time when all you can feel is pain, saab?" -- his tormentors left.

"I was semiconscious... My family members came later and took me home and then, after the cordon was lifted, brought me here."

Lone (not his real name) lies on a nearby bed; he is another victim from the same village. He has two small wounds on his feet, surrounded by a blackened area. The result, you are told, of a way of torture, wherein the security personnel cut you up just a bit and apply salt.

"My three brothers and I were called out in the morning. It must have been around six... There was a lot of firing outside, so we were staying inside. It was very cold. They threw us into a nallah (gutter) and started kicking and beating us up. They asked us where the militants were."

You know what his answer will be, but you ask anyway: Were there militants in the village?

"I don't know, I did not see any," Lone says.

Abu (again, not his real name), like Shah, has soft tissue injuries, but not as bad. He says the village was cordoned off in the evening.

"We were asked to come out of the house at around 6.30 pm," he says. "There was firing from all sides... Later they started beating us up asking for the whereabouts of the militants... No, I don't know whether there were militants... They are carrying out offensive operations and then claiming that they were fired upon and were retaliating."

Before you leave, Abu sums up the feelings of his villagers: "The cease-fire only happens in cities. In rural areas, it has no meaning."

The army officer involved in the search operation in Abu's village, say the cease-fire has not brought any real respite. "We are on duty and as alert as we were before," he says. "What it has meant, on the ground, is that we have completely stopped our offensive operations. We still continue our patrols in and around villages, but no cordon-and-search operations. We have stopped even routine vehicle checks -- we do that only if we have specific information."

You bring up Lone's plight. "They showed you their bruises, eh?" he says. "Well, what about the 15 inch crater in one of my boy's thighs?"

The officer says his personnel came under fire in the village when they were on a routine patrol. "Yes, after that we did cordon off the village and carry out searches." There were militants in the village, he continues (a claim later verified by sources in Srinagar), but they managed to escape.

"They told you about their being beaten and their bruises," says the officer. "See, these are the colleagues I have lost permanently -- what will I tell their families?" But should such beatings be inflicted on people who were, perhaps, innocent? Ah, well, this is Kashmir.

You stop for a few minutes at Handwara. Located on the road to Kupwara, this village has seen a lot of trouble.

"There is some respite," say the people here. "Earlier they would not have let you park your vehicle here, as this is a road through which army convoys pass. But we have to do road duty even now."

Road duty? The locals are only too happy to enlighten you. Every morning, they say, two people from a house have to "help" the army sanitise the roads. Which, in essence, means that two civilians walk ahead looking for mines and such, while army jawans and their mine detectors bring up the rear.

"This is not a new phenomenon," say the villagers. "This happens in many villages around here."

A little later you are in Sopore, one of the most sensitive villages in Kashmir. As in most parts of the valley, people are only happy to speak to the media.

"We are happy that there is a cease-fire on," Ahmad, an elder says, voicing the opinion of many around him. "Who does not want peace? But there is only superficial changes. There was some relaxation earlier, but it is getting bad again. If the BSF wants to kill us now, they can do that without any trouble. Even today, if someone throws a grenade, we know we will get beaten up."

The people of Sopore, Ahmad continues, are now beginning to believe that Vajpayee's offer was a mere PR exercise. If not, he says, why is there so much confusion about letting the separatist Hurriyat Conference members leave for Pakistan?

"Cease-fire was the first step," says Ahmad. "If Hindustan grants passports to the Hurriyat, we will believe Vajpayee is serious. So many experiments have been done in Kashmir. Consider this another experiment. Let us see what they can do. If Vajpayee really wants to bring peace from the bottom of his heart, he can do it. But we fear the people around him will not let him do so."

Design: Dominic Xavier

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