November 9, 2000


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Dilip D'Souza

Harm done to us

Over the last several weeks, a vigorous, even heated, argument has played itself out in the pages of Outlook magazine. Oddly enough, it was set off by a series of three articles that were not even in Outlook, but had appeared in the Hindu's Sunday magazine and later (in slightly modified form) in the New York Review of Books.

The writer Pankaj Mishra (Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, The Romantics) wrote those articles. They were about Kashmir. Outlook's regular columnist, Prem Shankar Jha, did not care for some of the things Mishra said. He wrote a column to explain why. Mishra had a response. Jha responded to that. Then both Vinod Mehta, Outlook's editor, and Anita Pratap, another of the magazine's columnists, commented on the exchange and on the issues Mishra had raised in his original articles. Both criticised Mishra, if not as sharply as Jha had. And Outlook has been swamped with letters about the whole affair. Most criticised Mishra, even more sharply than Jha had.

And what had Mishra said in those articles that stimulated all this? He wrote them after a visit to Kashmir, and he explores various aspects of the whole tragic mess in that state -- ranging from its history to the steady toll of Indian lives it gobbles up. In particular, Mishra went to the village of Chitisinghpura the morning after the massacre of 35 Sikhs there on March 20, during Bill Clinton's stay in India. In wrenching detail, he describes the tragic scenes of sorrow, rage and bewilderment he saw there. And then he comes to the point that had the critics racing for their keyboards.

"The Sikh association formed to protect Sikhs after the killings," writes Mishra, "has begun to talk about the possible involvement of Indian security forces [in the massacre]. ... There is a new and growing suspicion that the massacre in Chitisinghpura was organised by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton ... into taking a much more sympathetic view of India as a helpless victim of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Strong stuff, no doubt. Indian forces, massacring their own countrymen? Jha devoted his October 2 Outlook column to an outraged reaction to just these sentences in Mishra's article. Mishra "establishes guilt by association," he wrote, and "makes this breathtaking assertion without citing an iota of proof." Many of Outlook's readers felt similarly: going by the letters the magazine has printed, Mishra's critics outnumber those willing to believe what he says, 4 to 1. Vinod Mehta (October 30) expressed doubt that the Sikhs' suspicions could be true because "it is difficult to imagine that such a dastardly crime perpetrated by the state on its own citizens ... has not leaked out -- even as gossip -- in our very leaky republic." Anita Pratap (November 6) wrote of the Jha-Mishra exchange: "All this back-and-forth hurling of abuse and innuendo does not clarify the crucial question: who did it? ... Who is responsible for the Chitisinghpura massacre?"

Then there's this from Jha to consider: Mishra's NYRB article, he said, has "done India great harm."

I'll leave you to agree or otherwise with that. I'll leave you to discover the rest of the arguments all these eminent writers made. And I'll also leave you to make what you will of Mishra's reporting of Sikh thoughts in Kashmir. For something else altogether is buried in all this and it scares me that it does not give us greater pause than it has.

It is true, we have no idea who actually killed those Sikhs in Chitisinghpura. But we do have a very good idea about another aspect of that March tragedy. Mishra talks about it in his article, in far more detail than his mention of Kashmiri Sikh suspicions. Jha refers to it, but only in passing. None of Outlook's readers who wrote scorning Mishra touch on it; neither do Vinod Mehta and Anita Pratap.

And what is it that I'm getting at? I need only quote that passing mention from Jha's October 2 column: "The security forces and the Kashmir police picked up five innocent young men ... killed and burned them and claimed that they were the foreign militants who'd committed the killings [of the Sikhs]."

Yes indeed. Only days after the Chitisinghpura murders, Indian authorities triumphantly announced what they called a "major breakthrough" in the case. The army and police claimed that in a March 25 "encounter" in the nearby village of Panchalthan, they shot dead five "foreign mercenaries" who had been identified as the killers of the Sikhs. That done, their bodies were quickly buried. Very efficient of the army and police.

Except that within three days, evidence and witnesses came forward to show who these "foreign mercenaries" really were. A recent editorial in The Times of India (November 2) commented: "In truth, the five 'foreign militants' were neither militants nor foreigners; they were all local civilians picked up in a random search and brutally killed thereafter."

Innocent local Kashmiris. Murdered by their protectors. Think of it and shiver. That's what I'm doing.

As Mishra writes: "The five men had been fired upon at close range, soaked with kerosene and then set alight. ... When the bodies were finally exhumed ... they were discovered to have been badly defaced. The chopped-off nose and chin of one man -- a local shepherd -- turned up in another grave. The body of a local sheep and buffalo trader was headless .. but was identified by the trousers that were intact underneath the army fatigues it had been dressed in. Another charred corpse -- that of an affluent cloth-retailer ... presumably kidnapped and killed because he was, like the other four men, tall and well-built and could be made to resemble, once dead, a 'foreign mercenary' -- had no bullet marks at all. Remarkably, for bodies so completely burnt, the army fatigues that they were dressed in were almost brand new."

(Aside: the army fatigues were necessary because the killers of the Sikhs came to Chitisinghpura dressed in fatigues).

If this wasn't horrifying enough, the police fired into a gathering of 5000 Kashmiris protesting these deaths some days later still. Nine more innocent Indians were killed then. Among them was the son of the cloth-retailer.

No doubt you can accuse Pankaj Mishra of reporting mere whispers among the Kashmiris he met. No doubt you can therefore choose to be sceptical about the inference he says some of them have drawn: that our own forces killed those Sikhs.

But what should you, what should any of us, say about the now accepted truth -- not talk, not inferences, but truth that has goaded a reluctant government to finally order an inquiry into these events -- that our own Indian security forces killed five ordinary Indians? Killed them, apparently, only to show how swiftly they had acted in response to the murder of the Sikhs? And if our forces could so easily kill these innocent Indians, should it be any surprise that there are some who suspect that they might also have killed the 35 Sikhs?

Kashmir is a profoundly emotional issue for many Indians, I know. We blame Pakistan for everything that's gone so terrifyingly wrong in that gorgeous corner of the country. This means that holding on to Kashmir has somehow become irretrievably knotted with our ideas of patriotism, our self-worth, our very identity as Indians. Knotted to the extent that it is impossible to question these notions.

Yet holding on to Kashmir has brought us to where we deliberately kill Indians and pretend they are foreign militants. Is it patriotism that lurks here? Or depravity? If this perversion is the price of keeping Kashmir, I am not willing to pay it. Are you? Will it even keep Kashmir?

What is happening in Kashmir? What is happening to us Indians?

Pankaj Mishra's article has "done India great harm", wrote Prem Shankar Jha. In Panchalthan last March, immeasurably greater harm was done to India. Surely, surely, I cannot be the only one who thinks so.

Dilip D'Souza

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