Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

INDIA: Calls for Troop Reduction Follow Rape, Murder in Kashmir

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - The alleged rape and murder of two women by Indian troops in the remote Shopian district of Kashmir state has triggered renewed calls for demilitarisation of the Indian part of Kashmir, with street protests running for close to a month now.

The bodies of Neelofar and her sister-in-law Aasiya were discovered in a stream on May 30 – a day after they went missing, sparking off massive protests across the state.

The agitations come at a time when relations between India and Pakistan – which have divided Kashmir but lay claim on the entire territory – seem on the mend.

Kashmir has remained a bone of contention between India and Pakistan ever since the two countries achieved freedom from British rule and were divided along religious lines in 1947. Presently one-third of Kashmir’s territory is with Pakistan while the rest is under Indian control.

Ever since the partition Kashmiris have urged India and Pakistan to resolve the issue in consultation with them. An armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir has also been going on since 1989. More than 60,000 people are reported to have died in the conflict as per official estimates.

India and Pakistan had started a peace process in January 2004 to resolve all outstanding issues including the contentious, Kashmir issue. Barring a few minor hitches, the composite dialogue continued till the Mumbai terror strikes on Nov. 26, 2008.

India has accused "some elements in Pakistan" of masterminding the attack which had the effect of bringing the composite dialogue between the two countries to a halt. However, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Yekaterinburg-Russia on Jun. 16. Interestingly, Singh raised the issue of terrorism and asked Pakistan to deliver on the promises to combat terror as demanded by India. Both leaders agreed to resume the stalled dialogue.

"Of course, terrorism has become the core issue between India and Pakistan, but delivering on Kashmir on the part of India is as important as delivering on terrorism is important for Pakistan," says Prof. Gul Wani, a political scientist at Kashmir University.

"Having more troops in Kashmir at a time when a peaceful political movement is going on here, is going to have a negative impact on India’s image as one of the major powers in the world," Wani told IPS. "It is very difficult for a democracy to fight a peaceful protest movement by military means."

Hamida Nayeem of the Kashmir Centre for Social-peace and Development Studies (KCSDS) contends that "the recent spurt in human rights violations, which has seen people getting humiliated and killed should serve as an eye- opener for the government of India" that the situation is grave.

"All these incidents should be convincing enough for them to start troop withdrawal at least in the civilian areas," says Hameeda adding that the culprits behind the Shopian incidents should be handed down exemplary punishment.

"Since the officials of the Indian military claim that there are only about 800 militants left in Kashmir, then where is the need to maintain more than 500,000 troops in Kashmir?" Hameeda argues.

Wani extended the conduct of two peaceful elections – one for the state assembly and also the general elections – as additional reasons why the time was right for troop withdrawals.

Intriguingly, the government employees’ Joint Action Committee (EJAC) has also thrown its weight around the troop-withdrawal demand saying the government should initiate measures for withdrawing security forces from civilian areas.

In fact, government employees have joined the peaceful protests wearing black armbands as a mark of protest against heavy troop deployment in rural areas which they said was responsible for Shopian- like incidents.

"More than the government servants, we are human beings and the natives of this land. We feel that the presence of security forces in civilian areas creates a situation wherein unfortunate incidents occur," the president of EJAC, Abdul Qayoom, told IPS.

Troop withdrawal, release of political prisoners and revocation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) are among demands being consistently made by separatist leaders.

The head of a faction of Kashmiri’s main political alliance, All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference (APHC), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said: "New Delhi should start immediate measures for withdrawing troops from Kashmir in a phased manner and revoke AFSPA. Apart from this political leaders should be allowed to hold public contact programmes."

Mirwaiz and other separatist leaders including the chairman of another faction of the APHC, Syed Ali Geelani, Liberation Front Chairman Yasin Malik and several other leaders from the pro-freedom camp have either been put under house arrest or sent to jail after the Shopian incident triggered widespread agitation all across Kashmir.

The government has ordered a judicial probe into the incident and its interim report filed a week ago suggested that action should be taken against police officials for "destroying evidence" and possible involvement in the crime. Accordingly the state government ordered the suspension of five police officials on Jun. 22.

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