By Dean Nelson
Think of India and it’s all Gandhian saintliness, Ravi Shankar’s sitar, a whiff of incense and the feel-good beats of Bollywood Bhangra. These memories, sounds and smells conjure images of the world’s largest democracy, where tolerance and spirituality supposedly reign over realpolitik.
We don’t think of it as a country whose troops are jailing opposition leaders or placing them under house arrest, denying people the right to gather in prayer, beating children to death, or massacring stone-throwing protesters. The words “shoot to kill” are a grim relic from our own recent past, and certainly nothing we ever associate with India.
That’s why India is the world’s first “soft superpower”. It can barely do wrong for doing right, and if it does we don’t really want to know. As David Cameron made perfectly clear during his recent visit, we’re interested in India as the world’s second fastest-growing economy and by its contribution to the war on terrorism, but not how it treats its own people.
So despite the fact that 50 mainly young men and teenagers have either been shot or beaten to death in the last eight weeks in Kashmir; the two main separatist leaders have been jailed or placed under house arrest; that the Kashmir Valley has been locked down and the streets of Srinagar occupied by swaggering Indian troops who threaten housewives with big sticks, our leaders have remained completely silent.
Had these incidents been in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan, or had the victims been Tibetans revolting against Chinese rule, we would have called it a massacre. But India’s great “soft power” is that the world wants to think the best of it.
To that end, our leaders overlooked the 53 young men and teenagers who were treated for bullet wounds in just one hospital in Kashmir’s state capital, Srinagar, last week. They had been shot either for throwing stones during protests against killings by Indian security forces in Kashmir – or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in their own city.
This present wave of protests began after Indian soldiers shot dead three young Muslim men in the hope of passing them off as Pakistani terrorists and themselves as war heroes. They had lured them with the promise of jobs. A few weeks later a 17-year-old schoolboy was killed when Indian police fired a tear gas canister at his head.
Last week I interviewed Fayaz Ahmad Rah, a Srinagar fruit seller, as he mourned the death of his nine-year-old son, Sameer. Neighbours told me they had seen members of India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force beat him to death with sticks and then dump his body in stinging nettles. The CRPF claims he was in fact a protester and that he had been trampled by other demonstrators as they fled a police advance.
Fayaz said his son had been walking through their usually safe tiny back lanes to his uncle’s house 100 metres away after stopping to buy sweets. When he washed his son’s body for burial, there was a half-chewed toffee still in his mouth, he said.
Over the last eight weeks a round of teenage civilian deaths, protests and more shootings followed by further protests has sucked Kashmir into a bleak vortex. But since it began, not a single member of India’s security forces has been shot or killed. It couldn’t be a more unequal contest.
Luckily for India, it happened in Kashmir where the words “Muslim”, “Pakistan” and “militants” shield what is either bad marksmanship or a shoot to kill policy from scrutiny and criticism.
This decision to look the other way only fuels the anger in Kashmir. From his home where he was being held under house arrest last week, separatist spiritual leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told me India had turned Kashmir into a “police state” and that British politicians and others were turning their back on it.
He had not been allowed to go to his mosque for more than six weeks, while other separatist Hurriyat leaders were also in jail or under house arrest. In many mosques throughout the state, only men over the age of 50 – regarded as beyond their stone-throwing years – have been allowed to meet to pray.
“It’s a direct interference in our religious affairs, a situation in which in a muslim state, if we’re not allowed to pray, the Muftis will say we have to call a war on the state,” he said.
Those demonstrating are part of a new generation born into violent protest which has seen leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq sacrifice their credibility for talks with India, which came to nothing. “People now ask the question ‘you went for dialogue, what did you get? Did the killings or violence or disappearances stop?’ All it did was undermine the credibility of those who wanted, like me, to give dialogue a chance,” he said.
He believes India is not sincere about talks and is only interested in continual delay in the hope that protests and the desire for Kashmiri independence will peter out.
India has its own arguments, of course. It focuses on earlier killings and “ethnic cleansing” of Kashmiri pandits, and the reluctance of Buddhist Ladakh and Hindu and Sikh majority Jammu to follow the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley into Pakistan or independence. It criticises the refusal of separatist parties to take part in state assembly elections.
These are valid points, and I certainly don’t have the answers to a problem which has blighted India and Pakistan and provoked three wars between the nuclear enemies since their independence from Britain.
But I do think Britain might come to regret its silence and India its troops’ brutality. We risk alienating the remaining friends we have in the Muslim world and within our own substantial Kashmiri community in Britain. India risks losing the tremendous goodwill it had built up throughout the world over decades.
The Kashmiris, on the other hand, have little left to lose: the world has forgotten them.