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Targets of frustration in Kashmir

Locals say Indian security forces are killing civilian men in their attempt to put down the insurgency.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2000



SRINAGAR, INDIA

For more than a year, since a 10-week, Pakistani-backed fight in the Himalayas, Indian security forces have been engaged in a quiet but all-out effort to crush the decade-long militancy in the troubled Kashmir valley - which last week witnessed a massacre of 103 people in a single day.

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Hopes for peace in Kashmir rose then fell when on Aug. 8 a fragile cease-fire and talks between the largest Kashmir militant group and the government of India were called off. Hizbul Mujahideen leaders demanded Pakistan be part of talks - something New Delhi refused.

Yet in this 98-percent Muslim valley, which represents the main source of contention between nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan, people have little faith in any quick fix.

The chief grievance on the streets of war-weary Srinagar is the almost daily occurrence of "custodial killings" - the practice of picking up men who then "disappear" or are killed, with no responsibility taken by the accused security forces. Some 3,000 such cases have been recorded since 1996 in the valley, according to lawyer Pervez Imroz, who organized in June the first human rights conference in Kashmir in a decade.

The killings have begun to galvanize local opinion against the central government in New Delhi. Dozens of Kashmiri groups with names like "Parents of Disappeared Persons" have sprung up. Farmers, students, civil servants, and housewives can recite chapter and verse of the latest case. "Killed in the crossfire," or "killed trying to escape" - often the official explanation for deaths - have become ironic code phrases among locals.

Young male targets

At 12:30 a.m. on a June night, for example, four white jeeps arrived at a home in a suburb of Srinagar, the capital. A dozen men wearing hooded masks ordered the family out of the house and asked for identification. When Mushtaq Ehmed Bhat gave his name, he was taken away, according to witnesses.

Mr. Bhat, like many young men in Kashmir, was a militant in the early 1990s. But he had renounced his militant past and was married with two children, living in Calcutta, visiting his family in Kashmir only in the summer. Bhat's relatives filed a report the next morning, but police denied any knowledge of the detention. Bhat's brother-in- law, Riaz, a policeman himself, hired a local official to intercede with a bribe. But for three days no word came.

On the morning of the fourth day, Bhat was found tortured, with four bullets in his back, lying face down on a street outside Srinagar.

In the family's packed living room two days later, Riaz offers an unusual angle on a typical sentiment here: "I am a soldier, a law-and-order man, but now I am depressed about what is happening."

Like everything in the Kashmir dispute, the killings are part of a complex and murky struggle for authority. They take place in a near-war situation - one in which militants from both Pakistan and Kashmir target Indian forces. Some cases are due to sheer frustration on the part of Indian soldiers who face a bewildering spectrum of suspected militants and sympathizers. Yet especially in rural areas, many killings are considered part of the overall year-long crackdown after the intense mountain-peak conflict called the "Kargil war" of last spring and summer.

What greatly angers local Kashmiris is that victims increasingly include the innocent.

After more than a decade of struggle, Kashmiris tend to know who is an active militant and who is not, says Madhu Kishwar, a New Delhi-based researcher. In three recent fact-finding trips to Kashmir, "people expressed anger and outrage [over custodial deaths] only when the person targeted was actually an innocent or had really given up terrorism and was trying to rebuild a broken life," she notes.

At the same time, basic conditions in Kashmir have improved: Indian Border Security Forces and Special Operations Groups no longer openly shoot Kashmiris on the street as they did some years back. Nor are the much-hated counterinsurgency forces - former militants now working with India - continuing to kill and rampage in the countryside as they did a few years ago. (One reason - a new set of underground militants is targeting them.)

Local Indian official agrees