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.
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
Yet so quickly have cases of custodial deaths piled up, and so angry is the population, that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, considered here to be a partner of New Delhi, is for the first time complaining about excessive force. Mr. Abdullah's statement followed the killing in June of a shopkeeper who was pulled out of his car at a checkpoint while coming home from a party with five others - and shot dead by Border Security Forces minutes later. Riots and a strike took place in Srinagar for two days.
"What we are seeing in Kashmir looks like a 'Khalistani policy' of total crackdown," says a senior Western diplomat familiar with the region, referring to the massive operations conducted by the Indian Army in the late 1980s against a militant Sikh Khalistani uprising. "But unlike the Khalistani case, which had some local support, the Indian Army has no support among the Kashmiris."
The issue has galvanized an emerging set of populists here who meet under the title of All-Parties Hurriyat Conference - and who have more local respect than Chief Minister Abdullah. Even Hurriyat leaders such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, known for his moderate positions, speak with zeal against custodial killings: "There is a systematic genocide of the younger generation of men," said Mr. Farooq in an interview after six young men in the Sopore region were killed in May. "This is not a coincidence.... It is a well-thought-out approach.... These things are happening. I'm not exaggerating."
Official probes are often announced when, for example, "unidentified gunmen" shoot civilians. But they are rarely if ever made public, and almost always are completed years after an incident. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are not allowed to keep offices in the valley - though local Kashmiris say they would welcome their presence.
Experts say the custodial deaths seem measured so as to keep fear and psychological pressure high in the valley - but not so high that it becomes a cause clbre outside the valley. Many incidents occur in villages, well out of sight of the press or credible sources. By the time word spreads, the stories are often exaggerated or distorted. Many times, the victims are not entirely "innocent" - they may have ties to the insurgency, as many people here do, though in varying degrees. (For example, some of the six killed in Sopore, who were identified as Tabliques - an Islamic sect that is strictly non-political - turned out to have militant ties.) By the same token, some of the worst cases of abuse against innocents have not been told.
Human rights office overwhelmed
Two years ago, in what was seen as an attempt to defuse local anger over excessive force, the state formed a Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission. Chaired by a cheerful former Supreme Court justice, A. G. Kucchai, who sits in an office with two bodyguards, the commission is seen by those Kashmiris who know of its existence as ineffectual and lacking real teeth.
Since 1998, the commission has accepted some 700 cases, and sent more than 250 to the high court in Delhi as clear cases of abuse: killings, rape, torture, property damage. None are brought to trial due to laws governing "disturbed areas" in India. But Mr. Kucchai is allowed to recommend compensation for victims. So far, none of the cases have been compensated, Kucchai says, adding that he would "welcome an office of Amnesty International here, but it would not be acceptable to the [central government]."
Kucchai's small staff can't adequately investigate the small flood of petitions brought by the line of people outside his office. But last year he chose a case to symbolize the bulk of his work. He shows 10 stuffed folders and a 120-page report on the alleged custodial killing of Fayaz Ahmad Beigh, a photographer.
In 1998, Mr. Beigh was picked up by a special task force after a wedding party. Police officials acknowledged the detention. But when he was not released, his father made inquiries. The police at first said he had escaped. Then the story changed. The police said Beigh was killed in the crossfire in an encounter after he led police to an arms cache.
"What we say is that the police, by foul means, made him to disappear," says Kucchai. "We did not accept the police version.
"In their story, 30 people, soldiers, were part of the so-called encounter. Yet no soldier was killed, no bullet holes found anywhere, in any of the vehicles surrounding the encounter. After a lot of investigation, we said they made up the story to ward off trouble."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society