Jeffrey Stern

Fire in Kashmir

14 December 2009 | Foreign Policy

Fire in Kashmir

Today in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) announced the result of its investigation into the deaths of two Muslim women in a Kashmiri village this spring. The report was no less disturbing to the people of Shopian, a community a few hours outside of Srinagar, for being foreseen—since shortly after the bodies were discovered in May, the government has stuck by the theory that the women drowned, and were not raped and murdered, as most people in Shopian believe.

In response to the findings, the husband of one of the deceased burned a copy of the CBI’s report in front of the Jammu and Kashmir High court, and when news of the report reached Shopian, the town took to the streets in protest. “People are getting angrier,” said Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer and member of the Majlis committee coordinating the community’s response to the deaths. “And in thecoming days there will be protests, strikes, and shutdowns. Everybody worries about violence, no body supports violence, we only want to register our peaceful protest. But how can the people control themselves when the people beating them are the same policemen who have perpetrated this crime? In many cases it’s the security forces who do not allow people to come on to the streets and register their protest.”

At the time of the deaths this spring, rallies for independence and rejection of “Indian hegemony” sprang up all over Kashmir, and though no one really knew the facts, it was simply accepted allover the valley that one way or another, India was culpable for both the crime and cover up. A handful of Indian intelligence organizations and as many Kashmiri separatist groups operate in Kashmir, so there’s enough intrigue to send even the most sober mind into fits of conspiratorial speculation. Having visited the river where the bodies were discovered over the summer, I personally found it difficult to fathom how anyone could have drowned there—the river was only inches deep where the bodies were found. An improbable explanation, however, is obviously not itself evidence of complicity in a cover up, and a shallow river is not proof of a plot to protect rapists and murders. What actually happened this spring in Shopian, though, seems almost secondary. The little village that sends apples and cherries around the valley has become a totem of the renewed fervor for independence in Kashmir,and what happens there resonates throughout the valley. The CBI report will confirm conclusions—correct or otherwise—about the Indian government’s attitude towards Kashmiris.

Muslim party leaders and separatist figures have seized on the alleged double rape-murder case as a cause célèbre, convenient testimony to the separatists’ moral superiority over their “Indian oppressors.” Syed Ali Shah Geelani, head of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and a major Kashmiri separatist leader, was jailed in June for leading protests against the alleged rape and murder in Shopian, and then escaped from police custody to give an address there in October. Separatists have appealed to the international community for anindependent inquiry, the only way they believe justice will be delivered. And,after all, the way they see it, an engaged international community might lean on New Delhi to address Kashmiri separatists’ grievances. 

Since the bodies were discovered, protests have become more frequent, flaring up whenever the Shopian case takes an unfavorable turn. As jurisdiction has shifted from one court to another—lateral movement disguised as progress, as far as the people of Shopian are concerned—patience has waned. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” the members of the Majlis say.

The Majlis was quite certain, quite quickly, that the assailants were members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and were quick to condemn them. “In our laws theyshould be hanged in public. That’s what the young people want,” another member of the committee told me when I was there this summer. “But at least use your laws. At least give us justice in your laws, respect your laws. Or leave us alone.”

Now, in response to the latest setback, The Majlis has called for a bandh, a complete shutdown all throughout Kashmir tomorrow. “We don’t believe on the findings of CBI,” Shakeel Ahmed Ahanger, husband to one of the deceased and brother to theother, told CNN-IBN. “They are all framed. I don’t trust them, I’ll show the government of India that it has not just raped Shakeel’s sister and wife; instead it has raped women of entire Kashmir. I will continue my agitation. I will show CBI that it has wronged entire Kashmir.”

Over the next days and weeks, we will see whether he’s right.

Found in: Pak-India

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