Losing Sight of Civilian Protection in Kashmir

In the last days of September of 2016 the armed forces of India conducted what it called “surgical strikes” against claimed terrorist targets inside Pakistan. Though the term “surgical strike” conjures up images of relatively small, precise and limited air strikes or small special-ops missions like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, the term doesn’t have a precise definition. Indeed, Pakistani officials have stated that rather than pinpoint and limited strikes, India’s attacks amount to aggression in violation of one of the basic tenants of international law. To that end Pakistan has stated that an Indian soldier captured during fighting would be considered a prisoner of war, evidencing Pakistan’s belief that its engagement with India constitutes an international armed conflict under the Geneva Conventions. These strikes come in response to an attack by four heavily-armed militants against an Indian military installation in the area of Uri located in the troubled Kashmir border area between Indian and Pakistan.

The issue of Kashmir goes back to the independence and division era of India and Pakistan’s history. After gaining independence from the U.K., it was agreed that the new nation would then divide into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan, though each country is home to a large number of the non-dominant religion. The area of Kashmir, rich in resources and natural beauty, became the focal point of Indian/Pakistani competition. Indeed, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, including the Indo-Pakistani Wars of 1947 and 1965, as well as the Kargil War in 1999. The area is still technically disputed territory, where India claims control over a significant portion of the territory and considers the rest “Pakistani Occupied Kashmir,” a claim that Pakistan roundly rejects.

Given this disputed status, and despite the rich resources and high tourist potential, Kashmir has slid into economic disarray – unemployment remains high, economic opportunities are difficult to cultivate, and continued clashes between militant groups and security forces disrupts normal economic flows. This tends to have a feedback loop effect, and only serves to create more dysfunction and periods of severe unrest which then leads to more militants and thereby exacerbates the continued pressure. Eventually this pressure builds to a point that cannot be contained and violence results. Civilians then bear the brunt of this violence.

This holds true for the recent events in Kashmir. After the 2014 victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, and a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party in the Kashmir area, many in Pakistan felt that alternative political space had all but closed. As new rounds of protests began in early July, an operation by Indian Security Forces resulted in the death of Burhan Wani, a popular resistance leader in Kashmir. This only increased the number, intensity, and militancy of the protesters. Several prominent separatists (those seeking separation from India either to be incorporated by Pakistan or to remain independent) and other resistance leaders called for marches and strikes across the region.

According to several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Indian security forces in the area responded to these marches and strikes with disproportionate force. Though the overwhelming number of those in attendance at these rallies are civilians armed with (usually) stones or bricks (though there have been reports of grenades being lobbed at security forces), Indian security forces have used of tear gas, and most notably, pellet guns to disperse crowds. These pellet guns, touted as non- or less-than-lethal alternatives to live rounds, pose significant risk to the eyes, and hundreds of civilians have been treated for eye related injuries as a result of being hit with pellet guns. Indeed, two civilians have even died from wounds received to the eyes from these pellet guns.

In September of 2016 four militants breached the perimeter of an Indian Security Forces base in Uri and attacked the area with incendiary rounds, setting ablaze the tents which made up the majority of the structures on the base. In the subsequent fighting 19 Indian soldiers were killed, escalating the already tense strain between India and Pakistan. Since then, allegations of complicity on both sides have been levied by Delhi and Islamabad against the other. In response to the attack India stepped up its actions against what it perceives as additional terrorists elements, even inside Pakistan. However, the attack reinforced Indian security force’s aggressive tactics in dealing with civilian protesters.

The toll of this fighting has left more than 70 people including 2 policemen dead. Besides those who have tragically lost their lives the numbers of those injured is staggering. Over 11,000 people including more than 7,000 civilians as well as 4,000 security personnel have been injured in the unrest in Kashmir in three mere months of unrest. Though credit is due to both Indian and Pakistani actors in their attempts to de-escalate the situation, the continued acts of provocation, both in rhetoric and kinetic actions, will only serve to leave more desperate civilians in the area in risk of continued harm.

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