Kashmiri boys and young men are regularly rounded up by Indian military and police. They are often sent to gaols in India, thousands of kilometres from their home, where it is nearly impossible for their families to visit them.
This speech was given at a function for Kashmir Solidarity Day 2020, held at the Pakistan High Commission in Canberra.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing fights for justice.
Thank you to the organisers for the invitation to speak today, February 5 – Kashmir Solidarity Day -a day marked around the world.
This year’s Kashmir Solidarity Day has great significance – it is the first time that this important occasion has been held since the Indian government locked down seven million people in the Kashmir Valley. These people are shut off from the rest of the world. The Indian government took this extreme action to hide the full extent of the crimes they are committing against the Kashmiri people.
Tonight we need to speak out about these crimes.
Firstly a comment about how I come to be speaking tonight. When I was a Senator I was asked to speak in the federal parliament about the Kashmiri situation. On reading up on the issue I felt quite ashamed of how little I knew about this struggle. I was surprised with myself as I have had a keen interest in international politics since I was 15.
I made the speech and followed it up in 2018 with a visit to refugee camps in Kashmir. The saddest thing for me was meeting family members who had not seen their loved ones for decades. Many described to me about standing on the banks of the river that divides them and waving and shouting above the roar of the river to family members on the other side. I have three children and five grand children and the thought of my family, of any family, being divided like this is painful to even think about.
Many other stories from the refugees I met on that visit were harrowing to hear – about disappearances, pellet gun shootings and beatings by Indian troops. The pain they spoke about stretches back decades.
On August 5 last year life became much harder for the people of Kashmir and Jammu. Without warning the public, without reference to the Kashmiri parliament or the Indian parliament, the Modi regime completely took over this region. The Indian government removed Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and special status. This means that Kashmir can no longer make its own laws, have a flag or its own constitution. Kashmir and Jammu are now completely ruled from Delhi.
India enforced a curfew and a communications black out on Kashmir and Jammu. This has meant little local media coverage of the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by Indian forces in this region. It is a fair assumption that with 50,000 additional Indian troops sent to Kashmir and Jammu in early August, which takes the total number of Indian military personnel to around 800,000, that the number of crimes have escalated. The job of the military has been to enforce severe travel restrictions; to lock up more than 300 political leaders and activists; and to staff the numerous security check points. And clearly harassing local people is a big part of what these troops do.
Arundhati Roy, the internationally acclaimed author who lives in Delhi, has described how local reporters at great personal risk have traveled widely to write up what is happening. This provides an insight into why the Indian government is attempting to censor news of their crimes.
These are Roy’s words – “… the news was of night-time raids, of young men being rounded up and beaten for hours, their screams broadcast on public-address systems for their neighbours and families to hear, of soldiers entering villagers’ homes and mixing fertiliser and kerosene into their winter food stocks. The news was of teenagers with their bodies peppered with shotgun pellets being treated at home, because they would be arrested if they went to a hospital. The news was of hundreds of children being whisked away in the dead of night, of parents debilitated by desperation and anxiety. The news was of fear and anger, depression, confusion, steely resolve and incandescent resistance.”
The current situation for people in Kashmir and Jammu is clearly shocking, but we need to remember that Kashmiris have been grappling with violence for much longer than the past six months.
A 1993 Human Rights Watch report stated that Indian security forces “assaulted civilians during search operations, tortured and summarily executed detainees in custody and murdered civilians in reprisal attacks”.
A 2010 US state department report stated that the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir had carried out extrajudicial killings of civilians and suspected insurgents.
The mental anguish caused by the brutality of the Indian occupation is extreme. I saw evidence of this when I spoke to people in the refugee camps. A 2015 survey by Médecins Sans Frontières found that nearly 1.8 million adults in Kashmir – 45% of the population – have shown symptoms of mental distress.
Today the overall health of people in Kashmir and Jammu is further deteriorating because of the Indian enforced curfew and communications shut down. Many hospitals are unable to obtain supplies, people requiring emergency assistance often cannot access services and those with serious health conditions are suffering as critical medicine supplies run low.
Kashmiri women carry a particularly heavy burden. Later this month on the 23 February it is Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day – an annual event inspired by the struggles of the survivors of mass rape in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora. These crimes occurred on the night of 23 February 1991. While the girls and women of their villages were raped the village men were subjected to horrific torture.
Human Rights Watch in its 1993 report found that despite the widespread evidence of sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian army and paramilitary forces, few of the incidents are ever investigated by the authorities and no prosecution of alleged rapists in the military or security forces has occurred.
Physicians for Human Rights and Asia Watch have conducted investigations into rape by the military in Kashmir, documented in their report “Rape in Kashmir”. Medicin sans Frontieres has reported that 11.5% of Kashmiris have directly experienced sexual violence, many of them repeatedly. Complaints to the police however are rarely registered and investigations and prosecutions for these crimes virtually never take place.
The lack of investigations is because the Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives troops and security forces effective immunity from prosecution for serious human rights abuses. This law is in force in Kashmir and Jammu. Numerous reports, including from UN experts, have called for the repeal or at least a review of this Act. This has not occurred.
In recent months the Indian government has talked up the restoration of communications and has issued “normalcy” declarations.
Despite these assertions there continue to be numerous reports that Kashmir remains under heavy oppression – most classrooms are still empty, streets largely deserted, military check points continue to operate and foreign journalists remain banned. While some communications, such as land lines, have been restored that is a meaningless gesture.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry reports that about half a million local jobs have been lost and that the economy suffered losses valued at about $2.5 million US dollars over the first 120 days of the curfew. With many Kashmiri and Jammu businesses now reliant on the internet to receive orders, particularly from overseas customers, this down turn is expected to worsen. The Asian Review estimates that the economic losses to India since the 5 August crackdown have exceeded $1.4 billion US dollars.
So what is the future for Kashmir? I hope I am wrong but winning self determination for Kashmiris will be a long struggle. There is good news however – global support for the Kashmiri struggle is growing. In many countries, including Australia, there have been protests, rallies and forums supporting the call of Kashmiris for self-determination. Members of the United States Congress, the European Parliament and the British parliament, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Council have criticised the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir.
Recent developments in India are also significant for achieving peace and justice for Kashmiris.
The protests across India about that country’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill help to expose the dangerous path Modi’s BJP party are locked onto. While these are not protests about the Indian occupation of Kashmir there is a common thread here – opposition to the Modi regime’s plans to limit Muslim activities within India.
The bulk of the protests in India have highlighted the role of the Hindu-Right. I will just touch on this briefly because of time.
When I refer to the Hindu-Right I am referring here to the BJP and its parent organisation RSS, a nationalist, paramilitary organisation that promotes an elitist, Hindu only culture. The RSS founding fathers were inspired by the fascist leaders of the second world war and this influence continues to dominate. The RSS’s commitment to sideline or physically remove Muslims from political, social and economic life in India is a common factor in the Modi governments actions in Kashmir, in Assam and in the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In Assam about one million Muslims have been declared stateless, and the new national citizenship law enables religion to define citizenship. This will lead to Muslims being banned from becoming citizens and voting in elections.
I speak about these internal Indian developments as they help to expose the real intent of Modi and his forces.
Our focus must be to defend the human rights of the people of Kashmir and Jammu irrespective of their beliefs, to expose those who violate those rights and win the support of our governments to take a stand for Kashmiri self-determination.
Here in Australia we have a serious problem with the Morrison government. Despite requests they have refused to allow the Kashmir issue to be debated in the federal parliament and they refused to support Pakistan’s move to have the United Nations Human Rights Council discuss the matter.
The Australian government’s excuse for this stance is shameful – our government argues that this is a bilateral matter to be worked out by India and Pakistan. That is highly irresponsible – Kashmir and Jammu is the most heavily militarised region in the world. India, Pakistan and China are all nuclear powers. This area is a war flashpoint and that war could be nuclear.
Australia is a neighbour of this region. We must help to de-escalate the threat of war and to protect the human rights of all residents.
We can assist the people of Kashmir to win self-determination but to achieve that our voice needs to be consistent and loud.