Kashmir’s Abu Gharaib?
Two days ago, I noticed a video posted by somebody on my facebook page. It was yet another video from Kashmir. It was tagged ‘brothers please watch, sisters please do not watch’. In later incarnations of the video, posted repeatedly on Facebook sites, Youtube channels and on blogs. it was tagged ‘Indian Security Forces Kashmiri Youth to Walk Naked on Road’ or ‘Kashmir – India’s Abu Gharib (sic)’.
The video was available on Youtube on the night of 8th/9th September, 2010, before being taken down.
Notwithstanding the misspelling of Abu Gharaib in these tags, there was something compellingly accurate in the designation. What I saw, and what i have seen unfold subsequently as a response by the Indian state to the circulation of this video, makes Abu Gharaib look like child’s play. Welcome to the virtual, viral, televisual reality of the nightmare of Kashmir.
For the past several weeks, I have been watching, and forwarding, several videos uploaded on to Youtube and facebook from Kashmir. Every video that I have seen contains evidence of the brutality of the Indian state’s footprint on the Kashmir valley, and of the steadfast yet resilient courage of its people, and of the innovative use they have been making of the internet to bear witness to their oppression.
See for instance – Innocent Man being Beaten in Kashmir.
I have seen paramilitary and police personnel open fire on unarmed or stone pelting crowds, mercilessly beat up young people and children, attack doctors, patients and nurses in hospitals, smash windows of homes, steal chickens and livestock and hurl the most vulgar invectives at ordinary people. I have watched the armed might of the Indian state retreat in the face of the moral courage of the opposition it encounters on the streets of Kashmir. It doesn’t take much to find these videos. Run a search with ‘Kashmir, Stone Pelting. indian Occupation’ on Youtube. Of follow the links and uploads on the growing cluster of Facebook pages from and about Kashmir.
But nothing prepared me for what I saw when I clicked on the video that said ‘brothers watch, sisters don’t watch’. I am a person who works with moving images. I think about moving images, about video. I watch all kinds of things. Not all of which are prettly, or edifying. But the sheer extent of humiliation that was visible in this video was not something that I was prepared to see, not even from Kashmir.
The video, not more than three minutes long, is a piece of uncut, unedited footage, in all probability (judging from the quality and resolution of the image) taken from a cell phone. It shows four young Kashmiri men, walking, across what appears to be freshly harvested fields (so it could be October-November, or, March-April) egged along by what appear to be paramilitary personnel and some policemen. Some of the security personnel wear khaki, some others wear olive green fatigues. One wears the black bandanna of a commando. Others wear helmets and caps. Some have bullet proof vests. The four young men they are ‘escorting’ are naked. They hold their clothes in their hands. From what one can make out in the video, their faces, reveal their acute shame, distress and embarassment. The paramilitaries and policemen taunt them as they walk. The main voice is that of a person who seems to be holding the device that is capturing the image. We hear him speak in perfectly legible colloquial Hindi.
“Move, Move, Move, Keep moving, sisterfuckers.”
“Raise your hands, I’ll hit you otherwise.”
“Your shoes are very good. Sisterfucker, (then we hear another, more muffled voice say what seems to be – “why are your shoes so dirty”)
“Fold your clothes, collect them, hold up the clothes” (so that the genitals are not covered.)
“The sisterfuckers have been making us run after them since the morning.”
“The police station is where we need to take them.”
The video does not appear to have been taken in the recent weeks. The fields have been harvested. It has to be either autumn or spring. But it has not been taken that long ago either. It has to be from after cellphones were allowed to be used in Kashmir, and after cellphones capable of shooting video became cheap, and popular, which places the incident, and it’s recording, roughly within the last two to three years. In some of the official and media responses that are beginning to trickle in, this business of ‘the video is not recent’ is getting some milage. As if somehow, the reality that the video portrays needs to be distanced from the current meltdown in Kashmir. Assuming that is the case, the implications of what the video shows become even more disturbing. It proves that a systematic humiliation of the Kashmiri population is part of the standard operating procedure of the security establishment of the Indian state in Kashmir.This is neither anything new, nor associated with the current wave of unrest. It has been in operation for several years now.
The banal violence of the scene is in some ways far more distressing than the images gun battles and blood on the streets that we have become accustomed to harvesting from the past few months in Kashmir. At least in the pitched street battles, we see, adversaries, albeit unequal adversaries, policemen, paramilitaries, soldiers one one side and the angry tide of stone pelters on the other.
Here, there are no adversaries. Prisoners are not in a position to be adversarial when they are surrounded by heavily armed men in uniform. What we see instead are unarmed captives, people who are in no position to threaten or endanger the security forces. That such people should be made to undergo a humiliation such as this is proof of the extent to which the forces of the Indian state in Kashmir have become bruatlized by the experience of serving in Kashmir.
They (the men in uniform) do not need to strip people naked and make them walk in public. There is something utterly, lethally gratuitous in their action. There is nothing that says that arrested or detained citizens should be marched to police stations without their clothes on, in public view. No imperative of self defence, defence of the realm, public safety and security, or the Indian constitution requires them to visit this indignity on the four young people in their charge. Nowehere is it indicated that one can behave like this even with convicted criminals, captured terrorists or undertrials.That they choose to act as they do only indicates that the laughing, taunting men in uniform see the four young men, and by extension, any Kashmiri that they can lay their hands on, as sub-human beings, as animals. By doing this, they only expose the extent to which they have allowed the state to turn them (the men in uniform) into racist, colonizing brutes.
The primary voice on the video betrays a calculated, cold, cynical disregard for human dignity. You can recognize that mocking tone, even if you do not understand the language, the moment you hear it. The paramilitaries are walking casually, one wears a commando’s black bandanna, others wear fatigues, some carry sticks, others carry guns. They walk at leisure, without any urgency, as if – parading captives naked through open fields, was a perfectly normal, routine thing to be doing in Kashmir. (which suggests, horrifyingly, that it is indeed a perfectly normal, routine thing to be doing). We have all heard (from ex prisoners, human rights activists and lawyers) that sexual humiliation of young men is a routine practice during interrogations in Kashmir. That men are asked to simulate sodomy on each other, and that they are photographed in the course of doing so, and that these images are held out as means of blackmail and intimidation. Contemporary definitions of torture have expanded to include non-invasive and psychological terror methods, foremost amongst whom is sexual humiliation. The sobriety of rural Kashmiri society is not geared to deal with the spectacle of the humiliation of naked young men being made to march out in the open. Such an act is bound to leave deep scars in the consciousness of whomsoever it has been perpetrated on and whosoever was unfortunate enough to have observed it. It is designed to do so.
Why do coerced nakedness and humiliation make such a perfectly repulsive pair? Perhaps because we think of being naked only with our selves, or with someone whom we can be intimate with, or who is able to care for us. Children can be naked to their parents, lovers can be naked to each other. A patient can be naked to his or her doctor. Or, one can choose, lucidly, joyously, to be naked, (the insane do not ‘choose’ to be naked, they simply ‘are’ naked) even in public, in moments of total abandon, when all inhibitions can be thrown away in a free act of the will. In the woods, in a river, by the sea, on stage. In any instance, being naked, somehow suggests a condition of freedom, or care, or intimacy. Something we freely enter into and govern for ourselves. It is this condition of intimacy and care that is twisted and turned inside out when nakedness is coerced. Coerced nakedness takes place in contexts that are the very opposite of intimacy and care. It invariably takes place in contexts that are cold, violent, brutally impersonal but horrifyingly intimate. This is a kind of nakedness that lays bare the darkest secrets of power. That it really doesn’t care about the humanity of the person in its clutches. In its transparency, what it makes most naked, is power itself. It is no wonder therefore, that this video will now stand alongside the images of naked Jewish prisoners being made to line up in Nazi concentration camps, and the disturbing legacy of the now, all too familiar images from Abu Gharaib.
That the uniformed representatives of the Indian state should choose to wear the nakedness of their violence with such pride and aplomb says something shocking and profound about the sheer immorality of India’s ongoing military occupation of the Kashmir valley. After this, it is not necessary to give even a shred of consideration to the frayed patchwork of arguments that constitutes the indian state’s line on Kashmir. And no, this is not an exception. The uniformed men in the video do not behave as if they were performing under ‘exceptional circumstances’. It looks like a jolly outing. A stroll with a few trophies, as casual as can be.
At the tail end of the three minute video. We hear a high pitched keening voices, and then mocking echoes, and laughter. The keening voice can be heard lamenting – in Kashmiri – “Hata Khodayo” (something like ‘Oh God’ ) several times. It is not possible to determine whether these voices are of onlookers, (perhaps of women and/or older men) or of the paramilitaries themselves. What is impossible to dispute is that the lamentations/mock lamentations are in Kashmiri, proving conclusively, that the incident occured in the Kashmir valley. All attempts at suggesting that the video is ‘not from Kashmir’ fly against the face of this fact.
In any case, we soon hear, in counterpoint to these ‘laments’, such as they are. We hear a set of mocking, echoing responses that mirror the music and cadence of the lamentations exactly as a chorus would echo a soloist. The chorus is interrupted by cackling laughter. It is as if the men in the uniform of Indian security forces were not content with the mere humiliation of bodies. That in fact, they needed to pervert and mock the ways in which a people mourn their indignities in order to extract the pleasure that they felt entitled to in the course of this grotesque incident. When even the lamentations of the Kashmiri people are not safe because of the predatory presence of the occupying force, then it is time for the world to sit up and say that we have had enough of the Indian state’s mayhem in Kashmir.
Characteristically, the video was pulled down, on both Facebook and Youtube, repeatedly, in the course of last evening, night and today. There was some discussion on different Facebook pages about whether this occurred due to the ‘nudity’ in the video. I too was persuaded for a while that this might be the case. But a quick search for nude content on Youtube showed up a whole range of things from Naturist videos to medical material that featured nudity. In fact there is a whole discussion on ‘Non Sexual Nudity’ on Youtube that indicates that it is not Youtube policy. The Youtube ‘Terms’ webpage makes no mention of nudity whatsoever. It is however Facebook policy to not have nudity on facebook videos and photographs.
Notwithstanding all this, the video repeatedly disappeared shortly after being posted on Youtube. And even posts of links to it, or discussions of it, began disappearing from Facebook pages. This suggested something more than the automatic application of ‘no nudity’ rules. It suggested what has been suspected for some time, that the Indian state, or some of its ‘organs’ – ‘lean’ on platforms like Facebook and Youtube to ensure that content that it problematic for its image simply gets erased.
Through much of last night. A concerted online effort across two facebook pages by a constellation of people who did not know each other prior to this incident made sure that the video was momentarily up on Youtube. Notices went out across facebook walls to download the video from the concerned Youtube site so that the video could have a distributed, viral presence across several hundreds, if not thousands of computers,. By the morning of Thursday, the 9th of September, the effort to ‘erase’ the video from public consciousness had failed.
News of the video (and responses to it) made it to newspapers like Greater Kashmir, websites such Aalaw-Kashmirc alls.org and even the Indian Express. The Kashmir based sites carried extensive reports, quoting the shocked responses of the people who had seen the videos. These included some responses from several people who are non-Kashmiri Indian citizens. The reprt on the Aalaw-Kashmircalls.org websites explicitly quotes reactions on Facebook walls.
” The video has sent shockwaves and stirred a debate among the tens of thousands of users on Facebook. The video shared by outraged Kashmiri youth with their online friends and contacts has evoked sharp condemnation from the Facebook users across the globe, including India. Some of the users have even compared the abuse of the alleged stone pelters by the forces with the prisoners of infamous Abu Gharib jail in Iraq.
“I am daughter of an Indian army officer. I’m embarrassed and shocked,” comments, Avleen Gill, a graduate from Saint Bede’s college
“Kaptaan Singh, a resident of North India’s Punjab state comments: “After looking at this video, I feel ashamed to call myself Indian.”
By the afternoon of Thursday, 9th September, the response of the state had changed. From attempts at erasure, the state moved into a state of denial, and characteristic intimidation. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram questioned the authenticity of the video on the grounds that the ‘people seen in it have not spoken up’. Leading some to say that were a mass grave of anonymous dead people to be discovered in Kashmir (as happens from time to time) , Mr.Chidambaram, would doubt the authenticity of the report on the grounds that the cadavers had not identified themselves or spoken of the circumstances of their deaths and burial.
On the other hand, a CRPF spokesman denied that such an incident could have taken place, beacuse in his opinion ‘it is difficult to keep even rapes secret in Kashmir’ (which involves the interesting tacit assumption that attempts are made, from time to time, to keep rapes secret). A spokesperson of J & K police, however, said that charges would be filed against Facebook, Youtube and all those who have uploaded and distributed the videos on the grounds of ‘maligning the forces’ by distributing such objectionable material. In the J & K police’s version, neither the authenticity nor the veracity of the video is an issue, what is offensive is the effort to circulate the material in question, because the contents of the video can ‘malign’ the forces. The varied wings of the indian state have displayed the full spectrum of ostrich like obduracy, from attempts at erasure to incredulity to denial to attempts at intimidation, but none of these efforts seem to be of any avail. It needs to be noted, that so far, the Indian state’s response to this scandal has been far short of the expectations set by international precedents. The US Army may not have come off with a shining reputation from Abu Ghraib, but the US Government realized the gravity of the situation and took action to punish at least the primary perpetrators of the outrage (even if those who dictated the policies that made the outrages occur went scot-free). The recent incident of a former Israeli conscript, a woman named Eden Aberjil who posted photographs of herself posing with blindfolded Palestininan prisoners attracted severe criticism world wide, including within Israel. Several serving Israeli women conscripts condemned Aberjil’s conduct in public and even the Israeli Army, (not an organization known for its sensitivity in human rights matters) took a stern view of the matter.
The Huffington Post report on the issue says -
“These are disgraceful photos,” said Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman. “Aside from matters of information security, we are talking about a serious violation of our morals and our ethical code and should this soldier be serving in active duty today, I would imagine that no doubt she would be court-martialed immediately,” he told Associated Press Television News. [Link]
Contrast these responses with the conduct of responsible officers of the Government of India, from the Union Home Minister downwards. If ever there were to be an ‘object lesson’ in how not to handle a situation like this – we will only have to turn to the conduct of Chidambaram and his minions.
As of now, the video is up, on distributed servers, in several locations and circulating, through emails, mms messages, bluetooth transfers, blog posts and facebook notices (not of the videos themselves any longer, but of descriptions and commentary). There is no way that the Indian state can any longer evade responsibility for the venality of its actions, especially as they are visible on this video.
Even if the state can set its house in order, speak in one voice, persuade the lunatics who run the army in Kashmir to see the pointlessness of making a fetish of the AFSPA, and announce some kind of tepid ‘package’ by way of an insult to the people of Kashmir on the occasion of Eid, then too, it will not succeed in fooling either the people of Kashmir, or the world. This one video, with the perfect timing of its appearance, has succeeded in pulling the fig leaf off the true character of the Indian state’s rule in Kashmir as nothing else has. It has exposed how the state acts, it has shown us that the state is ‘leaking’ information about its own misdeeds, and it has proven that the resistance in Kashmir and about Kashmir is getting increasingly sophisticated. If the state wants to prevail, it can do so only by recourse to massive armed force, or fraud and dissimulation at a hitherto unimaginable scale.
As of tonight, the mainstream Indian media has not covered this incident with the seriousness it deserves. Neither television, nor print media have tried to look beyond the state of denial that the home minister is in, vis-a-vis, this scandal. If this were any other civilized country, there would be immediate demands for his resignation. If such demands do not gather force, we will demonstrate how far we are as a nation from being civilized. The conduct of the Indian security forces in Kashmir threatens to make barbarians of all Indians in the eyes of the world.
I do hope that even all those who consider themselves to be genuinely patriotic Indians will be disgusted by what the video reveals about Indian might in Kashmir. If they hold their patriotism in the slightest regard, then, they should realize that the continuing occupation of Kashmir, which breeds perversities such as this, is only a blot of shame on what they hold dear as the fair name of their country and on their patriotism. I hope that they will find it in themselves to act with the honour that they take pride in, and refuse any longer to be complicit, willingly or unwillingly, in the nightmare that haunts the waking and sleeping hours of the people of Kashmir today.
(Apologies for cross-posting on the Reader List and Facebook.)