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Many Atrocities Continue in Kashmir - 2003-11-22

Fighting between separatist militants and Indian forces in the Indian state of Kashmir has raged since 1989, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians. Not everyone is killed in combat, however. Human rights groups blame both the Indian government and the militants for many deaths and injuries. Shots ring out as a unit of India's Border Security Forces patrols a village outside Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar. The soldiers, about two dozen in all, spring into action, encircling the area where they suspect the firing came from.

"We send a party which cordons the whole village, so the militants who are holed up inside, they are not able to go out of that village," explained Deputy Commander Aseem Sharma. "After that we ask them to surrender. If they don't, then we have to go inside and eliminate them or make them surrender by force. As our first priority, we ensure that no civilian is injured or hurt in any way from our side."

Minutes later, the soldiers burst into the house where they think the militants are hiding. They emerge with two prisoners, who are led away for questioning at a nearby base belonging to the BSF, as the Border Security Forces are known.

Two arrests without injury, no civilians caught in a crossfire, the whole operation carried out to perfection. This, however, was only a training exercise. The reality in Kashmir is not always so neat.

Kashmir, split between India and Pakistan, has been the center of tension between the two South Asian rivals for more than 50 years, with both claiming the entire region. In 1989, Islamic militants launched a separatist insurgency in the approximately two thirds of Kashmir that falls within India's borders.

India charges that Pakistan supports militant groups that cross the border to carry out attacks on the Indian side - a charge Pakistan consistently denies. While the debate rages, more than 60,000 people have died in the violence, some 14,000 of them civilians.

The conflict is not confined to the battlefield. The human rights group Amnesty International has documented thousands of cases of summary execution, rape, torture, and the death of subjects in custody. Amnesty says these often come at the hands of the Indian military and the BSF, but it says the militants are guilty of many of the same crimes.

Last year the state government enacted the "healing touch" program, a plan intended to help the victims of human rights abuses, and to hold accountable those who commit the abuses. The programs include reviews of security operations carried out by the military and BSF, strengthening the state's own human rights commission, and reviewing cases of individuals detained for long periods of time without trial.

Mehbooba Mufti is the head of the People's Democratic Party, one member of Kashmir's ruling coalition. She acknowledges that the security forces have a history of abuses in the state, but says her government's emphasis on human rights through "healing touch" is making progress.

"We have tried to see that the level of the atrocities is brought down to zero," said Mehbooba Mufti. "Which hasn't happened as yet, but it has come down drastically, and we're also trying to give a good and clean administration. I'd say that's how it is."

Amnesty International applauds the Kashmir authorities for making human rights an issue, although the group's India director, Vijay Nagaraj, says there is still a long way to go.

"There are several commitments the government has made as part of the 'healing touch' policy which are yet to see the light of day," he said. "That is strengthening the human rights commission, reviewing all cases of custodial killings and violations of human rights, and making sure investigations are conducted and persons responsible identified are brought to justice, ensuring that people involved in past human rights abuses are brought to account."

But some say human rights campaigners expect too much of Kashmir's security personnel. Brahma Chellaney, of the New Delhi-based think-tank the Center for Policy Research, says human rights abuses will not end until the conflict itself is over.

"So it is a vicious cycle, there is no easy way to break out of it," said Brahma Chellaney. "But certainly when security forces - their lives are on the block every day, they are always fearful of getting killed, there are ambushes taking place daily. In that situation, it's very difficult even if political leadership in Delhi instructs the security personnel. The fact is the security personnel will do what they need to do to protect their lives."

A real BSF patrol later on the same day as the training exercise is entirely uneventful: no shots are fired, no suspects apprehended, nobody injured. It is just a routine operation by soldiers, in a conflict beyond their control, trying, if they cannot makes things better, at least not to make them worse.

All photos in this story portray Indian soldiers during anti-terrorist exercises