Image: Shishir Bhattacharjee
Image: Shishir Bhattacharjee

States of denial

How increasing militarisation of Southasia’s conflict zones has led to severe human-rights violations.

In 2012, Asia overtook Europe in arms spending. Five Asian countries were among the world's top arms importers of which two, India and Pakistan, belonged to Southasia. Others in the league were China, South Korea and Singapore. Since 2012, the world registered a decline in overall military expenditures, yet Asia marked a 62 percent increase in defence spending. Rising military expenditure in Southasia has been an area of concern for a long time and has been reflected in the defence-versus-development debate: while directing ever higher levels of national resources towards defence, both India and Pakistan continued to figure towards the bottom of the Human Development Index.


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Many studies on militarisation focus on its economic effects, highlighting the link between defence spending and underdevelopment. Relatively less examined is the overlap between militarisation for external defence and the use of the military for domestic repression. Indeed, over decades, rising military expenditures within three major Southasian democracies – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – has reflected the increased use of the military within state borders.

Postcolonial countries in Southasia replicated their colonial masters in the consolidation of military power in order to strengthen the enterprise of nation-building. Military consolidation for external defence, however, paralleled the rise of powerful popular dissident movements within the nation; and led to the creation of domestic conflict zones where organised violence became the means to overcome any popular challenge to government authority and legitimacy. For instance, India's emergence as one of the world's top arms importers during the 1980s and early 1990s intersected with the emergence of a Kashmiri movement for self-determination. Similar struggles for greater autonomy, most notably in Nagaland and Manipur, were already under way in the northeastern region during this period. In Pakistan, a state-led 'war on terror' post-9/11 justified the purchase of vast arsenals of military hardware, especially during the rule of Pervez Musharraf. This military expansion was concomitant with a renewed phase of nationalist struggle for greater sovereignty in the natural resource-rich albeit poverty-stricken Balochistan, and the rise of armed Islamist militant groups opposed to the state. In Bangladesh, military rule and consolidation bolstered a government-backed Bengali settler policy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), violating the rights, livelihood and dignity of its indigenous population. In each instance, the consolidation of military power for external defence went hand in hand with the use of the military for domestic repression against ethnic minority populations unwilling to submit to the centralised hegemony of their respective nation state.

Indeed, Southasia presents convincing empirical evidence of the inverse relationship between national military spending and the protection of human rights. As nation states sought to resolve political challenges through military means, they created a gross imbalance of power between citizens and the state. For example, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all have domestic zones of conflict with millions of citizens living under conditions of relentless repression and the denial of fundamental rights and liberties. From the extraordinary denial of the universal right to life, to citizen security and justice, the empirical realities of Southasia point to a systemic crisis, in which a situation akin to martial law exists within these conflict zones, without the government-in-question needing to declare it as such. As narratives of 'national security' justify militarisation for both external defence and domestic repression of citizens, the resultant shift of power to the military facilitates regulation of the social order by the latter, and the rationalisation of extra-legal security practices, especially in times of mass rebellions against the state. This creeping power of the military, as Mark Neocleous argues, marks "a shift from the regulation of the military within the state to regulation by the military of the social order on behalf of the state."

This creeping power of the military marks "a shift from the regulation of the military within the state to regulation by the military of the social order on behalf of the state."

If democracy has anything to do with people, the human condition in Southasia's conflict zones calls for greater attention to the overlap between state-centric constructs of national security and the states' use of militarily-backed repression including terror, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing.

Law-making violence
Democracy is widely acknowledged as the Indian state's singular and most enduring achievement. This particular claim is rooted in a normative, macro-view of India as the most credible democracy in a Southasian region characterised by military intervention and authoritarian rule; and more recently, in constructs of India as an emerging economic power. Such a claim successfully masks the persistent and deepening inequality between citizens and marginalised social groups and elides the reality of a range of anti-state dissident movements by ethnic minorities. Also obscured by the narrative of India-as-emerging-power are the extra-legal practices and methods of repression used by security forces against civilian populations including terror, torture and rape. Legitimising the state of repression in conflict zones in India is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a piece of legislation providing impunity to security forces for human-rights abuses committed during security operations. In their written deposition to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) noted that:

India is awash in legislation that restricts fundamental liberties. Laws purporting to safeguard national security and public order have been employed to counter ambiguously defined threats. Applied over large swathes of the country – including Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east – these Acts contain provisions that are incompatible with the principles that form the basis of a democratic State.

Presently, over 50 million Indian citizens in eight states across the northern and eastern periphery of the country live daily life under patently undemocratic and extraordinarily repressive conditions even as India is, simultaneously, the world’s largest democracy. The use of terror, torture, rape, sexual abuse, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance by armed forces is not viewed as unconscionable, or understood as the flagrant breach of law and legality that it is. On the contrary, protecting the armed forces engaging in such practices is considered essential towards the maintenance of law and order and, by extension, to the survival of the nation itself. As state repression is legitimised as law-making violence, local resistance against the status quo is discredited and de-legitimised as law-breaking opposition and met with all the coercive power at the disposal of the national government. Ethnicities that have resisted and repudiated such self-serving interpretations of democracy, sought to be imposed upon them on pain of death, are subject to punitive violence and control – Kashmir being a classic case in point. In 1989-90, after decades of political manipulation and the subversion of democracy by New Delhi, Kashmir witnessed a militant-led armed rebellion against the Indian state. With the local population constituting the base of the rebellion, civilians became the targets of India’s heavily militarised counteroffensive in Kashmir. Sumantra Bose writes:

India maintains a huge, occupation-style military and police presence in Kashmir, totalling some 500,000 security forces in all… Checkpoints, cordon-and-search operations, beatings, humiliating verbal abuse, summary executions, rapes and custodial torture have transformed Kashmir… into one of the most oppressive places on earth. A climate of fear is pervasive. The villages and towns are full of embittered, deeply traumatized people, many of whom have suffered unspeakable brutalities, inflicted for the most part by Indian forces and allied militias…

In a damning indictment of the abuse of power by the state military personnel in Kashmir, the International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in India-Administered-Kashmir (IPTK) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) documented 214 cases involving 500 perpetrators, of which 235 army personnel and 123 paramilitary personnel were guilty of grave human-rights abuse. Highlighting the culture of impunity that forecloses all possibility of investigation and prosecution and, by extension, a modicum of justice for the victims, the report bears testimony to the great and enduring chasm between rhetorical claims to democracy in Kashmir and an empirical reality of brutal repression and terror. For instance, Mohammed Shafi Dar was taken into custody by 141st Battalion BSF during the night of 22-23 May 1990 in Srinagar. The victim was subsequently tortured and murdered though the family was told he died during interrogation. Upon filing of a petition in the Kashmir High Court, the BSF denied any role in Dar’s murder or disappearance.

As state repression is legitimised as law-making violence, local resistance against the status quo is discredited and de-legitimised as law-breaking opposition and met with all the coercive power at the disposal of the national government.

In another instance, in February 2000, Captain R S Tewatia of Rashtriya Rifles (RR), Bharat Bhushan, Sanjay Kumar and Shailender Singh (Special Police Officers) visited the residence of the victims at Nowgam, Doda district. They asked the two victims to make tea and ordered their family members to another room to record statements. The victims were then raped by Captain Tewatia and SPO Bharat Bhushan while the other two officers kept guard nearby. According to the report by IPTK and APDP, the case is “an example of the inevitability of the acquittal of alleged perpetrators as even when a court-martial finds a person guilty, ultimately the processes of justice appear to result in the denial of justice.”

A similar state of impunity prevails in the northeastern state of Manipur. In the joint memorandum submitted by the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights in Manipur and the UN (CSCHR) to Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in March 2012, Manipur’s human rights defenders noted the arbitrary and sweeping powers of security forces in the state:

 Confessions are extracted or constructed by taking signatures on blank paper, and statements or confessions under torture are regularly used in a court of law. The police officers and armed forces of the Union who practise torture can expect to escape punishment. Those arbitrarily detained and detainees are especially vulnerable to abuse… Sometimes, the detainees succumb to torture and the bodies are dumped at an isolated spot and claimed to have been killed in an encounter.

Civil-military relations
If India uses legislation to provide a carte blanche to security forces for human-rights abuse, Pakistan’s response to domestic challenges is mediated by a prolonged dominance of the military establishment that consistently undermined and impeded democratic processes and the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan. As a result of this history, Pakistan’s popularly elected governments remained weak and vulnerable to subversion by the military and its powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The disproportionate influence wielded by the military on politics in Pakistan is further apparent in the inability and/or unwillingness of the civilian government to end support for a range of militant groups cultivated by the military. As Pakistan was threatened and attacked by these very same domestically cultivated militant groups, the weakness of successive civilian governments became manifest in their inability to protect the lives of their citizens, especially those belonging to religious and ethnic minorities such as the Shia Hazara Muslims and Christians. The resultant breakdown in law and order occurred in tandem with political killings in Balochistan and Karachi, and widespread abuses by security forces including extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearance, noted Human Rights Watch in 2014. The continuing dominance of the military in politics appears to preclude any accountability or justice for victims of human-rights abuse.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to civilian oversight and control of the military is the ISI.  Generally considered to be the intelligence arm of Pakistan’s military establishment, the ISI seemingly flourishes without accountability. However, its policy of utilising militant groups as strategic assets to advance foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir rebounded with cruel irony on the country itself. As Pakistan joined the US-led war against terror in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, there emerged a conglomeration of militant groups hostile to the state and its armed forces. Pro-Taliban forces took control of significant areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa abutting Afghanistan towards the north. Along the border with Afghanistan, in Balochistan, in the province of Punjab, and indeed across the country in general, Pakistan became home to a range of militant groups that had turned against the state.

The Pakistani establishment in response used the spiralling violence to justify gross human-rights abuse against citizens. For instance, in the southern Pakistani province of Balochistan, local resentment at the appropriation of the natural resources of the province by the central government fuelled an insurgency, prompting punitive repression and disappearances by Pakistan’s armed forces, especially during the regime of General Pervez Musharraf. There was little accountability for abuses carried out by security forces. As a Guardian special report on the disappeared in Pakistan put it:

 They vanish quietly and quickly. Some are dragged from their beds in front of their terrified families. Others are hustled off the streets into a waiting van, or yanked from a bus at a lonely desert junction. A windowless world of sweat and fear awaits. In dark cells, nameless men bark questions… These are Pakistan’s disappeared – men and women who have been abducted, imprisoned, and in some case tortured by the country’s all-powerful intelligence agencies… The disappearances are increasingly perceived as Pakistan’s Guantanamo Bay – a malignant outgrowth of the ‘war on terror’.

Settler policies and land disputes
Much like Pakistan, Bangladesh was also subject to periods of military rule. Accordingly, the military in Bangladesh came to exert undue influence on political, social and economic affairs. Military dominance is most pronounced in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) – a region home to 11 indigenous groups in a resource-rich region. The CHT constitutes almost ten percent of the total area of Bangladesh and is inhabited by less than 1 percent (1.4 million) of the population. According to the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, over one-third of the Bangladesh Army is deployed within CHT with more than 400 police and military camps in the area and a history of relentless repression over decades.

Military dominance in Bangladesh is most pronounced in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) – a region home to 11 indigenous groups in a resource-rich region.

In its attempt to assimilate the indigenous people, the Jummas, within the predominant Bengali culture, the local population was subject to militarily-backed repression by the state. A guerrilla war broke out between state forces and the militant wing of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, a political entity representing indigenous autonomy that lasted from 1976 to 1997. The local population was subject to extrajudicial killings by security personnel and allied militias and a large number of indigenous people were displaced from their traditional homeland that was, in turn, occupied by state-supported Bengali settlers.

A 1997 Peace Accord led to a cessation of hostilities. Among other proposals, the Accord pushed for demilitarising the region, settling disputes over land, and regional autonomy. Despite the signing of the Accord, de facto military presence and repression by security forces continues. The rights of the indigenous inhabitants are yet to be implemented in practice. The refusal of Bengali settlers to vacate the Jumma land has led to clashes between both groups. The appropriation of indigenous land by non-indigenous people paralleled a high military presence and the harassment of indigenous citizens and human-rights defenders by security forces, according to a 2013 Amnesty International report. The Jumma-Bengali settler confrontation over land and resources in the CHT gave way to raids by the military, arbitrary killings, destruction of homes and property, disappearances, rape and torture. Kalashona, a tribal woman from CHT, recounted a dispute between Bengalis settlers and Hill people in 2003 during which the settlers:

…killed a man, wounded 25 others, raped nine women and torched about 400 houses rendering about 2000 Hill people homeless…On that fateful day she was working in the field when she saw fire in the neighbouring villages. People began to run in fear. The settlers and Army was… beating up people mercilessly. The Army attacked her, there were eight of them; two of them raped her.

The empirical reality in Bangladesh’s CHT is remarkably similar to the regimes of repression which occur with impunity in India and Pakistan. Like the latter, the net effect of (mis)using the military to resolve a political dispute was the denial of basic civil and political liberties, the erosion of civil authority, a greater influence of the military in civil administration and governance, and a pervasive culture of impunity from crimes committed by security forces.

United in repression
The state of grave human-rights abuse indicates the abysmal record of Southasian countries in protecting the rights and dignity of its ethnic minorities. A culture of impunity protects the armed forces from prosecution for crimes against citizens. Necessary as it is to revoke special legislation providing immunity to security forces, it would nonetheless be an error to view special or emergency legislation itself as the source of the problem. The legalised tyranny of the legislations justifying terror, torture or rape by security forces is but a manifestation of a profoundly undemocratic cosmology unwilling to acknowledge, much less respect or accommodate, political difference. Halting the human tragedies in Southasia’s conflict zones is contingent upon state acknowledgement of ethnic grievances, and respect and accommodation for the difference that produced them. In effect, it means discarding the assimilative ‘national’ cosmology in favour of a democratic imaginary informed by the non-national values of accommodation, tolerance, respect and coexistence with ‘different’ people nurturing different political imaginations.

Simultaneously, Southasian states are beset with a long-standing crisis of legitimacy that is particularly stark in conflict zones. As the military encroaches into arenas of civil governance, this incursion augments its already extraordinary powers of social control. The language and lexicon of ‘security’ advanced by national militaries across Southasia justifies political practices that gravely erode the legal basis, and by extension, the very foundation of the state; it also simultaneously fosters and rationalises a social climate of disrespect and contempt for democracy, civil liberties and human rights. Mark Neoucleous made the following observation with reference to Western democracies that is equally valid for the democracies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh:

…the reason martial law has not been approved by the executives of most liberal democracies is because there is absolutely no need for it: whatever might be desired through martial law can be achieved through the rhetoric of security and emergency.

As national security discourse devours democracy there is no need for formal declaration of martial law by those presiding over this destruction.

~ Seema Kazi is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS). She works on gender and conflict and is the author of Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarization in Kashmir.

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