Youths are still waiting for a reprieve on Kashmir violence

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File image of a protester throwing a stone at the police during a strike called by separatist groups against killings in southern Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

An amnesty for youths implicated in mob violence in India’s restive Jammu and Kashmir state has been dismissed as a “political statement” by a leading human rights activist, with little progress evident since it was launched by the state government with much fanfare in November.

“As per our knowledge, the government has not filed any application in any court for withdrawal of cases against stone-pelters yet. The government only claims credit but does not implement such decisions on the ground,” said Parvaiz Imroz, an activist from Kashmir and founder-president of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

Many of the 4,300 youths agree, but the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government is undaunted: 5,500 more stone-throwing cases from 2016 and 2017 are being reviewed and are likely to be included in the scheme.

The amnesty was hailed as a rare ray of hope for youths caught up in violence in Jammu and Kashmir, which has lived through an armed insurgency for nearly three decades, and three wars between India and Pakistan. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said first information reports (FIRs) on first-time offenders accused of pelting stones against police and paramilitary personnel from 2010 to 2014 would be withdrawn.

Once the FIRs are lifted and there is no longer a threat of prosecution, they will be able to apply for jobs, resume their disrupted studies and obtain passports and travel visas. However, the FIRs are still in place, and promised No-Objection Certificates (NoCs), which confirm that there are no legal barriers to the holder taking up employment, have not been issued. This has made it hard for youths to get on with their lives.

“The FIR and the court case against me have ruined my career and my future,” says Tariq Ahmad Mir, 25, who was arrested by police in 2013 in the village of Litter in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district for stone pelting, a crime he insists he did not commit.

In the same year he was selected to train at a cricket academy run by former spin bowler Anil Kumble in Bengaluru, but couldn’t make it because he had received a police summons on the very same day.

“I could have become an international cricketer. But for the past four years (2013-2017), all I have done is visit police stations and courts,” says Mir, who represented Jammu and Kashmir state at the national level in an under 17s match in 2006. Instead, he has been forced to take up a job at a private company.

“Of what use is this amnesty scheme to me?” he asked, adding, “I neither got the chance to play cricket at the national level nor could I receive skill training under Udaan.” He had to return to Kashmir in 2016 midway through a skills training course in New Delhi under the government’s Udaan scheme, so he could attend a court hearing.

Without NoCs the amnesty will be totally meaningless

Other youths who spoke to Asia Times said they were glad they no longer had to attend court sessions, but their lives were still on hold.

“I was booked for stone pelting in 2010 and since then I have been attending court trials. I am on the amnesty list, but my case hasn’t been cleared by the police in court. I am yet to get the NoC,” said Ishfaq (name changed).

Younis Bhat (name changed) of Bandipora district in north Kashmir says he was booked for stone-pelting during the 2010 protests and “I have been attending court trials since then”. “The amnesty is a big relief for me as I can now study further, but I am waiting for the NoC,” added Bhat, who is a graduate from a government college.

Imran, another youth from Anantnag district who is on the amnesty list, says he too is yet to get a court clearance.

Choudhary Aslam, the senior superintendent of police in Pulwama district, ridiculed claims that the scheme had stalled. He said that cases from 2010-2014 had been reviewed and the youths granted an amnesty.

“The police prepare a list and submit it to the Department of Home [Affairs], which then files the cases in the court for recommendations. In the cases in which the court grants an amnesty the NoCs are dropped and the accused is set free of this legal rigmarole,” said Aslam.

No reprieve yet for repeat stone-throwing offenders 

The amnesty doesn’t yet benefit those accused of pelting stones in the 2016 protests, which were triggered by the killing of Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. However, police Director General Dr Shesh Paul Vaid said in January that cases against nearly 5,500 youths from that period were under review.

It was reported that more than 2,500 FIRs were filed by the police for stone-pelting and more than 7,000 were arrested during the 2016 unrest. “We are still being grilled in rigorous court cases,” said one youth in a group waiting for trial outside a court in Shopian.

There is no amnesty on the horizon for repeat offenders, even though the state’s political parties say the scheme must be extended to all youths affected, and not just first-time offenders, if it is to make any real difference.

“We don’t see any youth who’s been granted amnesty by the government yet. It is a mere announcement,” said National Conference leader and former home minister Nasir Aslam Wani. “Also, if the government wants to give amnesty to stone-pelters, why not give it to all? Why pick and choose?”

He added that more extensive measures were needed to resolve the political stand-off in Kashmir and stop protests and stone-pelting.

Lawyers defending youths in the stone-pelting cases said they felt that the amnesty was mostly designed to score political brownie points, as the accused would have been acquitted by the courts in any case.

“The court trials have been going on for the last seven years. The judiciary would have acquitted the accused in any case since the police have failed to produce a single witness against them,” said lawyer Abdul Basit. Political parties are exploiting the cases for their benefit, he said, adding: “People should understand the politics behind the amnesty”.

The amnesty initiative came two weeks after Dineshwar Sharma, the Indian government’s special representative to Jammu and Kashmir, visited Srinagar for the first exploratory peace talks in November.

Some saw the amnesty as a political move by the ruling PDP aimed at killing two birds with one stone: it would lay the grounds for peace talks with the central government and offered an opportunity for the party to regain some lost ground in Kashmir — particularly in the south, which the PDP considers to be its stronghold.

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