It’s unclear what Gen. Bipin Rawat, chief of India’s defense staff, meant. But rights activists fear that something like what China has introduced for Uighurs could be coming.
Gen. Bipin Rawat, front, in New Delhi in December. “These people need to be taken out separately, possibly taken into some deradicalization camps,” he said of radicalized Kashmiris. Credit...Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times, via Getty Images
NEW DELHI — India’s top military commander has created shock waves by suggesting that Kashmiris could be shipped off to “deradicalization camps,” which rights activists consider an alarming echo of what China has done to many of its Muslim citizens.
It was far from clear what the military commander, Gen. Bipin Rawat, chief of India’s defense staff, meant when he made the public comments on Thursday or whether a plan was afoot to set up large-scale re-education camps in the part of the disputed Kashmir region that India controls.
But rights activists and Kashmiri intellectuals were deeply unsettled, saying that the general’s words revealed how the highest levels of the Indian military viewed Kashmiri people and that his comments could presage another disturbing turn of events.
“It’s shocking he would even suggest this,’’ said Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmiri historian who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard. “It reminds me of the Uighur camps in China. I don’t think the general realizes the insanity of what he is talking about.”
Over the past three years, the Chinese government has corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into what it calls vocational training centers but what rights activists say are internment camps and prisons. The Uighurs, like Kashmiris, are Muslims who are part of a minority that is often viewed with suspicion by the central government.
Kashmir has been mired in crisis for decades and this past year the Indian government upended decades of delicate, albeit flawed policies by unilaterally revoking the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, the part of the region it controls. It sent in thousands of additional troops, arrested practically the entire intellectual class there, including elected representatives, business people and students, and shut down the internet.
All of that was highly unexpected and is what makes Kashmiri intellectuals fear the general’s comments. They say that under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, just about anything — however unbelievable just a few years ago — is possible.
Mr. Modi’s party has been pushing a religious nationalist ideology that critics say favors India’s Hindu majority and deeply alienates its Muslim minority. Just last month, Mr. Modi’s government passed a highly divisive law that creates a special path for migrants to get Indian citizenship — if they are not Muslim. Outrage at the law set off weeks of nationwide antigovernment protests, which are continuing.
Kashmir was India’s only predominantly Muslim state until August, when Mr. Modi’s government summarily erased its statehood. Since then, it has been suspended in tension, with most internet service still shut off and schools deserted.
General Rawat made the suggestion about sending Kashmiris to deradicalization camps at an international affairs conference in New Delhi attended by government officials, foreign diplomats, business executives and scholars.
Responding to a question on how to fight terrorism, the general said that in Kashmir, “Girls and boys as young as 10 and 12 are now being radicalized. These people can still be isolated from radicalization in a gradual way, but there are people who have completely been radicalized.”
“These people need to be taken out separately, possibly taken into some deradicalization camps,” he continued. “We’ve got deradicalization camps going on in our country.”
His statements became front-page news across India on Friday and left many analysts scratching their heads.
Saket Gokhale, a civil rights activist in Mumbai, said this was the first he had ever heard of deradicalization camps inside India.
He said that in some areas where the security forces were battling armed groups, such as the Maoist belt in central India, the military ran deradicalization programs including community visits and vocational training. But those were voluntary and did not involve confinement.
“There have been outreach programs, but a deradicalization program is very different from a deradicalization camp,” Mr. Gokhale said.
Mr. Wahid, the historian, said he was concerned about the general’s use of the word “camps.”
“Are we talking about summer camps or one-year camps where you strip people of their identity and rebuild them?’’ he asked.
Protesters in Srinagar, Kashmir, in September. Credit...Atul Loke for The New York Times
The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has passed a highly divisive law that creates a special path for migrants to get Indian citizenship if they are not Muslim.
Indian military officials declined to clarify the general’s remarks.
General Rawat, a four-star general, has spent much of his career leading counterinsurgency operations in northeastern India and Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan. He has a history of using hard-nosed tactics.
In 2017, he gave an award to a major who had tied a young Kashmiri man to an army jeep and used him as a human shield against stone throwers.
“In fact, I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us,” the general said in an interview at the time. “Then I would have been happy.”
If the demonstrators had been wielding guns, the general said, then he could have done what he wanted to do, according to Indian news reports.
Many Kashmiri intellectuals denied that Kashmir had a radicalization problem, at least not a religious radicalization problem. The militancy is minuscule — fewer than 300 armed fighters by most estimates — and much of the combatants’ ideology turns on political differences with the Indian government, not religious ones.
Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor of political science at Central University of Kashmir, who has studied patterns of radicalization, said India was taking its cue from China and might now try to crush all political dissent.
“Kashmir is a political issue — it needs a political resolution, not deradicalization camps,” he said. “And where is the radicalization?”
“The general should understand that such statements are extra-constitutional and he should speak cautiously,” Professor Baba added. “Even thinking of a deradicalization camp is a dangerous precedent.”
“It is not compatible with the democratic setup,” he said.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Sameer Yasir from Tokyo.
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