By Hilal Mir
SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) - As the world observes International Day for Mine Awareness on Saturday, a noted human rights activist in Indian-administered Kashmir said that response of governments to deal with the menace has been disappointing.
An award-winning activist Khurram Parvez, also a landmine victim, had led a campaign that saw the largest militant group in the region, the United Jihad Council committing not to use anti-personnel mines (APMs) in 2007.
While monitoring elections in 2004, he lost one of his legs in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Parvez, who also heads the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and is the program coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, said that vast tracts of land in Kashmir are laden with mines.
Anadolu Agency: How serious is the anti-personnel mine or APM threat in Kashmir?
Khurram Parvez (KP): Hundreds of thousands of APMs were laid along the 734-kilometer (456-mile) Line of Control and the 190 km (118 mi) of the international border between India and Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil War and then again in 2001 when both countries were face to face following an attack on the Indian parliament.
There is no specific data on the total area under landmines. But in response to a question, the government told Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in 2013 that the Indian army had laid land mines in approximately 3,512 acres of land in several villages in 1999.
A report by an Indian parliamentary panel in 2005 said 1776 Indian soldiers died while laying and removing mines from 2001-2005. Since then, Landmine Monitor’s annual reports on India have been recording killings of Indian soldiers and civilians in landmine explosions continuously. In February last year, an army major was killed while defusing a mine. He was to get married the following month. A civilian was injured last year in December.
According to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a total of 1091 people have been killed and 2638 injured from 1999-2016. The Monitor has said that the cumulative number of casualties in India are not known”.
- Indian army to procure 1 million more landmines
AA: What is the Indian government’s key argument for using such landmines?
KP: They think, it helps to prevent militants from areas controlled by Pakistan to enter Kashmir and acts as a deterrent during the war. But there is no report of any militant being killed in a landmine explosion while crossing border. The only casualties have been Indian soldiers and civilians of Jammu and Kashmir. Also, over the years, the Indian state has erected several layers of fences along the border and has deploying hi-tech electronic surveillance system as well. This should have reduced the reliance and need for landmines. But surprisingly, a news report last year said, the Indian army wants to procure 1 million more landmines from private manufacturers. This effectively shows they are not interested in de-mining the already mined areas but are planning to plant more. It is said that removing an APM costs 40 times than laying it.
AA: What has the Indian government done to alleviate the threat posed by landmines?
KP: Not much. Despite favoring the UN resolution tabled in 1996, to enact an international treaty banning anti-personal landmines, it has refused to sign it. More than 160 countries have signed the treaty. India has one of the largest stockpiles of APMs.
Second, we had requested the army to mark and fence the mined areas. This was after a man lost both limbs in a mine blast in 2004 in the Kupwara district. He had gone to the nearby forest to fetch firewood and the area is quite far away from the border. While they have marked some areas, they have not fenced them at all.
- Warnings in Hindi language unfamiliar for locals
In a few areas, we noticed boards in the Hindi language warning people about mines. People in these areas cannot read Hindi and many are illiterate. Instead, there should be warning symbols. The fencing of the landmine area is essential because livestock gets killed. Loss of livestock results in huge economic losses for the people living near borders. Then there is the issue that floods, landslides or snowfall uproot mines from their original places. We have landmines in the region laid way back in 1965 and then 1971 India-Pakistan wars in the region.
The third is the rehabilitation of people disabled in mine blasts. Landmine amputees are paid 750 rupees ($10) a month by the Social Welfare Department under the general disability pension category. A noted rights activist in Poonch region, Kamaljeet Singh, has been campaigning, vainly though, for a separate category of pension for these victims. Also, the quality of artificial limbs provided to the victims by the government is not good. Many people have lost cultivable lands or access to grazing grounds.
AA: Have landmines been used in areas other than the borders?
KP: Residents in few areas told us that the army had laid mines along the fences of its various camps strewn across the Kashmir Valley, especially after a few suicide bombings attacks. These camps are located in civilian areas and pose a threat.
- Pakistan’s response
AA: Your campaign against landmines took you to Pakistan also. What did you observe there?
KP: Like India, Pakistan has also not signed the Mine Ban Treaty for, more or less, using similar arguments. It also has one of the largest stockpiles of APMs. However, one thing I noticed there in 2007 was that several NGOs were running awareness campaigns in Pakistan-administered Kashmir for civilians and there was a rehabilitation program for amputees without facing hostility.
AA: Is there a difference in the approach of the two nations?
KP: Pakistan contends that they are concerned about their people because they consider them their own. On the Indian side, because of insurgency now in its third decade, the government essentially views the population as hostile. When we were campaigning against landmines and the United Jihad Council unilaterally stated that it will abide by the Geneva Conventions, the Indian army issued a statement saying this was a publicity stunt because militants never used landmines. In Pakistan, the government and NGOs work even to have differences. But the Indian side does not engage them at all. Whenever we have tried to engage with the Indian army on any concrete issue, say extra-judicial killings, we never get a positive response.
AA: What is your biggest worry?
KP: Landmines outlive conflicts and wars. They continue to take lives even after wars are over. Look at countries like Cambodia. Long after the conflicts are over, people realize getting rid of landmines is a bigger mess.