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 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 doctorate from Harvard University. “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 government.
Kashmir has been mired in crisis for decades, and last 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 and arrested practically the entire intellectual class, including elected representatives, business people and students.
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.
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, Modi’s government passed a highly divisive law that creates a special path for migrants to get Indian citizenship — if they are not Muslim.
Kashmir was India’s only predominantly Muslim state until August, when Modi’s government summarily erased its statehood. Since then, it has been suspended in tension.
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.
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,” Gokhale said.
Wahid 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.
Indian military officials declined to clarify the general’s remarks.
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.