08/20/2007 11:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Kashmir: When We Don't Expose Devils Paradise Goes to Hell

SRINAGAR, Kashmir -- It is safe to say The Judge has black hair and dark Kashmiri eyes that can bore through zinc. Beyond that, it's risky. He is a man of conscience who speaks truths in low tones, and that can be fatal here.

We met via a person he trusts with his life, and we chatted a while over kava, the spicy tea that fuels this back end of Eden. When his eyes moistened and his breathing changed, I slipped my notebook off the table.

The Judge glanced over his shoulder and unburdened. Indian security forces had made a practice of castrating prisoners during the Kashmir insurgency, he said, and despite today's relative calm some still do it.

Officers still shoot innocent people as terrorists for promotions and cash rewards, he added, and military authorities stonewall judicial attempts at punishment.

He poured out bottled-up details, and my notebook resurfaced. The Judge's Islam is flavored by Sufi thinkers who cite the Prophet's belief in human decency. He would say what he had to, and Allah would work out his fate.

Ninety percent of people taken to jail are tortured, he said, and cutting off testicles is a favorite means of humiliation. Victims remain silent, just as women raped by Indian soldiers seldom tell even their own families.

"Sometimes they laugh and ask the man how many children we will have," he told me, sadly shaking his head. "We know about it, and there is nothing we can do."

One man brought to his bench accused of throwing a grenade had such limited mental capacity and motor control that he could not have even grasped the grenade's pin.

"I released him," The Judge said. "No sooner had guards taken off his chains, and he left the court than officers arrested him again. He has disappeared."

Such things happen repeatedly, he said. Time and again, military authorities ignore writs of habeas corpus.

This was all news to me, and it should not have been.

The point here is not atrocities, bad as they may be, but rather why Americans learn so little, so late, about serial injustices which feed deep hatreds. This ignorance amounts to complicity, and it threatens us all.

The villains in this piece are Indians, but so is The Judge. A nation of one billion has plenty of both good and evil. After years of trying to apply the justice that many Indians revere, with no outside support, The Judge is ready to give up and go somewhere far away.

Kashmir shows with bitter clarity what happens when the only real superpower ignores the world around it. We need to understand this -- and do something about it.

Until five young Kashmiris led a revolt in 1989, frustrated by yet another election rigged in New Delhi, this was as idyllic a place as the world had to offer.

Mughal emperors called it Paradise for its heart-stopping beauty. But, more, Kashmiri society was gentle and industrious. Children revered parents, and poetry-loving Muslims lived happily with Hindu neighbors.

After their independence in 1947, India and Pakistan fought artillery duels in the Himalayas. Pakistan seized a northern slice. The rest of Kashmir remained Indian.

When insurgency erupted, India came in fast and hard. Beyond the known dead, perhaps 8,000 sons, brothers and fathers have vanished. Indian officers, who give a much lower number, say most missing people have fled. Families insist that many were secretly killed, and some have documents leaked by sympathetic authorities that prove it.

Today, Paradise has been brutalized. The insurgency is over, and a broken Kashmir is struggling hard to get to its feet. But 700,000 Indian security forces still train their guns on a population of 9 million.

Military commanders insist a firm hand is necessary to thwart terrorist grenade attacks. A ranking policeman, whose Sufi soul overcame orders to whitewash, told me otherwise. The "terrorists" are often Indian troops or civilian greedheads who gain from a continued high alert.

Ironically, this overwhelming force to counter bogus terrorists has attracted real ones. Al-Qaida recently announced it would target Kashmir because India's Hindu military was mistreating Muslims with American support.

Such a murderous aftermath routinely follows prolonged uncivil war. And by the time it is bad enough to demand our attention it is too late to do much about it.

As in so many other places, we might have acted early to broker a workable status for Kashmir if news organizations had equipped reporters with the freedom to reflect reality. But it doesn't work that way.

The Judge's anguished account needed no second source; its ring of truth was unmistakable. I looked anyway and found plenty. Like capillary action, a first small drop starts a steady stream.

Had I been an Associated Press correspondent as I was until the end of 2004, however, this story would have stayed in my notebooks. I could not name anyone, and editors hate anonymous sources.

Even if I could have identified informants, a ritual outraged denial from New Delhi would then take several carefully phrased paragraphs to help thoughtful readers decide which version to believe.

There is good reason to be wary of unnamed sources. Inexperienced, lazy, or dishonest reporters can use them to misinform. We need seasoned people of proven credibility to tell us the real story in its larger context, even if they cannot name names. Simply being there is not enough.

Far too often editors follow the cautious course of a blanket ban on anonymity. Frequently, economy measures and shortcuts demand it. Many now rely on untried reporters of limited world experience who work cheap and do not resist when editors insert received wisdom from Washington.

Freed of mainstream constraints, I put these thoughts in a new book. I called it Escaping Plato's Cave because so many Americans see complex places -- Kashmir, for instance -- with no more clarity than those blurred shadows on a cave wall that Plato described in his parable.

The subtitle is less obscure: "How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens our Survival." Unless we understand the broad themes and the nuances behind them, we are condemned to make our world yet more perilous.

Anonymous sources are only part of the problem. The largest challenge is for us go beyond that meaningless collective noun that has become an epithet -- "the media" -- and look critically at how we learn about reality.

Courageous people like The Judge tell us things we should know. Correspondents, if unhindered by editors' insecurities and misperceptions, add a broader framework. Each source has a name, and it is better if we know it. If that means these crucial informants risk being silenced, however, it should be enough that the reporter knows it.

In the end, what matters is the message. If we miss it, we had better prepare for the worst.