In Kashmir, ‘everybody needs to step back’

New Delhi must show its benign face and engage with the youth if it wants to save Kashmir Valley from another round of civil strife. Advice of the then Northern Army Commander is even more valid now

 PTI Photo by S Irfan
PTI Photo by S Irfan

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

The fresh spurt of mass protests by students, some of which turned violent, and a brutal clampdown by security agencies following the killing of a college student in Pulwama by police prompts the question: Why does the Valley erupt again and again?

The fresh trends manifest the abnormality of the situation. Even when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, civilians did not grapple with security forces engaged in encounters with militants. But increasingly civilians have begun to do so, obstructing counter insurgency operations.

Elections have been boycotted before and polling percentage was less than 5% in the 1990 Parliamentary polls but never before has an assertive statement been made by attacking polling booths. The Valley has become a place, where normalcy has a new definition and the vicious cycle of violence punctuated by spells of calm is the 'new normal’.

For the convenience of New Delhi, which has opted in favour of belligerent rhetoric and brutal action in line with the Doval doctrine on Kashmir, the official narrative comprises phrases like ‘paid stone pelters’ and ‘radicalised youth’ which help reap rich electoral harvest in the rest of the country. However, they remain divorced from reality, even though involvement of some vested interests in the insurgency cannot be entirely denied.

During the 2016 Kashmir unrest, amidst an increasing spiral of anger and the unfolding of horrifying pellet gun injuries, the then Northern Army Commander, Lt General DS Hooda deflated this theory following army atrocities in which a college lecturer was thrashed to death in a village in South Kashmir.

Lt General (Retd) Hooda had then called such actions a mistake and also made a dispassionate appeal for calm, stating that "everybody needs to step back”. Amidst the jarring tones of bellicose rhetoric by New Delhi, his comment helped prevent further escalation of violence in the area where the incident had taken place.

Compare this to the abject silence of the government over the killing of Pulwama college student and unjustified entry of military vehicles in college campuses. Or, worse still, the legitimacy given by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi to the use of civilians as human shields, in response to a viral video showing a civilian tied to an army vehicle as it moved on the streets, some of which had protesting crowds.

Such responses are not only a cause for provocation, they also add a seal of permanence to the already absolute culture of impunity exercised through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), denial, political patronage and well-oiled propaganda machinery.

This impunity in the face of India’s poor human rights record in Kashmir has been central to the deepening sense of humiliation, injury, alienation, anger and frustration.

Coupled with the unaddressed political question of Kashmir as well as the tendency by the Centre to weaken local governments and keep their wings clipped, this dark narrative of human rights further accentuates the Kashmir conflict. Years of a neglected conflict, excessive militarisation and an unending graph of human rights violations have made Kashmir a reservoir of immense pent up anger which has begun to burst like a volcano since 2008.

Mass protests first erupted in 2008 over Amarnath land transfer to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board. What began as peaceful assemblies gradually transformed into violent protests following the brutal handling of civilian marches on streets. Ever since, Kashmir has seen a journey of violent protests that are becoming more dangerous by the day.

Kashmiris prefer to call it resistance movement rather than protests. The torch bearers of this resistance are youngsters of a generation that was born in conflict, grew up in an excessively suffocating militarised atmosphere and has thus lost its sense of fear. They are ready to grapple with men in uniform with bare hands or a stone. This loss of sense of fear, in direct proportion to the violent trajectory of protests, is hastening the descent into deeper chaos, which is not being suitably handled.

The way forward lies in dispassionately engaging with the situation and fathoming the genesis of this anger. Clearly, the Kashmir situation cannot simply be dealt with military might and jackboots, while obliterating all differences between armed militants and civilian protesters.

It needs a process of healing to begin with. It needs not the rigid posturing of the Centre but its benign and benevolent face. It needs efforts to listen to the disgruntled, alienated and angry voices and reach out with confidence building measures that can pave the way for dialogue and negotiations on Kashmir.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is Executive Editor, Kashmir Times.

This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.

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