For the past two weeks Kashmir has been in the grip of a commotion which may cast a shadow over the 2017 summer, much like the last year. Nothing seems to have changed in the last six months after unrest broke out with the killing of Burhan Wani which brought the valley to a grinding halt. The by-elections for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency returned the people’s resistance to the spotlight.
The by-election recorded the lowest-ever turnout, placing a question mark over the relevance or presence of pro-India parties. Violence accompanied the boycott. The message came through loud and clear; the level of disaffection towards the system is complete and the cry for “Azadi” has become louder. The way people resisted elections in which they had once participated in large numbers shows just how much Indian influence has left its mark on the ground. Those in the mainstream admit (privately) that their days seem to be over as “it is difficult to stand against the dominant narrative, right or wrong”. What made the situation worse is the treatment meted out to commoners at the hands of the police, paramilitary forces and the army while fighting back the boycott. Eight civilians were killed and scores others were injured, adding to the seething anger. Some videos went viral to devastating effect.
The jeep effect
One video showed civilian Farooq Dar of central Kashmir’s Beerwah tied to the front of a jeep by the army for about 22 kilometers as a human shield to keep the stone pelters at bay. People went hysterical when they saw the video that was everywhere on social media. Saner voices across India expressed shame too. Lt Gen (retd) HS Panag, who once headed Northern Command in Udhampur, was almost in shock when he tweeted that this video would haunt the Indian Army and Indian nation for times to come. For some, demeaning a human being was worse than death. Ironically, Farooq Dar had cast his vote a short while before it happened.
The Indian Army has been fighting a battle with militants in Kashmir for the last 26 years but it has tried to take the middle ground amid serious allegations of human rights violations. For most of the time it has tried to keep a distance from politics and has tried hard to get closer to the people. Lt Gen DS Hooda, who headed the Northern Command till recently, had sounded the alarm, asking all parties to step back (during the height of the 2016 unrest) and had conveyed that the army was apolitical.
Indeed, the army’s mega “Sadbhavna” project has been implemented in every nook and cranny of the state with daily press releases showing the close contact with the people through goodwill camps. An estimated Rs 400 crores have been spent in Kashmir under this programme, which the army maintained, was to win hearts and minds. In an analysis of this project, Arpita Anant, a fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, concluded in 2010 that it had a “positive impact” on relations between the army and the people. But she also added that “the comfort level between the military and the people seemed higher in the Jammu region than in the Valley”. This makes for interesting reading; despite pumping in so much money, the army did not achieve the impact it desired.
Even if Sadbhavna had succeeded in reaching out to the people, the jeep video would have undone any good. A few other videos have similarly sent shivers down the spines of the people after seeing young people beaten and forced to shout pro-India and anti-Pakistan slogans at gunpoint.
TV channels have been holding debates on another video in which a Central Reserve Police Force jawan is being heckled by some young men. Not only the anchors but India's Attorney General Mukul Rastogi and BJP's general secretary Ram Madhav too justified this action making it amply clear that the methodology has the official sanction. Madhav is interestingly in charge Kashmir and has been the architect of so called agenda of Alliance between BJP and PDP.
People ask how the conduct of a “disciplined” force can be equated with that of a mob? So far the forces have had the bullet as the last resort but these videos have taken the lid off bizarre conduct. Leaking videos (as it was reportedly shot by the army) is to then send a message? This kind of conduct completely defies the logic of “Sadbhavna”. Moreover what is important to note is that the BSF jawan who released a video on unfair treatment meted out to force was dismissed from the service, but in this case those who leak these videos are defended. That implies the design is to threaten and make it clear to people how they could be treated.
Has the army had to go to this extent against its civilians because it failed to win hearts and minds? The army might have been able to kill militants in the numbers but the ideology that is taking shape among the average youth is more powerful than that of the militants. This thinking cannot be killed by force as it has a strong political context. It is the political dimension of the problem that needs to be approached through political means. The army is seen as a tool New Delhi uses to control Kashmir but it has not worked. The video tells the story that the army has failed to even make its own methods work. With this conduct it has failed Kashmir and made New Delhi vulnerable at the international level.
The government’s challenge is to contain public anger but increasing militancy is just fuelling it. Last Monday’s student protests across Kashmir show how the anger is systematically shaping. It has been students who have been killed in the recent past. They are the ones who come out on the streets. They join the ranks of militants. The political conflict has made deep inroads into their minds.
Perhaps the Separatist leaders who are leading the “movement” have no clue about the direction in which we are headed. The numbers of young people joining militancy are alarming. The ratio of foreigners and locals was 70:30 but today, according to officials, it is the opposite. Official sources reveal that in 2010 the number of youngsters who joined militancy was 54. It dropped to 23 in 2011 and there was a further decline to 21 and 16 in 2012 and 2013. But it went up to 53 in 2014, 66 in 2015 and 88 in 2016. Till March 2017, sources say 19 boys had joined the ranks. Security officials admit that the hanging of Afzal Guru proved to be a turning point.
New Delhi continues to be in denial. There is an absence of political engagement. At the societal level there is hardly any effort being made to figure out what will happen next. How long will Kashmir’s youth be consumed in the cycle of violence and will it be in our interest to continuously push them into it further? Civil society and the political leadership are silent.
Resolving political issues are long-drawn out battles and unless there is a thought process to guide it, the results are not difficult to imagine. One can only denounce the humiliation the army and other forces have heaped on Kashmir. The video shows that the battle has been lost. That might have become our fate but surely we must still try to ensure no more lives are lost.