LESS than ten days after the PDP-BJP Government assumed power in Kashmir, Kashmir has witnessed a fresh bout of killings of civilian protesters by Army bullets. Five civilians have been killed, and several have suffered injuries that may cripple them for life. Once more, Kashmir has been plunged into the cycle of killings, protests, more killings, accompanied by curfews and internet bans.
The episode was triggered when civilians came on the streets of Handwara to protest the alleged molestation of a minor girl by Army personnel. The Army responded by firing on and killing three civilians. When people came on the streets in other parts of northern Kashmir to protest the killings, the Army again responded by killing more civilians.
The handling of the complaint of alleged molestation by the J&K Police has been rife with shocking violations of laws and norms. By law, the police should have promptly registered an FIR and recorded the girl’s statement before a magistrate. Instead, the police instead illegally recorded and released a video of the girl that denied molestation by the Army and revealed the identity of the girl, thus compromising her privacy and safety. The girl’s statement before the magistrate (denying molestation by the Army) has been recorded only after the police held the girl, her father and aunt in illegal custody for several days. While such a statement might have carried credibility and calmed tempers had it been recorded on the very first day, it can no longer do so now, because the J&K Police itself has fatally compromised the credibility of the process and sent the unmistakable message that it cared more to protect the Army’s reputation than to ensure well-being and justice for a Kashmiri teenage girl. And whatever the facts about the alleged molestation, there can be no excuse for the killings of civilian protesters.
The Handwara episode has once again underlined how the heavy military deployment in civilian areas of Kashmir promotes a callous disregard for the value of Kashmiri lives and the right of Kashmiris to protest. Time and again, we see how civilian protests and stone pelting by young people in Kashmir are invariably met with bullets aimed to kill, while similar protests in other states are generally handled with more restraint, with police action intended at dispersing rather than killing protesters.
The Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has made some token expressions of anguish and has appealed to the Union Defence Minister to rein in the Army and prevent civilian killings. But the very ineffectualness of these gestures expose the opportunism of the PDP, and the yawning gap between Kashmir’s main political parties and the agony of Kashmir’s people.
The BJP Government at the Centre and its increased footprint in the Valley is undoubtedly intensifying the alienation of Kashmiri people. The attempts by vested interests including Central Ministers to create polarization and hatred by fanning up hyper-jingoist frenzy in NIT Srinagar are a case in point. The calculated attacks on Kashmiri students in various campuses all over India, and the use of sedition laws to suppress protests against the execution of Afzal Guru, are all sending the message to Kashmiris that their voices will be gagged and criminalised.
The Congress and National Conference have condemned the current round of killings. P Chidambaram, who was Home Minister in the UPA Government has preached against a militarized approach to Kashmir and has even called for a repeal of the AFSPA. But when he himself was Home Minister, he and his Government presided over a spree of killings of civilian protesters in Kashmir in 2010, and the cover-up of the Shopian rape and murder in 2009.
The glaring contrast in the ways the BJP in power deals with protests and agitations in Kashmir and other states can only further alienate and anger the common people of Kashmir. In Haryana Jats were allowed to go on a veritable rampage in the name of reservations and the Khattar government came to a political settlement. In Gujarat, militant protests by the powerful Patel lobby do not lead to an unleashing of state terror on a scale and with the kind of intensity that Kashmir has been experiencing for decades. But protests in Kashmir, on any issue whatsoever, are always sought to be silenced and crushed militarily. The largely biased coverage of the killings by the Indian media, painting protesting Kashmiri civilians as violent and the Army brutality as a display of nationalism, adds further to Kashmir’s agony and alienation.
The rhetoric of ‘development’ and ‘governance’is no substitute for a political solution to the central issue of Kashmiri self-determination and questions of denial of justice in Kashmir. The first precondition for meaningful political dialogue must be the withdrawal of Army from civilian areas in Kashmir; the scrapping of draconian laws like the AFSPA and PSA; a credible process of truth and justice in the various instances of fake encounters, disappearances, mass graves, and sexual assaults in Kashmir; and the freedom of political expression and protest for the Kashmiri people, both in the Valley and in the rest of India.