The Army Chief's Statements Could Make Things Worse in Kashmir

Bipin Rawat's warning to civilians trying to protect militants will only spur further anger, especially at a time when support for militancy in Kashmir is very high.

Srinagar: On February 18, protesting civilians from at least five villages in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district hurled stones at security forces who had cordoned off Urivan, a small hamlet, for search operations, compelling them to turn back. A day before, masked youth in summer capital of Srinagar fought pitched battles with the Jammu and Kashmir police and the CRPF, with some of them carrying placards which read “We are all OGW (overground workers)”.

Incidents like these are a routine in Kashmir whenever forces launch an anti-militancy operation. But what happened in Urivan and downtown Srinagar grabbed headlines in wake of the army chief Bipin Rawat’s stern warning that those trying to disrupt anti-militancy operations in Kashmir would be treated as “overground workers of terrorists” and dealt with harshly. He blamed disruptions by protesting youth at encounter sites for the rise in casualties among security forces.

But despite this message, the two incidents, wherein the protesting youth raised slogans responding to Rawat’s remarks on February 15, indicate that the army’s tough talk could fuel more anger on the ground and hence a surge in militancy. This danger is coming at a time when political establishments in Srinagar as well as New Delhi have put Kashmir on back burner amid brewing uncertainty in the region after a brief lull post the 2016 summer protests.

Criticism amidst concerns

In its report on Kashmir, a team of “concerned citizens” led by former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha has already cautioned that there was an “increasing lack of fear in the youngsters” in Kashmir in confronting security forces. “They claim that they take death in their stride and they say that the best thing for which we are thankful is that your (the government) use of weapons, including pellet guns, has killed the fear in us. We now celebrate the martyrdom,” the report quotes a youngster as saying during an interaction.  There is also deep sense of anger against India amongst the young and most of them do not see much of a future for themselves if the Kashmir situation does not settle down, the report says, adding there was a strange apprehension among Kashmiris that something untoward, much higher in intensity and magnitude compared to 2016 unrest, was going to happen once spring sets in.

“When the situation is turning grim and the intensity of protests, after every encounter, rising, the remarks by the army chief would only add fuel to the fire,” National Conference spokesman Imran Nabi told The Wire. The party, whose working president Omar Abdullah recently accused the state government of following the ‘Doval doctrine’, warned that the “aggressive and hot-headed” remarks (by the army chief) would cause a spurt in local militancy, making “insurmountable” the challenge of engaging with disenchanted youths.

“We have just come out of the 2016 unrest and we were expecting that Centre would extend an olive branch to Kashmiris to help calm down the situation. But the (army chief’s) remarks have once again proven that New Delhi looks at Kashmir through the security prism,” said Nabi.

The warning evoked equally strong criticism from Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who termed it as an “open threat” to people. “It is reflection of tyrannical mindset towards people of Kashmir and needs to be condemned unequivocally,” he said.

On the other hand, people are taking to social networking sites to describe the army chief’s statement as an “acknowledgment” of the Kashmir movement being indigenous. “For 28 years, India claimed militancy in Kashmir is Pakistan’s proxy war and now Indian army chief’s statement vindicates the Pakistani stand that militancy in Kashmir has people’s support…,” noted human rights activist Khurram Parvez wrote on Facebook.

Jammu and Kashmir government endorses warning

A day after the army chief’s warning, the Jammu and Kashmir government came up with a public advisory asking people to stay away from counter-insurgency operation sites for their own safety. “…don’t move towards or assemble near the encounters sites to avoid loss and injuries to precious human lives,” the advisory cautioned people, while making it clear that the prohibitory restrictions have been imposed within the radius of 3 km from the site of any counter-insurgency operation.

This, however, is not the first time that such an advisory has been issued. In February 2016, following the killing of two students in firing allegedly by the forces, the Jammu and Kashmir police cautioned civilians to stay away from encounter sites. “Civilians residing within radius of 2 km of an encounter site should stay inside their homes and make sure their children are indoors too,” the police advisory said. But it had little impact on the ground as people continued to move towards encounter sites to help militants escape.

A growing trend

The trend of civilians rushing to encounter sites to hurl stones at security forces in a bid to help militants escape started in South Kashmir in 2014, when the rebel commander Burhan Wani, who was killed last year, used social networking sites to popularise local militancy. Since then, the phenomenon has spread to other parts of the Valley, with angry youth pelting stones at security forces, fully aware of the consequences. With separatists continuing with the weekly protests calendars and the 2016 summer unrest, in which 96 civilians were killed, fresh in the minds of people, senior officials in the Jammu and Kashmir police agree that there was a “need to be cautious and avoid civilian casualties during encounters” to avoid Kashmir from slipping into further unrest.

“But these civilian protests are compounding the situation for us and often our focus shifts away from the main target (militants),” said a police official. The civilian protests, some of which were successful, have come at a cost as at least eight civilians being killed and dozens injured during protests at encounter sites. In rural areas, people rush to encounter sites assuming it their “duty” to protect militants, while the trend of women coming out to pelt stones at forces is also growing. “The support for militancy is at an all-time high in South Kashmir. This is the reality of Kashmir today and it is due to the absence of any political initiative from both the Centre and the state,” said Nabi.

On February 12, when a gunfight was underway in the Kulgam district of South Kashmir, thousands of people from over 45 nearby villages and the adjacent Shopian district marched towards the encounter site. Four militants and two army men were killed, apart from two civilians who were allegedly shot dead by the army. Reportedly, two militants including a senior commander managed to flee the encounter site following the protests.

“Thousands of people attend the funeral of a militant killed in an encounter today. Are they all OGWs?” Nabi asked, referring to army chief’s remark.

Since January 1 this year, at least 11 security personnel have been killed; six, including a major, in three separate encounters during the last ten days. “Labelling civilian protesters as OGWs is an acknowledgement of the ground reality in Kashmir,” said political analyst Noor M. Baba. “This (the army chief’s warning) is really scary and could end up doing more damage to the fragile peace in the Valley.”

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