Army must be careful on Kashmir

It is too early to say whether the recent encounters in Kulgam in the Kashmir Valley mark the revival of the clashes and violence that followed the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in July last year. The cycle of violence had abated after November but the occurrence of three encounters in the last one week, in which 16 people died, is ominous. The dead included eight militants, two civilians and six army personnel. The civilians were killed when they tried to protect militants and the army personnel lost their lives when mobs threw stones at them or prevented their being taken to hospital. The rising trend of people coming to the aid of militants caught in clashes with the army or security forces shows increasing public sympathy for the militants. That has provoked the army, with Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat issuing a controversial warning to the people that those who aided the militants or even raised Pakistan flags would be considered anti-nationals and that “the forces would go helter-skelter for them.”

Loss of personnel, growth of or lack of abatement of militancy, the need to extend action to more areas and increase in resistance might put more pressure on the armed forces. But the response should not be in anger and the army should not react as if it is in a battlefield fighting the enemy. It should not lose sense of the environment it is in where cooperation of the people is essential for success, and has no reason to abandon standard operating procedures even in the face of extreme provocation. To equate stone-pelting youth and the mobs that shield militants and to deal with them as enemies is to create more militants. The army’s role in a civilian conflict zone is very difficult. Public pronouncement of a threat by the army chief will send out wrong messages about that role both to the people and the personnel.

Such an aggressive policy will only confirm the impression that it is the army which is in command in Kashmir and not the civil administration. That will not help in moving towards redress of even common grievances, let alone bringing down the levels of hostility and militancy. No political initiative was taken during the peaking of disaffection and militancy, and its waning in the last few weeks, to relate to the people and to initiate a peace process. Civil authorities should find a solution to the problem of crowds obstructing security operations. It should be a part of a bigger outreach to the people. The army chief’s prescription can only worsen the problem.

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