Time to change Kashmir policy

Unrest in Valley: current situation is the failure of successive governments at the Centre

Over the first eight days of May, eight civilians died in clashes with security forces while four others were killed by unidentified gunmen in Kashmir. A tourist from Chennai died when stone-pelters attacked the cab he was travelling in near Narabal on the outskirts of Srinagar. The death toll rises when militants are also taken into account.

In the first four months of 2018, 114 people, including 53 militants, 34 civilians and 27 security personnel, lost their lives in militancy-related incidents. If civil unrest, militancy and political activity are taken to be the three indicators of peace in the Valley, none have looked good so far in 2018.

The wave of civilian killings that became the defining feature of 2016 and 2017 unrests had started to ebb late last year, giving hope for a peaceful summer in 2018. In the last week of March, Asia’s largest tulip garden in Srinagar, overlooking the famous Dal (Lake), was thrown open for tourists. It rekindled hopes of a revival of tourism and other business activities after the unrests of 2016 and 2017. The tulip bloom coincided with the hosting of the 64th Annual Convention of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) in Srinagar after 30 years giving hope for a fruitful summer this time around.

However, on April 1, when the TAAI delegates had just left Srinagar, the Valley witnessed one of the deadliest counter-insurgency operations in the past decade. In a series of joint operations, security forces killed 13 militants while three army personnel also lost their lives. Four civilian protesters were killed in firing near encounter sites while over 200 others injured, pushing Kashmir towards a fresh wave of protests and uncertainty.

The unabated killings have raised the spectre of another summer of violent discontent. The signs of bloody summer are clear with the local recruitment of militants continuing and discontent over civilian killings visible in every nook and corner of the Valley. Most worryingly, there is a shift in the pattern of militant attacks, which had previously been restricted largely to security targets.

A widening circle of violence is claiming political workers from parties that contest elections, civilians accused of being police or army informers and Kashmiri policemen and soldiers who are on leave.

Huge attendance at funerals of slain militants and mobs gathering to pelt stones at the security forces during gunfights with militants is enough indication that a vast section of the civilian population is not only supporting the ultras but are ready to die while saving them from military cordons.

When a local militant gets killed, family, relatives, neighbours and friends stage a protest and the separatists find these situations handy. People are emotionally involved with local militants, most of whom are in the age group of 18 to 25. Their deaths trigger more anger and prompt more youth to join militancy. It is a vicious circle of sorts that cannot be avoided as long as local boys continue to join militancy.

The turmoil needs to be understood in a much longer time-frame. Stone-pelting is the latest manifestation of an unhealed trauma and an unaddressed political problem. The last 28-years have seen the brutalisation of local society, particularly in the Valley and an entire generation has grown up and come of age in an environment of repression and violence. This is the generation of militants and stone pelters, who don’t fear death.

The current situation is the failure of successive governments in New Delhi to take forward an opportunity to mend the fraught relationship with the people of the Muslim-majority Kashmir. In the recent times, the Center has depended more on military means to tackle the situation than engaging with voices of dissent. Despite the killing of nearly 220 militants in “operation all out” in 2017, the number of militants has not decreased and in fact, it has increased. According to unofficial figures, there are 250-300 active militants in Kashmir with more than 50% of them being locals.

While the use of military means has failed to achieve desired results, not to mention the fact that killing of local militants pushes more Kashmiri youths to pick up arms, New Delhi needs to do a rethink on its Kashmir policy. The Centre’s failure to grasp the nettle has been compounded by the indifferent performance of the PDP-BJP alliance government in the state elected at the end of 2014. For the last two years, the mantra of the Jammu & Kashmir government to maintain peace has been to impose curfews, restrictions, suspend internet services and shut down educational institutions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Kashmir on May 19. In Kashmir, the first essential step is to declare a unilateral ceasefire, similar to the one former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced in December 2000. This will create an atmosphere in which talks can be resumed.

The central government will need to consult all stakeholders in the state. Creating a dialogue partner is one part of the challenge, deciding what to talk about is the second. For a meaningful dialogue, there must be a partner and clearly-defined issues to discuss.

Those picking up guns and stones are also the citizens of a grand democracy like India. They have to be won over and for that to happen, an unconditional dialogue with an offer of the meaningful political package is a basic requirement.

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