April 24, 2016

Kashmir: Killing with Impunity

THE Handwara incident in the Kashmir valley, once again, highlights the political and administrative failure in tackling the vexed problems in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir. The alleged harassment of a school girl by an army jawan led to protests outside the army bunker in the town. This was responded to by the heavy hand of the security forces. The firing on the protesting crowd led to the deaths of three persons at the outset. Among the dead were a 19-year old promising cricketer and an elderly woman. These deaths spurred protests all over the district and in the valley. In Kupwara district, where Handwara town is situated, two more deaths followed – a youth was killed in Drugmulla and an 18-year old student was killed outside an army camp in Nathnusa area. The intensified protests led to curfew being imposed in various places and suspension of mobile and internet services in the valley. The school girl, who was harassed, appeared before a judicial magistrate and gave a statement that no soldier was involved and it was two local youth who had accosted her. However, this statement was not believed by the people as the girl and her father had been kept in police custody for two days before the High Court directed the police to produce her before the magistrate. The shooting of five civilians, mainly youth, by the army and the police shows that no lessons have been learnt from the 2010 events. At that time, there were massive protests by youth after an encounter was staged by the army killing three innocent people. Over a period of four months, 118 young men were shot dead by the security forces when they were confronted by stone pelting youth. The intense anger against human rights violations and suppression of democratic rights of the people erupts punctually in the valley where the deployment of the security forces is seen as an oppressive force. Unlike in the rest of India, where police tackle protests which go out of hand with lathi-charges, tear gas and water cannons in Kashmir, the security forces are attuned to dealing with civilian protests as if they are tackling militants and terrorist violence. The impunity with which security forces deal with the people is one major cause for the alienation of the people from the Indian State. Only a credible enquiry and the arrest and punishment of those responsible for the firing and the killings can assuage some of the anger and the alienation. How the PDP-BJP coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti takes steps to deal with the Handwara incident and its aftermath will be the first major test for the new government. The prime minister, who visited Jammu a few days after the turmoil in the valley, evoked Vajpayee’s slogan of insaaniyat (humanity), jumhooriyat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat to assure the people of Jammu & Kashmir that this will be the path adopted. But the way the centre has handled the unrest after the Handwara incident inspires no confidence. Its first reaction was to send more troops and paramilitary forces to Kashmir. This goes against both insaaniyat and the democratic rights of the people. Jammu & Kashmir has already six lakh army and para military personnel stationed there. What is required is the dismantling of the security structures which oppress the civilian population. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which enables the army to act with impunity against the civilian population, has to be withdrawn. A beginning must be made by removing it from most parts of the state except the border areas. This was a proposal which was considered and then discarded during the UPA government. The Modi government has to revive the dialogue process to cover the entire political spectrum in Jammu & Kashmir. This is something to which the BJP has an ingrained hostility. Now that it is in a coalition government in the state, it can no longer afford to reject this process.