THESE ENCOUNTERS AND MASS KILLINGS

It has become a grim cliche now. In South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, another gunfight, another raft of killings, under the veil of a communication blackout. Three militants were killed and two soldiers injured in the gunfight that broke out on October 21.  Then, at least six civilians were reported killed and many more injured. While three are believed to have died in a blast at the site of the gunfight, others were allegedly killed during clashes with security forces. The state administration, currently under the stewardship of Governor Satya Pal Malik, responded as if by rote: regret at the loss of civilian lives, with the caveat that they should have followed the advisory and stayed away, and a fresh call for elections. Meanwhile, more blood was shed at the Line of Control, with three jawans and two militants killed. The government’s lack of imagination in responding to the growing spiral of violence in Kashmir has come with tragic costs.

For a couple of years now, it has been evident that gunfights in the Valley have become a spectacle that breeds more violence. A ritual has been established around these armed skirmishes: the search operation and the laying of the security cordons, the opening of fire, the civilian protests, the blasts that mark the last gasps of the fight, and then the funerals. With each gunfight, there are anecdotes of more local youth joining militant ranks, pushed over the edge by the frenzy of grief and anger. By now, it is also no surprise that civilian crowds rush in to intervene between militants and security forces. Advisories warning civilians away and threats by the Army chief that protestors at these sites would be treated like “militants” have not worked. Tweaked strategies to avoid civilian casualties do not seem to have worked either. The security apparatus that executes these operations and the political establishment that gives tacit sanction must recognise that gunfights, or “encounters” as they are euphemistically called, have become part of a deadly cycle of violence.

The ideal alternative would a robust political process that responds to the realities of the Valley. Except the only idea the state administration had to offer was fresh Assembly elections. The elected state government fell in June, after the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, and the governor now feels no legitimate government can be formed out of the existing legislature. But elections in Kashmir have been reduced to a farce. In 2017, bye-elections to the Lok Sabha were marked by violence and a turnout of about 7%. The municipal elections that were just conducted yielded a dismal 4.8% turnout in the Valley, vacant wards with no contestants and candidates winning after a single vote was polled. The government needs to ask itself whether such elections really reflect the political will of the people, whether they lead to genuinely representative democracy. If it is earnest about preventing further bloodshed in Kashmir, the government, whether at the state or the Centre, cannot go back to business as usual.

India has a strategy it always follows whenever it is receiving too much international scrutiny for its human rights abuses in Kashmir. It blames the violence on the victims, accuses them of being terrorists and claims these fighters are nothing more than pawns of Pakistan. It then tries to create an incident with Pakistan so that the world’s attention is shifted away from the indefensible occupation of Kashmir. This is exactly what happened this past Sunday as 14 people were killed after an explosive was detonated in the middle of a crowd protesting the occupation of Kashmir. The Indian army immediately blamed the protesters for setting off the explosive even though the security forces are notorious for their use of explosives to disperse crowds and target protesters. Then, right on cue, India claimed that five supposed terrorists had been killed after trying to cross the Line of Control. As always, it was unable to provide any proof for this allegation. This brazen brinksmanship has not led to a serious escalation till now because of restraint shown by the Pakistani side. Should the same tactic continue to be used, however, the risk of conflict only increases.

In the face of this Indian provocation, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s response was measured. He condemned the Kashmir killings but rather than matching India’s threatening posture he called only for dialogue to resolve the Kashmir dispute. The chances of India taking up this invitation to talks are close to zero. The purpose of this statement was to show that Pakistan is the reasonable party that only wants a diplomatic solution in line with UN resolutions on Kashmir. India’s previous stance has been that Kashmir is a bilateral and not a multilateral issue. Now it is not even willing to hold one-on-one talks with Pakistan. The occupation of Kashmir has so dehumanised India that there is no reasoning with it. It sees all its foes as terrorists and, as eventually happens to all occupiers, is more than willing to use torture and murder as a tool of its policy. The negligible turnout in the recent local government elections in Kashmir showed just how fed up the Kashmiri people are of Indian occupation. How much longer can the international community avert its gaze from the ugly reality of what is happening in Kashmir?