For the last week, the vale of Kashmir has been racked by violence over the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl in Handwara.
The protests and the response of the security forces have already claimed five lives. Not just Handwara but the rest of the Valley, too, has seen several rounds of protest and curfew. As the summer tourist season is about to commence, all those who have a stake in the peace and security of Kashmir are left wondering if this is the beginning of another scorching summer of discontent that will bring a fresh round of turmoil and misery.
As it is, 2016 has been marked by non-stop attacks on security forces in the Valley. This year has also seen crowds in Kashmir actively trying to engage the security forces with stone-pelting, to facilitate the escape of terrorists, even as gun battles raged on.
With Handwara, a new trend seems to have emerged — mobs are incited against security forces using trumped-up or embellished allegations. The aim is to drive the Valley further into a spiral of violence, alienation and despair.
For those of us serving in the troubled state, our task is cut out. On the one hand, there seems to be no change in the resolve of Pakistanis to push in infiltrators charged with directly attacking Indian security forces. On the other, their separatist stooges have been given orders to create maximum unrest in areas around the focus of fidayeen attacks, to distract and dilute the response of security forces. As Handwara shows, related to this is the tactic of inflaming public opinion on sensitive issues. One way or the other, the Valley is to be kept on the boil so that the duly elected state government is preoccupied with fire-fighting and the agenda of peace and development is derailed.
In the wake of these developments, the faultlines in J&K have manifested themselves along entirely predictable lines. Fresh attempts are being made to alienate Kashmiri youth by creating tensions on university campuses across the state and elsewhere in the country. The last decade saw significant efforts by the government to integrate Kashmiri youth into the mainstream by offering them the best available opportunities for higher education nationwide. A campaign is now underway to undo these efforts through well-publicised incidents of campus violence between Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris.
What is disturbing about Handwara is neither the gullibility nor the volatility of sentiments or even the deeprooted hostility of Kashmiris against the government. It is the response of civil society. The media was prepared to believe and propagate the worst kind of allegations against the security forces. The double standards that we apply in Kashmir are clear for everyone to see. Apparently, “innocent until proven guilty” applies only to militants and their sympathisers. The security forces operating in Kashmir — the army, CRPF and J&K Police — are guilty of atrocities until proven otherwise. Mainstream and social media had all but pronounced the armymen manning the bunker in Handwara guilty of molestation, unprovoked firing and murder. The success of the disinformation campaign can be gauged by the fact that even reasonable precautions by the police to secure the victim and her family were projected as coercion. And her testimony exonerating the armymen was immediately denounced as having been obtained under duress. In Kashmir, the past history of excesses, both real and imaginary, is enough to condemn all the actions of security forces in perpetuity. Whereas the depredations of Pakistan-backed separatists are not only justified and glorified by their supporters in the Valley, but are also immediately discounted as government propaganda by India’s mainstream intelligentsia. It’s almost as if our news anchors and columnists need to denounce India and its security forces to convince themselves of their liberal credentials. It is ironic that at a time when even Pakistani civil society is revolting against jihadi organisations, Indian civil society is according them a sickening moral equivalence with the security forces. It is both disheartening and demeaning for all of us who wear a uniform.
The Handwara incident has already resulted in five deaths, destruction of property and the dismantling of the bunker. Perhaps that was the unstated agenda of the militants all along. Create flashpoints and use them to dismantle the infrastructure of the security grid that has been painstakingly created over the last two decades. Expect more Handwaras, more appeals on the dignity of Kashmiris to put the forces on the defensive and give militants more space to operate. But just as providing security is projected as no guarantee of the dignity of the average Kashmiri, naively harping on dignity alone, that too on the terms of the separatists and their backers, will ensure neither dignity nor security.