It has been more than five weeks since the current unrest broke out in the Kashmir Valley. On Tuesday, the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF) opened fire on Kashmiri protesters, killing five and injuring 18. There are two sides to Tuesday’s incident. The CRPF claims that the protesters were stoning their convoy, and in response, they opened fire. Meanwhile, families of the Kashmiri victims claim that the CRPF opened fire on them for not allowing the Indian flag to be hoisted in Aripanthan village on Independence Day. Whatever narrative one may choose to believe, these incidents of violence are representative of the dire situation in Kashmir.
The current unrest shows no signs of abating. Since the unrest began following the death of militant Burhan Wani, 65 civilians have been killed by the security forces. The state administration under Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has shown itself to be inept in dealing with the current unrest. In a bid to reverse the tide of unpopular sentiment against her administration, Mehbooba took to blaming security forces in her Independence Day address. She shockingly charged the Indian security forces of using Kashmiri civilians as shields in operations against the insurgents during the peak of militancy in the 1990s. The chief minister also went to assert that guns cannot resolve the current unrest, whether they belong to the militant or the Indian soldier. There is little doubt that guns and violence will quell in the current unrest. But the growing presence of security forces in the region, particularly the army, is down to successive state governments abdicating their responsibilities. Draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Public Safety Act remain in place because successive State administrations have been unable to deal with the law order situation.
This abdication of responsibility has continued with the PDP-BJP coalition government in the state. Law and order have ceased to exist in some parts of the region. In Srinagar’s Nowhatta area, there was a five-hour encounter between militants and security forces. For the first time in nearly a decade, the state capital was witness to such a major encounter. To the uninitiated, the downtown Nowhatta near Bakshi stadium, where the Chief Minister made her Independence Day address. The encounter left one CRPF officer and two militants dead.
Reports indicate that the situation in South Kashmir looks particularly bad. Many among the constabulary have abandoned their posts. Some were even seen joining “anti-India” protests. Vast swathes of South Kashmir are bereft of any local police or civil administration. South Kashmir is at the epicenter of the current unrest. In North Kashmir, even though the army and paramilitary forces are in greater numbers, the local police and civil administration are nowhere to be seen. Reports indicate that the Chief Minister’s panicked response to civilian deaths and the horrific injuries inflicted by the use of pellet guns have resulted in the current administrative vacuum.
According to one leading national daily, Mufti instructed local policemen to remain “invisible” from the streets and avoid giving the slightest provocation for another potential flashpoint. The maintenance of law and order in a volatile area is a complex affair. Nonetheless, without a functioning police, who are trained to maintain law and order, the state government has ceded space to the paramilitary and armed forces. Mufti talks about the need to hold security forces accountable for their misdeeds. But with AFSPA and a non-existent state administration, these unaccountable acts of violence will continue to occur. The use of excessive force, resulting in civilian casualties, should not surprise anyone. Moreover, it is no surprise that ministers and legislators from both the PDP and BJP are afraid to move around freely in the Valley.
Many PDP legislators are in fact afraid to visit their own constituencies. The state administration seems clueless on how to deal with the current unrest. Matters have been further exacerbated by the fact that the BJP and PDP can’t seem to see eye to eye on key matters of policy. There is virtually little communication between the coalition partners.
This divergence between the PDP and BJP has been witnessed on two recent occasions. Earlier this month, the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the BJP asked the state government to deal with the current situation in the Kashmir Valley decisively and with an “iron hand.” This assertion was in sharp divergence to what the Chief Minister advocated. “There is a need to apply balm to the wounds of Kashmiri people,” Mufti said. “Hope PM will address the unrest in Kashmir…Try to heal wounds, start talks to keep up Vajpayee ji’s Jammu and Kashmir initiative.” Another instance of this divergence came during Independence Day. In his address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went all guns blazing against Pakistan, supporting insurgencies in Balochistan, Gilgit, and PoK. The aggressive posture taken by the Modi government is a well-calibrated attempt to corner Pakistan on their domestic concerns. Although this could force Pakistan to answer some uncomfortable questions about their domestic insurgencies on international forums, it does not change the situation in the Valley.
Moreover, no attempt to corner Pakistan on international forums could come to fruition unless New Delhi can devise a strategy to either co-opt or nullify Beijing’s influence in the region. China has decided to use Pakistan to not only further their economic interests in the region but also as a buffer against potential security threats. Also, Pakistan actually supports militancy in Kashmir. India, meanwhile, has committed very little to support Baloch rebels on the ground. In her Independence Day address, Mufti spoke of the need for India and Pakistan to work together for peace in Kashmir.
This has been backed up by her repeated criticism of the security forces and public apologies for the killing of Burhan Wani and those protesting his death. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has already categorically that the government will not discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, but only PoK.
The public discourse on Kashmir in India has once again grown increasingly polarised. Any attempt to discern the finer nuances of the current unrest has been met with suspicion and outright hostility from both sides. There is very little middle ground. Any attempt to resolve the Kashmir situation will require both a competent state administration and a sane public discourse. Without these elements, only divisive rhetoric and violence will reign. People in positions of authority must find a way of honestly dealing with the current unrest without the unnecessary posturing and rhetoric.