Anger has once again given way to despondency in the Kashmir valley following the killing of five civilians, including an elderly woman, in army firing. A week after the first incident of firing that killed three in the northern Handwara town last Tuesday, Srinagar appeared like a subdued city reconciled to loss, absence of justice and perpetual humiliation. Handwara, the border town with one of the highest concentrations of troops in Kashmir continued to remain under curfew for the sixth day.

The battle has been won again, the people defeated after another round of fierce protests, prompted this time by the allegation that a soldier tried to sexually assault a schoolgirl in a public toilet. This was enough of a trigger in the powder keg that is Kashmir where the people must, every day of their life, deal with the presence among them of more than half a million soldiers they deeply resent, beside an unfriendly police force 120,000 strong, little different from the military in many people’s experience as the first flank of repression.

The reality has sustained an explosive condition inside the restive valley, always waiting for a trigger to explode the keg. That is what happened last Tuesday. Residents, incensed at the allegation, attacked the army bunker in the center of the border town and later set it on fire following the initial killings. Another cycle of violent protests, firing and killings followed.

The cycle is familiar, so has the State response been, this time too.

Viral video

The last man in this latest round of protest and firing was yet to be killed when a video of the schoolgirl, apparently recorded inside a police premises while she was unaccompanied by anyone from her family, went viral. In that video the minor girl vaguely dismissed molestation by any soldier and instead appeared to blame a boy in school uniform of harassment and snatching her bag.

This was clearly aimed at handing out ammunition to the media and to justify the killings. Soon, mobile internet service was suspended across Kashmir while police continued to keep the schoolgirl in “protective custody” illegally along with her father and aunt who were brought in later, their mobile phones taken away. The police say that suspending internet services prevents rumor-mongering. But the schoolgirl and her relatives were also kept incommunicado to prevent them legal access, rights activists said.

The courts also intervened, but only after human rights activists exposed the illegality of the girl’s detention and questioned the veracity of the video. The schoolgirl – it is unimaginable what kind of pressure she must be undergoing surrounded by police personnel all this while – has since recorded a statement in front of a magistrate following court directions. A police statement later said the girl revealed, “as soon as she came out of lavatory she was confronted, assaulted and dragged by two boys and her bag was snatched. One of the boys was in school uniform.” It repeats what was apparently extracted from her in the initial video.

The question is, why would the state machinery do this, despite the troops being protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that grants them legal immunity from prosecution in civilian courts? Allegations of sexual violence by soldiers as well as some police personnel and bureaucrats have been regularly established in the decades following the beginning of the counter-insurgency campaign in Kashmir. Barring a handful of court martials, the opaque military trials, most allegations of sexual assault by government forces’ personnel have been dismissed. Not a single prosecution has taken place ever.

The day after the latest killing spree took place in Handwara and Kupwara, the daily English-language newspaper, Kashmir Reader put out an editorial summarizing the perpetual cycle of violence and humiliation.

It said:

 “We may, for example, witness a shifting of focus from the killings to the ‘relationship’ between the young girl and an Indian army man. The point of that would be to, by default, try and obliterate the rape and molestation of Kashmiri women by Indian forces by positing some cases where ‘alleged’ molestation did not take place. Just as, for example, the well-oiled skullduggery machine might also posit that the protestors, against the ‘alleged’ molestation, somehow ‘provoked’ deadly force. The point of all this, simply, is the counter-insurgency strategy of pacification: which means violence ‘can’ go down if Kashmiris ‘accept’ the premise of their lack of dignity and claim to rights.”  

That is where it ends. Rumors, that will in all probability become true soon, already abound that the families of those five killed during the protests have been offered monetary compensation for the loss of their loved ones.

The old rhetoric

No one, including the new chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, whose staple was to scream for justice, the repeal of laws like AFSPA and demilitarisation, will talk about the stifling and humiliating conditions the people of Kashmir have been condemned to live. Kashmir is normal again; awaiting tourists, while the people themselves will have no choice but to relegate another bloody week to their memory.

But elsewhere, how Kashmiris are reacting to the stifling conditions they have found themselves stuck in for decades is not making it to the screaming media headlines.

Since the beginning of the year, young Kashmiris, sometimes in their thousands, have been descending on the sites of gun-battles between armed militants and government forces every time they break out. Putting themselves at risk of being killed, they rain stones on the forces during the frequent encounters to help the militants escape from the forces’ cordon.

Three have died in such incidents so far and scores are nursing injuries. The Kashmiri youth again see the armed militants as the only ones fighting with their lives to change their political condition. But as some have been saying, Kashmir is a condition, which is also home to a few million people.