“Despite the curtailment of militant activities in Jammu & Kashmir, the public order dimension in the state has become a cause for serious concern. We need to revisit standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and more focused measures.”

This was part of the prime minister’s address at the annual conference of senior police officers. Except, the prime minister in question was not Narendra Modi but Manmohan Singh. It was 2010, the summer of protests in the Kashmir Valley, when armed forces opened fire on civilians, killing over 120 people.

By the time the prime minister spoke in August 2010, the death toll was already well into the double digits and law enforcement agencies had begun to to look for non-lethal weapons to contain angry mobs. They hit upon pellet guns. For the rest of that summer, the toll continued to climb while many were blinded or maimed. Cut to 2016 and the same scenes from 2010 could have been played on loop. Over 30 civilians killed in four days, scores injured by pellet guns, others beaten severely. And now the spectacle of the Centre rushing in eye surgeons to treat pellet injuries.

It is disturbing that the government must have the same conversation all over again: how to keep the peace in times of crisis without killing or causing serious injuries. Six years of agitation by human rights groups and people on the ground seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Something is terribly wrong with the way the government and law enforcement agencies treat crowds in troubled regions like Jammu and Kashmir and the states of the North East. It starts with a basic failure to recognise the right to protest. When such protests threaten to turn violent, there are serious flaws in the way the state decides to keep the peace.

Basic principles

Human rights activists and lawyers allege the police and paramilitary showed no sign of observing norms set down by international law, such as the “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials”, adopted by the United Nations in 1990. The UN law stresses the use of non-violent measures as far as possible, “proportionate force” if other means are absolutely necessary and the importance of treating violations as criminal offences.

Since the government imposed restrictions and curfews immediately after high-profile militant Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces last Friday, the street protests have been treated as “unlawful assembly”. In such cases, the basic principles allow law enforcement personnel to open fire in self-defence or if there is a “grave threat to life”. Even then, they are meant to give warning and avoid causing “unnecessary harm”. Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code, which also deals with unlawful assembly, is largely in keeping with the the basic principles.

But human rights lawyers say the concept of “least harm” is missing when it comes to crowd control. Organisations like Human Rights Watch have now asked the government to investigate the use of lethal force in this week's protests. It has also been argued that police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel were emboldened by the judicial impunity that has hardened around armed forces in Kashmir. Nothing came of the one-man judicial inquiry commission appointed to look into the killings of 2010, for instance.

Security experts, however, assert that the concept of minimum force already governs all domestic operations.

Panicked reactions

It is possible that the recent casualties did not happen because armed forces bore down on protesters with the intention of causing maximum damage. Security experts paint the picture of bewildered, outnumbered police and paramilitary forces scrambling to deal with volatile situations. As stone pelting and protests shift from one area to the other, intelligence often does not travel fast enough, which means the appropriate number of forces cannot be deployed at the spot in time.

A small group of security personnel meeting the rush of a vast crowd will pull the trigger in panic. If the Jammu and Kashmir police or the Central Reserve Police Force had the comfort of greater numbers at a particular spot, knee-jerk killings may have been avoided, experts feel.

But predicting the course of an angry crowd is near impossible, especially when people with the requisite experience may be short on the ground and institutional memories are short. The J&K police is only a small part of the teams sent out to quell seething crowds. In times of crisis, they are bolstered by the CRPF, posted in the state primarily for counterinsurgency, not law and order. Moreover, paramilitary postings are temporary and senior police officers are frequently transferred. Many of the personnel who might have learnt from the crisis situations of 2010, for instance, are no longer in the state.

Inappropriate weapons

But even security experts cannot justify the use of "non-lethal weapons" such as pellet guns, a favoured crowd control measure in several regions affected by militancy. In Manipur, rubber bullets fired at close range have maimed protesters, claim human rights activists. The guns used in Kashmir come with cartridges that contains 500 iron pellets each. They have been known to blind and rupture multiple organs when sprayed on protesters at close quarters. In chaotic situations, they inevitably are.

This week, at least two people have been killed and others are in critical condition after being hit by pellet guns. Fifteen-year-old Insha Mushtaq currently battles for life at a Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital. On Sunday, she had been watching the protests from the window of her house in Shopian when the barrage of pellets hit her. In another case at SMHS hospital, pellets had pierced a boy’s brain. At least 92 eye surgeries have been conducted so far and some patients may never see again.

In 2014, Mehbooba Mufti's People's Democratic Party had walked out of the state assembly protesting against the use of pellet guns. In 2016, her government presides over the use of the same cruel weapons. Concern for human rights violations only seem to affect parties sitting in the opposition benches.

Political will

Both Mufti and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have now told the armed forces to act with restraint – four days too late. The government cannot pretend to have been caught by surprise this time.

Reports suggest the administration had advance notice of the operations against Wani, and had even taken a decision to "bump off" the popular Hizbul commander. In the Valley, which has seen crowds and clashes after each encounter for months now, this backlash was inevitable. So what explains the administration’s failure to anticipate it – gross incompetence, wilful apathy, or worse, the use of force as a policy?

On one matter, both human rights activists and security experts are in agreement: in the past few days, and in the years leading up to it, the political leadership went missing, closing up channels for dialogue and relying on force to keep the peace in Kashmir. The poor crowd control this week spoke, among other things, of this larger political failure.