We have come full circle in Kashmir since the uprising of 2010.
Large-scale repression appears to have quelled the 2016 uprising in many places, but the tactics employed leave a nasty foreboding that this will initiate another cycle of unrest sooner or later.
Large numbers of young men and boys have been picked up over the past few weeks. Many of them have been jailed. Others are in police lockups. Such tactics seeded fresh troubles in the past, but the state appears to have learnt no lessons.
In fact, these are exactly the sorts of processes that turned Burhan Wani of Tral into a militant. He was a bright and charismatic 15-year-old schoolboy in 2010 when vicious battery by Special Task Force policemen drove him to become a militant. It was his killing by security forces on July 8 that sparked the uprising which the recent operations are trying to suppress.
More than 5,600 people have been named in 2,200-plus First Information Reports that have been registered, Director-General of Police, Coordination, SP Vaid has been quoted as saying. A local newspaper report put the number of arrests at 6,000. The number detained may be higher. The newspaper said these operations had been underway for three weeks.
The police is said to be back to its cruel tactics of humiliation, assault, abuse and intimidation. There is talk of boys being stripped naked and beaten ruthlessly at police posts and stations. If true, this would not be the first time it has happened. Videos of such assaults have been posted online in the past.
Others allege that, in some instances, up to Rs 50,000 each have been extorted to let some of the boys go.
Some of the boys who have been picked up, and kept in lock-ups for a few days, are said to be in their pre-teens.
Throwing in the towel
To be sure, this age bracket has been at the forefront of enforcing the shutdown with stones, barricades, and abuse, but such operations represent an admission of defeat, an abject failure to handle youth ferment socially and politically when it was building across South Kashmir over the past year.
The question here is not the causes of the anger that has been manifest among teenagers and younger children.
The new iron fist means the policy adopted in the early weeks after Burhan’s death has come a cropper. Essentially, the strategy was inaction – wait, watch and hope. The government apparently expected that the agitations would settle down, that energies would dissipate but, clearly, there was no intelligence or analysis worth the name.
During that first phase, the state government was eager to show a soft face – after the knee-jerk excesses of the first two days – to highlight a contrast with Omar Abdullah’s handling of the uprising in 2010. By opting for this sort of suppression, they have now thrown in the towel.
These suppression operations have often been traumatic. Residents of areas near Tral experienced a horrific night in the week after Eid during which blasts and gunfire continued from 10.30 pm till 2.30 am. Residents say a police officer of the sub-division shot up transformers, leaving the area without power. Residents say that 30-plus vehicles of the police and army turned up the next day to round up those on the police lists.
Similar reports have emerged from other parts of South Kashmir, such as Kokernag. Families of those who have been picked up have been scrambling to get their sons released, but it has been difficult for them to reach anyone. A major part of the problem (and, ironically, one reason for this operation) is that political activists of the ruling establishment have been missing on the ground.
Beyond the signal of defeat, the new strategy has several flaws. The most obvious is the misuse of Public Safety Act. This black law, commonly known as PSA, was put on the state’s statute in November 1977 to replace the dreaded Emergency law, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, also known as MISA. It allows the police to lock up anyone for two years without needing to prove any charge in court. It has repeatedly been misused, and has become a symbol of cruel oppression.
Partly because the PSA frees them from the constraints of presenting adequate evidence, the police have picked up large numbers of boys and young men whom they suspect of leading the stone-pelting demonstrations over the past couple of months. In many cases, the youth who have been picked up were indeed leaders of the pelting brigades, but there are bound to be mistakes.
In many places, young boys who have been out in the crowds – and so were photographed by policemen – have been picked up. But many of those who have been behind organising the agitations have escaped the dragnet.
Either intelligence is superficial, or political games are at play again. For, many of these organisers belong to one or other political party or outfit, and so are part of the network of power and influence.
One of the most distressing aspects of this new strategy is that many of those who have been rounded up have been sent to the most dreaded jails in the state – at Kathua and Jammu. There, they could be influenced by hardened criminals and some of the most noted Islamist ideologues of the secessionist struggle – such as Qasim Faktoo, whose wife Asiya Andrabi runs the Islamist women’s organisation, Dukhtaran-e-Millat.
By locking up large numbers of the alienated, the state only expands the ranks of ideologically driven secessionists. It happened in 2010-'11, as it had in the 1980s. Some of the early commanders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front such as Ishfaq Majid and Hamid Sheikh were locked up after the 1987 elections, during which they had been election agents. Ishfaq and Abdul Ahad Waza, the initiating commanders-in-chief of the JKLF, met each other in jail.
Army should not be policing
Although the army’s high-spend Operation Sadbhavana (goodwill) has been ineffective, the army had managed through discipline, civility and restraint to undo much of the damage it did to its own reputation and credibility in the second half of the 1990s.
But another distressing aspect of what is afoot in Kashmir since the current protests started is the diversion of the army to police duties. The army has been roped into these rounding up operations in South Kashmir, where the police appears to lack the confidence to work on its own. South Kashmir’s Operation Calm Down, as it has been imaginatively named, was launched by the army chief during a visit to the Valley just a week before the Uri attack.
This is a bad idea for various reasons. One, the army should not be involved in policing. It is not trained for the job of maintaining law and order. And it diverts it from its primary duty. The army’s resolute refusal to get involved during the stone-pelting of 2010 was an excellent decision.
Two, this negates the idea of winning hearts and minds that the army has touted since at least the beginning of this century in Kashmir. Instead, the army is sure to lose popularity – over the past few years, it had been less hated than the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (which, among the three forces, is most hated among Kashmiri youth by and large).
What is happening now does not augur well. As with Burhan Wani, this sort of misguided operation could push a new generation of youth to pick up arms. The difference is that militancy was at a low ebb when Wani went underground. Now, militancy and infiltration have taken a quantum leap.
Perhaps we have not just come full circle but entered an escalating spiral.
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