The Big Story: Deja vu
Seven people – two soldiers, one civilian and four militants – died in Kashmir’s Kulgam district after security forces engaged in a 12-hour gunfight on Sunday. The incident was followed by large protests against the security forces’ action in the area, which also led to clashes between locals and the police, leaving one civilian dead and many more injured.
A joint team of local police and central security forces acted on a tip-off about four militants and launched a search operation on Saturday night, with the police control room in Kulgam claiming that the encounter began after the militants opened fire. While most of the encounter itself seemed to have wound up overnight, with forces saying three other militants escaped, the incident prompted dozens of people from the area to protest. The ensuing clashes and stone-pelting saw police firing at the crowd in an attempt to disperse it.
Militants dying in encounters with security forces may not be uncommon in Kashmir, but the death of civilians in Kulgam has caused outrage in the valley. Separatists have called for a shutdown on Monday and a march to Kulgam to protest against what they called the “brute force” used against civilians. The Opposition National Conference is demanding an investigation into the civilian deaths.
If all of this seems depressingly familiar, it is because it has happened before. Almost exactly a year ago, in Pulwama district, the same script played out, with civilians dying close to the site of an encounter. The police then claimed that the civilians either died in the crossfire or because they were throwing stones at the forces. Witnesses, however, insisted that the Army men simply opened fire on the civilian crowds. The same contention led to the calls for a shutdown and protests in the Valley on Sunday.
The presence of civilians around the sites of encounters has now become commonplace. As the forces attempt to flush out militants, crowds who hear about the action gather at the site and attempt to distract the forces, often hurling stones at them. This often leads to retaliation and civilians end up dead, prompting further outrage in the Valley, bringing up the question of whether the government’s encounter policy is the best strategy to deal with militancy.
This question becomes even more urgent as the state emerges from its brief wintry respite from violence. With the snow melting, there are rumours again of unrest and incidents like the one in Kulgam will only fan the flames. If the government uses security forces to try and quell protests, as it did in 2016, it will most likely see a repeat of the standoff that was in place for much of last year, with many civilian deaths in protests and an even bigger build up of public anger.
By most accounts, the government has done little to use the brief lull of the winter to reach out to people beyond the political and separatist leadership, and attempt to find a solution. If it fails to actively make an effort to talk to the public, the anger that built up over 2016 will turn into unrest yet again – and Kashmir will once again have to grapple with a year full of violence and civilian deaths.
The Big Scroll
- Ipsita Chakravarty and Rayan Naqash give you the anatomy of a militant encounter in Kashmir, which quickly turns into clashes between the public and the forces.
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