On May 9, Umar Fayaz Parray, a 22-year-old army officer from Kulgam district in South Kashmir, was abducted and killed. He was home on a fortnight’s leave from the Akhnoor sector in Jammu, where he was posted. According to local journalists, he had already spent 12 days at his home in Sudsona village. Parray was at his cousin’s wedding in neighbouring Shopian district when he was kidnapped.

As news of the killing broke on Wednesday, Parray’s name was swept up in a social media storm. His death was condemned by a range of public figures, from Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

There was renewed criticism of “stone-pelters”, “terrorists” and “anti-nationals”. There were tributes holding him up as a model Kashmiri, in contrast to Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose death last July triggered a summer of violent protest. It was reminiscent of the split screens on television last year, showing Kashmiri Indian Administrative Service officer Shah Faesal on one side and Wani on the other, until Faesal himself protested this formulation in a strongly worded opinion piece.

This time, anger was fuelled by reports that there had been stone-pelting on the funeral procession bearing Parray’s body. These reports were later refuted by journalists who visited the spot.

Parray’s death is a tragedy. But missing in the reactions to it, especially from those in positions of authority, is a contemplation of the sobering realities that surround it.

Unidentified killers

Two facts should be noted about Parray’s death and the events around it.

First, it is not yet clear who was behind the killing. The Army condemned it as an act of terrorism. According to local journalists in Kulgam, no militant group has claimed responsibility for it yet.

Last week, when a cash van was ambushed in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, killing five security personnel and two guards working with the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, the Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack on the “forces party”. Last month, after public prosecutor Imtiyaz Khan was killed near his house in Shopian district, it was also attributed to “unidentified gunmen”. According to Khan’s family, the three main militant groups in the area – Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad – had left a letter at local mosques claiming they were not responsible for the killing.

It is a fact, however, that Shopian and Kulgam districts are at the epicentre of the new phase of indigenous militancy in Kashmir. According to some estimates, most of the 110 local militants active in the Valley come from the four districts of South Kashmir, Kulgam, Pulwama, Anantnag and Shopian. Kulgam, Parray’s home district, bore heavy civilian casualties during the unrest of 2016. Forces cracking down on militants are routinely met with fierce resistance from residents here.

Second, just last week, Shopian district, from where Parray was abducted, witnessed the largest cordon and search operation conducted by the armed forces in Kashmir in 15 years. According to police officials in South Kashmir, at least five villages were cordoned off, but fear spread across a wider area as the forces passed through a dozen villages.

People in the Valley saw it a throwback to the 1990s, when large areas would be cordoned off for days and searched, bringing life to a standstill. Those living in the villages that were searched said they were roughed up and their property damaged. They also said they did not see any official channel of redressal for the damages. Public anger against the security forces runs high.

Compass of violence

The killing of an unarmed Kashmiri army officer who was not on duty also marks a worrying new trend in the Valley. Until last year, most skirmishes involved gunfights between militants and the security forces, ambushes on convoys and military camps, rifle-snatching and attacks on policemen on duty.

This year, as the Anantnag and Srinagar Lok Sabha constituencies headed for bye-elections, political workers came under attack. In Pulwama, the district president of the ruling People’s Democratic Party was killed as he was returning home in the evening. The two private security officers escorting him in his car were reportedly unarmed (they were not harmed). Another advocate, also said to have been associated with the People’s Democratic Party, was killed by unidentified gunmen at his house. Other workers renounced mainstream politics at gunpoint, in videos that were widely circulated.

Further, in Shopian and Pulwama districts, militants visited the families of policemen, asking them to leave the force or face consequences. The state was compelled to issue standing instructions to police personnel to avoid going home.

As the months pass, violence is claiming an ever-widening compass of victims in Kashmir. After Parray’s death, Jaitley has reiterated the “nation’s commitment to eliminating terrorism from the Valley”. Abhay Krishna, general officer commanding-in-chief of the South Western command, put out a statement describing the killing as a “watershed moment in Kashmir”, which would “turn the tide against terrorism”.

But before they prepare to answer force with greater force, both the government and the Army need to consider the costs, both to the residents of the Valley who have to live with violence, and to their troops, whose lives they have a duty to preserve.