When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Srinagar on May 19, he referred to the ceasefire his government had announced two days earlier. “The idea of Ramzan ceasefire is to give Kashmiri youth a sense of stability and a chance to progress,” Modi had said during a speech at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre in the state’s summer capital. “The ceasefire is also an awakening call to those forces misusing Islam.”
Two days later, two girls received bullet injuries after Army troops opened fire on villagers during an iftar party the local Army unit had organised in DK Pora village of South Kashmir’s Shopian district. Referring to the incident, an Army spokesperson said that after the iftar party had started on Monday, a “large crowd instigated by the miscreants” had “resorted to heavy stone pelting posing serious threat to the safety of the troops. The troops verbally cautioned the crowd, but when stone pelting further intensified, they took necessary preventive measures and moved out of the area”.
While announcing the unilateral ceasefire on May 16, the Union government had said that the decision was taken “to help peace loving Muslims observe Ramzan in a peaceful environment” but security forces “reserve the right to retaliate if attacked or if essential to protect the lives of innocent people”.
This condition and Monday’s incident have laid bare just how fragile the ceasefire in the Valley is.
Militants reject ceasefire
Militant groups operating in Kashmir rejected the ceasefire the day the Centre announced it. The Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Toiba said any ceasefire on the part of militants would be a “sin and disgrace to the sacrifices put up in the freedom struggle”. In a statement issued to the press, the banned outfit said that the ceasefire was simply “drama”. The statement said: “Mahmood Shah, Chief Lashkar-e-Taiba, has firmly asserted that cease-fire is no option and no thought can be given on such compromise.”
The United Jihad Council, the Pakistan-based umbrella outfit of major militant groups operating in the Valley, called the ceasefire a joke. It said in a statement: “[T]he ceasefire announcement was just a ‘joke’ and India was trying to mislead the international community by such cosmetic measures. Kashmiris won’t be carried away by such tactics”.
Militant activity in the Valley has been steady since the ceasefire announcement. On the morning of May 17, the body of a 23-year-old civilian was found in North Kashmir’s Hajin. It is suspected that he was killed by militants. Later that day, a rifle was snatched from a policeman posted at Kashmir University in Srinagar. The same day, three weapons were also snatched from the police at a hotel in Srinagar’s Dalgate area, a tourist hub about 3 km from the chief minister’s home. On May 18, gunmen attacked a bank in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, and escaped with Rs 3.28 lakh. On May 23, a grenade attack by militants in South Kashmir’s Bijbehara injured 10 civilians, including a 12-year-old child.
A position of strength
Police officials in the Valley say that the Shopian incident notwithstanding, the ceasefire announcement was a “benevolent gesture” for civilians, not militants. An alarming number of civilians have been killed near gunfight sites this year as security forces face stiff resistance from local residents during counter-insurgency operations.
Yet, the announcement came from “a position of strength”, a senior police official said. So far this year, at least 68 militants have been killed, the highest number for the period in recent years. “We have blunted their designs to carry out any sensational attack,” he said, attributing this to the “successive elimination of top commanders of various organisations”.
The ceasefire was also to encourage surrenders, said the senior police official. According to him, an estimated 50-54 youth had been recruited by militant outfits from across the Valley. “The ceasefire is also to try and give them a chance to come back,” he said.
There has been criticism from various quarters that a ceasefire would help militants regain ground, but police officials in the state dismissed these concerns as “hawkish theories”.
The ceasefire also comes as a breather for the Jammu and Kashmir Police, which is renewing its counter-insurgency strategy. The focus now, the senior police official said, was on “mitigating terrorist infrastructure and support networks”. The senior police official pointed out that the ceasefire did not prevent them from taking such action. “It is a ceasefire, not a halt in operations,” he said. “Killing militants is not the only kind of operation.”
He added: “There is no let up in targeting and busting militant modules and we are not allowing them to regroup. By mitigating and destroying militant infrastructure, bases, and networks, we are targeting militant structures, and [indirectly] militants.”
Lack of political measures
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had sought a ceasefire on May 9 while speaking to reporters after a meeting of mainstream parties in the Valley. “Everyone agreed that we must appeal to the Centre that it must think about a unilateral ceasefire like Vajpayeeji did in 2000,” she had said. “Encounters, crackdowns is causing trouble to common man. Efforts must be made to maintain environment so that both Eid and Amarnath Yatra are peaceful.”
However, the mainstream parties have not gone beyond their initial statement welcoming the ceasefire. Police officials point to this as an indication that the atmosphere of hostility, gunfights and ensuing street protests, and deaths is likely to return once the ceasefire ends.
Another senior police official said that the Valley was headed towards an “undeclared ceasefire” in any case. He said that in the summer months the vegetation in orchards, where militant movement is believed to be high, hampers visibility for operations. The upcoming Amarnath yatra – from June 28 to August 26 – also meant that the security establishment’s “alignment and focus is defensive”.
He said that the posturing this time, in the form of the grand announcement of a ceasefire, has given mainstream political parties an opportunity to gain ground. “They have something to show to the people now,” he said. “They demanded a ceasefire and were given it. But they haven’t gone to the people with it yet.”
He added that the killing of militants should not be the yardstick to measure any improvement in the situation in Kashmir. “The celebration should be around how much of a good impact it [operations against militants] has had on the situation,” the police official said. “Killing militants is not a big deal but [political measures] need to be taken as well”.
Rafi Mir, chief spokesperson of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, conceded that enough was not being done to improve the situation in the Valley but blamed the hostile environment in the region for that. “There are areas that we can enter and some that we cannot,” he said. “Political activities are possible when the situation is conducive.”
He said that the ceasefire did not just come as a relief for the common Kashmiri, but also helped create a conducive situation for future talks. “It is to say that nothing will come of stones or bullets,” he said. “It is only by coming to the table, for talks that all sides can be heard.”