It has become a grim cliche now. In South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, another gunfight, another raft of killings, under the veil of a communication blackout. Three militants were killed and two soldiers injured in the gunfight that broke out on October 21. Then, at least six civilians were reported killed and many more injured. While three are believed to have died in a blast at the site of the gunfight, others were allegedly killed during clashes with security forces. The state administration, currently under the stewardship of Governor Satya Pal Malik, responded as if by rote: regret at the loss of civilian lives, with the caveat that they should have followed the advisory and stayed away, and a fresh call for elections. Meanwhile, more blood was shed at the Line of Control, with three jawans and two militants killed. The government’s lack of imagination in responding to the growing spiral of violence in Kashmir has come with tragic costs.
For a couple of years now, it has been evident that gunfights in the Valley have become a spectacle that breeds more violence. A ritual has been established around these armed skirmishes: the search operation and the laying of the security cordons, the opening of fire, the civilian protests, the blasts that mark the last gasps of the fight, and then the funerals. With each gunfight, there are anecdotes of more local youth joining militant ranks, pushed over the edge by the frenzy of grief and anger. By now, it is also no surprise that civilian crowds rush in to intervene between militants and security forces. Advisories warning civilians away and threats by the Army chief that protestors at these sites would be treated like “terrorists” have not worked. Tweaked strategies to avoid civilian casualties do not seem to have worked either. The security apparatus that executes these operations and the political establishment that gives tacit sanction must recognise that gunfights, or “encounters” as they are euphemistically called, have become part of a deadly cycle of violence.
The ideal alternative would a robust political process that responds to the realities of the Valley. Except the only idea the state administration had to offer was fresh Assembly elections. The elected state government fell in June, after the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, and the governor now feels no legitimate government can be formed out of the existing legislature. But elections in Kashmir have been reduced to a farce. In 2017, bye-elections to the Lok Sabha were marked by violence and a turnout of about 7%. The municipal elections that were just conducted yielded a dismal 4.8% turnout in the Valley, vacant wards with no contestants and candidates winning after a single vote was polled. The government needs to ask itself whether such elections really reflect the political will of the people, whether they lead to genuinely representative democracy. If it is earnest about preventing further bloodshed in Kashmir, the government, whether at the state or the Centre, cannot go back to business as usual.