Kulgam Tragedy: This is why Delhi can’t discount civilian casualties

On Sunday the All India Radio news bulletin at 5 p.m. mentioned the killing of three militants in a gunfight in Kulgam area of south Kashmir. Shockingly, it did not even mention the six civilians who were killed at the same encounter site. It may have been an inadvertent omission. Not that it would make any difference even if it was deliberate on part of the news editors, but it smacks of utter disregard to civilian lives in the valley.

Given the way things have transpired in recent years, killing militants is seen as the only way to restore peace in the valley even if civilians are killed and injured in such military operations. The military strategists are only concerned with militant killings. They also make sure to punish whosoever seems to support or provide shelter to the militants. The military approach does not account for civilian deaths. The ‘collateral casualties’ may be brushed aside as insignificant, but the fact is that civilian killings are a major impediment to normalcy. As Kashmiris continue to die, normalcy hopes also diminish by the day.

The official line blames Pakistan for inciting trouble in Kashmir and it has been serving the successive governments and ruling parties quite well. The opposition parties can’t afford to question it and the media is more than obliged to pass it on to the Indian public without scrutiny. This convenient description, however, does not reflect the real tragedy of Kashmir. It is rather devoid of context. As a result, most Indians have been largely kept ignorant about the real ground situation in Kashmir. The pain and agony of Kashmiris is lost in oblivion.

This attitude was best exhibited in 2010 when Indian politicians cutting across political lines found the then Home Minister P Chidambram’s muscular Kashmir policy as flawless while his handling of Maoist violence did not go without criticism. The then AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh termed Chidambram as “intellectually arrogant” while criticizing his policy on combating Naxals. This despite the fact that Chidambram had shown more humane approach towards Naxal problem. He repeatedly ruled out possibility of sending army despite major attacks against CRPF. Chidambaram asserted that the government did not want to use the armed forces to contain Naxal violence “as this could lead to loss of civilian lives”. The Naxals seem buoyed by the home minister’s stance even going to the extent of threatening to kill him and Home Secretary G K Pillai to avenge the killing of one of their senior leaders.

While no Indian politician spared a word for the civilian killings in the valley let alone sympathise with the bereaved families, the Naxals found several considerate voices like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Addressing a meeting convened by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Kumar said, “Enforcement action alone leads to wider alienation…and leads to only symptomatic treatment, leaving the underlined disease to reappear in a more virulent form.”

He went on to call Naxals as part of Indian society “even though they have been misled into following the path of violence”. This is in stark contrast to the response of Indian politicians to Kashmir situation.

Infact Kashmir’s own politicians have remained mum over the unabated killings. National Conference president Farooq Abdullah seemed to have gone in a hiding while Kashmir was on boil in 2010 when his son Omar Abdullah was the chief minister of the state. He maintained criminal silence while young boys continued to fall to CRPF and police bullets. Speaking to CNN IBN’s Karan Thapar, Farooq defended Omar asserting that he will emerge a “better man” from the crisis in his state. He also had a piece of advice for his son- “come to grips with the administration and show the door to officials who don’t perform”. Alas! When Kashmiris were dying all this time he did not even spare even a word for the victims.

Back to the current crisis, it should be seen in the light of the trend that has emerged in recent years: Kashmiris, particularly the youth, display open solidarity with the militants and seek to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations. As a result, militant killings are invariably accompanied by civilian deaths. The deaths don’t just leave behind devastated families. They also draw some youth to take up the gun to avenge their loss. They only end up getting killed with concomitant civilian casualties, leaving more shattered families behind. This cycle of violence has devoured entire generation of Kashmiris.

While combating militancy, Delhi should not discount civilian casualties. If the government is really interested in bringing normalcy to Kashmir, it has to rethink its strategy. Military solution to a purely political problem is more than likely to fail in the long run even if it seems to fetch some short-term results.

suhail@risingkashmir.com

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