Counter-insurgency strategies need to be re-tailored to minimize loss and harassment to civilians
As the security forces claimed a major success by killing two top Hizb militants on Tuesday, the gutting of over a dozen houses in the crowded Nawakadal area in Srinagar’s downtown raises the pertinent concern about whether the encounter strategy, especially in congested localities, can be modified to avoid such a huge collateral damage. Some unverified reports have maintained that some of the inmates of the houses also suffered burn injuries. Videos of the gutted houses and their now homeless inmates wailing and claiming that their houses were burnt down by grenades and arson and some of them even alleged that the security personnel entered their homes before that and stole their cash, jewellery and even LPG cylinders. While allegations of theft, abjectly denied by the police, need to be verified and probed, the larger question is whether anti-militancy operations need to be conducted, adopting an effective strategy to avoid collateral damages including destruction of houses and unnecessary inconvenience to ordinary people who have nothing to do with militancy. Kashmir is littered with stories of civilians caught in the cross-firing, young boys used as human shields and damaged houses.
The strategy of bombing the site of encounter to ensure that there are no booby-traps left behind has been going on for years. Recent encounters in Kashmir, however, reveal that the destruction of buildings is no longer limited to the one being used by militants as a hide-out but extends to the adjacent structures as well. This is especially a travesty of justice when encounters take place in residential areas, making it difficult for the people, often poor, to gather their lives again and begin anew. Unlike human casualties, the destruction of homes is not even acknowledged as a collateral damage and no compensation is paid for the houses and buildings that are gutted during the encounters for no fault of their owners.
About 15 families in Srinagar were rendered homeless due to the encounter which the security forces deem as a major success. This begs the answer to the question: Should national security and counter-insurgency come at a huge price of rendering people homeless? It also brings into focus the imperative need for the security grid in Kashmir to re-strategise on how the civilians should not be involved in combats. While militants should not risk the lives of civilians by turning congested residential spaces into hideouts, it is indeed a tall order for the security personnel to tackle such a situation. However, the manner in which the Nawakadal encounter ended with colossal loss of houses, there is need for introspection of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure minimal damages.
By any yardstick, sending up 15 houses in smoke is not minimal. The job of the security forces, by no means easy, is to flush out militants and target them to ensure law and order, not to disturb it further by going berserk in their vendetta and targeting innocent people either by way of loss of life or loss of property. The government should take ownership of the loss, begin an earnest probe and at least as an immediate announcement for adequate relief and compensation for those who have been rendered homeless.