The fresh unrest in Lolab that started on Tuesday following an ‘encounter in which Army gunned down 7 militants’ with people demanding the bodies of the slain men, officially claimed to be Pakistani ultras, stems from two facts. One is the skepticism of the public towards the official claims in such incidents and the probability of cover up and fudging evidence in the backdrop of a historical baggage of chilling stage managed encounters in which innocents are picked up, killed and passed off as ‘foreign militants’.
Suspicions come as a natural appendage of such incidents in a place like Kashmir Valley, sparking outrage and protests. Second is the increasing sympathy for the militants with the re-glamourising of the gun in public perception, as was also revealed in the recent killing of a militant from South Kashmir in an encounter. At the root of both these emerging aspects lies the obstinate arrogance and aggression of the Indian state through its agencies and all its political formations in dealing with the territory of Jammu and Kashmir and its people, particularly the Valley. While excessive militarization has been used to suppress the people with use of brute force, the tunnel of Article 370, instead of being used for infusing more autonomy has been a tool in the hands of the State for denial of democratic space in the face of dissent.
The spiral of human rights excesses, the denial of means to address the demands for institutional justice and the absence of functional democracy, whose meaning is altered beyond Lakhanpur, are an abiding reality in Jammu and Kashmir, fuelling massive discontent, and adding to the dismay of an unresolved political dispute. The militarization has been absolute in the last 24 years with army and para-militaries not only manning the borders but also the interiors, virtually usurping and controlling the lives of the civilians with jackboots and guns. The security forces including the state police have been accused in thousands of cases for torture, humiliation, encounters, disappearances, molestations, sexual assaults and other forms of harassment. While the graph of human rights abuse rises, there is a complete denial of the same in the official circles. Voices and campaigns for justice are stonewalled, even brutally crushed.
The last two decades in Kashmir and other militarised areas of J&K are marked by not just brutalities by security forces but also the unlimited protection these personnel get against prosecution, with or without the presence of draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which lend unconditional legitimacy to impunity. Despite massive allegations, with serious evidence pointing out to the same in many of the cases against the security forces, very few cases are ever investigated. Those that are, end up in sham exonerations of men accused of murders and other excesses, like the recent Pathribal case closure. The armed forces and paramilitaries enjoy complete impunity under AFSPA. The local police involved in counter insurgency operations are not covered under AFSPA but the accused men still get shielded due to official and political patronage. An example is the over 130 killings in the summer of 2010.
What adds to the sense of injury and insult is that even as militancy levels declined, there was no serious move to address either the political aspirations of the people or deal with the gigantic human rights crisis. About more than a decade back, people fed up with the gun culture, reposed faith in an amicable resolution of the issue through dialogue and peace process which never happened. Impatience yielding to peaceful protests was met with brutality and today the Kashmiris find themselves pushed to the wall, many of them looking upon the gun-totting militants as their saviours. It was a folly to construe the fatigue factor post-2010 as signs of normalcy and it would be a an even bigger blunder to jump to the convenient simplified conclusion that rising incidence of militancy is essentially a consequence of Pakistan’s strategy (though that can indeed be an additional component) and the re-glamourising of militancy in public perception as a shift towards religious radicalization. It only needs a little sensitivity to realize that this radicalization cannot exist in a vacuum. Sense of alienation, betrayal and rage is too deep-rooted in Kashmir today to make ground conducive for such phenomena. The situation today is not just of an alarming crisis but of much more dangerous proportions; and though still not irreversible, if allowed to be mishandled, with more brutality, or ignored politically, it can explode beyond the scope of making amends, the repercussions of which would have to be borne by the entire sub-continent. While the onus of saving the Valley from this explosive situation lies to some extent also on Kashmir’s civil society, this could be more possible only if New Delhi is willing to provide a conducive climate where rationality and not rage guides the discourse.