Shopian killings

Conflicting narratives once again reflect the absence of accountability mechanisms.The killings of 4 civilians, besides two militants, during an encounter in Pahnoo village near Shopian, on Sunday, are not only a chilling reminder of the continuation of bloodshed in Kashmir Valley but also reflect the absence of accountability with respect to loss of human lives. Despite several gaps in the story of the inexplicable rising toll of casualties in the encounter and the claims of the civilians, not only has the shocking incident ended in contradictory statements from the various official quarters, the army has sought to justify each and every killing even before the investigations can begin with a sweeping remark that all the civilians killed were ‘over ground workers’.

This blanket narrative of every person slain by security forces branded as a terrorist, stone pelter, sympathizer or over ground worker cannot be used to stonewall the allegations of human rights violations. Neither can the killings be wished away or ignored with the state government’s narrative of ‘killings in cross-firing’. Such killings are not an aberration and cannot provide the cold comfort of ‘accidental mishaps’. The government forces must be held accountable for intended violation of human rights abuse or reckless firings resulting in loss of precious human lives in the name of collateral damage. If similar is the case with the mysterious encounter in Shopian, facts must be allowed to come to the surface. Several questions in this particular incident that took place late Sunday evening remain unanswered.

The conflicting claims of the state government, army and the locals do not add up. Nor do pertinent questions with respect to the discovery of two bodies, one of a civilian, found 200 metres away from the encounter site, and another of a militant, found several kilometers away. While security forces have had a history of involvement in various human rights violations in Kashmir and taking cover behind impunity accorded by Armed Forces Special Powers Act or undue official patronage, in the recent past they have also been faced with the difficult situation of angry protestors laying a siege around encounter sites in a bid to protect the militants caught in the gun-fire. While brutal back-lash on such angry mobs cannot be justified or condoned, the strains and stress under which the security forces operate in such situations must not be overlooked either. Pahnoo’s encounter may have had any one or both of the elements.

Without grappling with the emerging serious questions with respect to the sequence of events, no one, including the angry public, can enjoy the luxury of jumping to conclusions. Only a fair probe can settle these. However, the onus of ensuring a fair probe rests on the shoulders of the government, both in the state and in the Centre. Going by the past record where investigations and fair probes have been severely impeded by the government which has been seen as a patron of the cover of impunity enjoyed by the security forces, the Shopian case is likely to follow the familiar pattern. The encounter coincided with the Supreme Court directions to not name army officer in killings of two civilians allegedly by army personnel less than two months ago. This once again shows the systemic manner in which investigations against security personnel are stone-walled. The Pahnoo encounter underscores the need for establishing accountability mechanisms, the absence of which foments deeper anger and triggers deadlier phases of violence. This needs to be stopped and it is clear that this cannot be done militarily alone. Probing allegations of human rights abuse could be a useful intervention that the government could try for creating conducive atmosphere for starting a dialogue, instead.