Surge in civilian deaths

Killings cannot be normalised in the name of counter insurgency and the onus put on public in sweeping remarks; they must be probed.

On the day, minister of state for home affairs Hansraj Ahir admitted on the floor of the parliament that there was a surge in the killings of both militants and civilians in Kashmir, a woman was killed in firing allegedly by the security forces when clashes erupted in Shopian after security forces killed two militants in an encounter. This is the third death of a civilian in the last one week, all killed in more or less similar circumstances. They were killed at sites of encounters and protests. Among them, the killing of a Sumo driver on Saturday is the most shocking. The driver was reportedly going to pick up a patient to carry him to a hospital but was killed by security forces simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The security officials maintained that the Sumo driver did not stop when told to and was shot at on the head, without giving any warning shot, which should have been the standard operating procedure. However, security officials have ruled out any violation in the Standard operating procedures governing conduct of anti-militancy operations in Kashmir and instead put the onus on the people, maintaining that they are risking their lives by trying to help militants flee during gunfights. Though protests at encounter sites do make the job of the security agencies rather difficult, this cannot be used as a general excuse for inability to ensure better military strategies and avoiding civilian casulaties in the name of ‘collateral damage’. Such statements cannot be justifiable means for blanket impunity without investigation and interrogation in the merits and demerits of each case.

Take the instance of the recent three cases. In the Kupwara Sumo driver case, who was evidently not protesting but was just passing by an area close to which an encounter was taking place, a police official has maintained that it may have been a case of ‘mistaken identity’. Earlier, last week, a young woman was killed in Handwara during a gunfight. Officials maintained that she was trying to run when the security forces started the operation and may have been killed in cross-fire. That people happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time does not shift the onus from the security agencies to the public.

This is a clear case of denying ownership and responsibility for the lapses and heinous human rights abuse. In fact, the responsibility is being shirked at the highest levels. The statement of Hansraj Ahir, who gave the statistics regarding Kashmir militancy in parliament on Tuesday, that ’37 civilians had died in 2017 because of militancy’ is a sweeping remark that completely bails out the security agencies without even a probe. Though a substantial number of civilians have been killed by militants in recent months, which is also condemnable, but many of them have also been killed by security forces. These killings cannot be condoned. Rather security agencies are expected to behave more responsibly than militants. Many of these killings have been completely unjustifiable and not mere ‘accidents’ as the official agencies labour to explain. The government must hold the security agencies accountable for their lapses and human rights abuse cannot continue to be the norm that it has been in Kashmir, defended and justified in the name of fighting militancy.

While it is time for the security agencies and the government to desist from normalising the incidents of abuse, it is also time for a rethink of the ongoing military operations and introspect whether indeed it is a successful strategy. Purely the number of militants killed does not qualify as a justifiable measure of success as more and more young boys are picking up the gun. The flaws in the strategy are highlighted not only by the absence of genuine and sincere attempt to reach out to the public politically or the inability to reduce human rights abuse but also by the fact that as against 203 militants killed, 75 security personnel have been killed in 2017. The casualties of the security personnel are too high and disproportionate to celebrate the operations as some kind of a successful model. The government must introspect and plan strategies that are less likely to see such a huge graph of killings, whether of civilians or security personnel.