By: Khursheed Wani
On May 27, Sarshad Ahmad, a young Islamic studies student was shot in forehead outside the cordoned area in Tral’s Saimoh village. He died instantly. He was part of protestors who attempted to run over the cordoned area, and eventually did, to rescue holed up militants. Two militants did escape from the encounter site and two others including Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, an aide of Burhan Wani, who had joined militant ranks a day after Burhan’s elder brother Khalid was killed by army in a staged encounter on April 13, 2015.
These killings triggered spontaneous protests in most parts of Kashmir. With separatists calling a two-day shutdown, the authorities responded with imposition of curfew in select localities, clampdown on separatists, communication blockade and closure of educational institutions. A repetition of situation that emerged after Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016 was largely averted.
The Saimoh encounter proved a boon and bane for the army. They shot dead a top-ranking rebel and his associate but had to combat protestors and subsequently shot a protester before withdrawing. Perhaps this compelled the army chief Gen Bipin Rawat to reveal the newest strategy adopted in Kashmir to tackle new militancy and pubic support to it. “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what (I want to do),” he said in an interview. Understandably, he wants to kill them all. He also spoke on futility of political initiatives and justified the action of a Major taking a civilian as human shield as “innovative method”. Rawat has already bestowed a commendation medal to the officer pending the final outcome of a court of inquiry investigating his act, setting a new precedent.Soon after he was handpicked to become the army chief, superseding two senior officers, Gen Rawat has toed the political line of the Narendra Modi government, in letter and spirit. His earlier announcement that stone-pelters would be taken as over-ground workers of militants changed the combat methodology on ground. At least eight civilians were killed since that remark. They included three protesters at Darbug (Chadoora) who were killed protesting outside an encounter site where a militant armed with a pistol was holed up in a residential house. This mayhem in March set tone for historic election boycott in Srinagar parliamentary by-poll that recorded 7 percent turnout and killing of eight anti-poll protesters. But for the Chadoora incident, the situation could have been quite different.
Gen Rawat’s latest remarks on Kashmir situation came two weeks after he arrived in Kashmir to take stock of the ground situation. He briefed defence minister Arun Jaitley in Srinagar, who during his discourses also refused political engagement and reiterated muscular management. Interestingly, the BJP’s leadership in Delhi including its president Amit Shah and central ministers Rajnath Singh and Venkayah Naidu endorsed Rawat’s comments. This reflects a well thought over political plan.
It is not a secret that the BJP’s ‘tough stance’ in Kashmir has not altered the ground situation an iota. From the much-hyped ‘surgical strikes’ in September last to the iron-fist approach against militants and stone-throwers, the situation in Kashmir has turned grimmer. The number of active militants has swelled with south Kashmir in the grip of local militants while the north Kashmir swayed by foreigners. The militants are striking at will targeting political workers and likes of Lieutenant Umar Fayaz or targeting army installations. A massive crackdown of two dozen villages in Shopian district in pursuit of a group of militants, a reminiscent of early 1990s, could not yield any result.
The Mehbooba Mufti government, and her Peoples Democratic Party, is haplessly watching the situation without any clue on negotiating its own position and stakes. Their pleas for engagement are humiliatingly rebuffed but they have no other option than to cling to power. Maybe the providence throws a chance.
Rawat’s statement and its endorsement by BJP came at an interesting juncture-three days after Modi government completed three years. The 60 percent tenure is complete and it is time to start preparations for the general elections in 2019. The issues like posturing against Pakistan, hot pursuit in Kashmir, cow vigilantism and anti-Muslim rhetoric paid dividends to the BJP in the state elections to the extent of claiming UP and installing saffron clad, genetically anti-Muslim Yogi Adityanath to the chief minister’s chair. Therefore, perpetuating this narrative has been calculated by the BJP’s think-tank to be the most effective method to enter into the general elections two years later. The national security advisor Ajit Doval’s narrative to suppress separatism in Kashmir fits into the BJP’s long-term plan.
But on the ground, any unrealistic method adopted to hoodwink the stark realities, is bound to prove counter-productive. Rewarding Leetel Gogoi for humiliating a hapless Kashmiri with an aim to instill fear among commoners, may evoke appreciation from many jaundice minds, but it strengthens a counter-narrative of rebellion and defiance. Human Rights Watch has described Rawat’s assertions as reflective of ‘criminal leadership’.