Given the violence on view in Kashmir, what I saw in a video shot furtively from a Srinagar window earlier this month is relatively mild. A unit of about 10 troopers--from the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), judging from their uniforms and assault rifles--wanders into a bylane of three-storey middle-class homes made of brick, concrete and white windows. In calm and silence, they pick up bricks and methodically smash the panes on every window of every floor, 35 in all. I was struck at how easily the CRPF troopers--thousands of whom are on the frontlines of street battles against stone throwers--slipped into the role of vandals.
Such violence inflicted on locals is spreading among security forces, with commanding officers struggling to contain it. Last week, the CRPF suspended a trooper for emptying a pellet gun into an ambulance driver (he survived, with severe injuries), and the army said legal action had been started against soldiers who killed a part-time college lecturer and severely beat locals--hospitalised, with bodies turned blue and black--in a night raid on a village. “The killing of a college lecturer was unjustified and intolerable,” Lt Gen D S Hooda, chief of the northern command, said in a statement. “Such raids are not sanctioned. The army will not allow such actions.”
Yet, none of 38 requests made to the Centre for prosecution of soldiers for excesses between 1991 and 2015 (the latest data available) were granted, according to information tabled before Parliament. Eight of these cases are “under review”, one for 22 years.
As curfews enter their 48th day, and the death toll nears 70 in rebellious Kashmir, order among overworked, resentful and under-trained security forces is fraying. Unauthorised home invasions are common. A protesting 80-year-old and his 75-year-old wife were shot by local police who barged into their home and after failing to find their younger son, took away his elder brother. A female reporter protesting the beating of street vendors was abused by police, who called a “whore” and--led by an IPS officer--battered her car. The officer ran away when she called the police chief, who promised action. That appears to be the end of the matter.
The home minister is now in Kashmir, and the Prime Minister has promised dialogue, but the BJP’s policy, thus far, mirrors the Congress’, limiting conversations to mainstream parties, all of whom have no credibility on Kashmir’s embattled streets.
The BJP has not so far gone beyond letting the security forces contain the violence. The costs of dealing with a popular uprising are high. More than 900 eye injuries have been inflicted by about 1.4 million pellets fired.
The brutalising of Kashmir’s people is also reflected in a brutalisation of the security forces, a particularly disquieting development in a conflict where men in arms now largely represent the Indian state. No elected representative of the ruling PDP-BJP coalition dares return to those in Kashmir who elected them. Gen Hooda says the stone-throwers no longer appear to fear the security forces, even frontally attacking army garrisons. Apart from the relentless stone-throwing, the young men hurl racist abuse (”teri kali soorat”, your black face, and “Bihari” are common) and otherwise provoke riot-control units to battle. “Our boys are hated, they get little rest and they are all armed; you can guess what will happen if command and control breaks down,” a CRPF officer once told me.
In the past, that command and control has frequently broken down, not just in the face of provocation but in the form of atrocities inflicted by security forces, protected by law and aware that Delhi discourages punitive action against them. Managing the endless cycle of violence has for too long been a substitute for policy, but it has now reached an inflection point.
To be sure, there are many complications, which grow more complicated by the day. The old Jammu and Kashmir is dead. Gilgit and Baltistan will never return, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir will stay in Pakistan, most Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs will never leave India and Jammu--except for rumblings in some Muslim areas--stays largely aloof from the rebellion of the Valley. Brandishing Balochistan in Pakistan’s face may be of strategic value, and Pakistan’s funnelling of terrorists and support is a fact, as is the overt Islamisation of the azadi movement, but it not too late to vault over the complications and show sincerity and humility and offer apologies--especially if, as the government says, these are “our people”.
This paper’s Harinder Baweja reported last week that even school headmaster Muzaffar Wani, an advocate of jihad and the father of Burhan Wani, a militant whose slaying sparked the current unrest, appeals for peace and dialogue. “Even today we love the people of India, we have no enmity with them,” he said, pointing--as many do--to the restrained approach of paramilitary forces to equally, if not more, violent Jat protestors in Haryana last year. It might appear otherwise from the outside, but the hope of dialogue still drives Kashmir, and it should drive India. It is a better substitute for the hopelessness of status quo, and the hate that feeds off it.
Above all, to keep a people subjugated is a repudiation of India’s founding ideals: Justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. The Prime Minister has often talked about the constitution being his religion. If he truly wants to practise that religion and do the best by Kashmir’s people, India, its security forces and its ideals, the time is now.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit .
The views expressed are personal