An unspoken covenant has been broken in Jammu and Kashmir
Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed the other day that the family members of policemen in Kashmir were released by militants under pressure from the security forces in the Valley. He said: “The way family members of our policemen were kidnapped….you might have heard that our forces put such immense pressure that they had to release all.” That may be true, but what also helped was a swap — the initiative for which reportedly came from the office of the newly appointed Governor, Satya Pal Malik. If the relatives of the policemen were let off, so were the militants’ kin the police picked up after the killing of some of their colleagues in south Kashmir.
The crisis erupted even as Malik was settling down as NN Vohra’s successor in the Raj Bhawan. It perhaps was his political astuteness that saved the situation from snowballing into a no-holds-barred faceoff. The timing of the retaliatory abductions couldn’t have been worse. They happened within hours of the Governor’s August 31 interview to Hindustan Times in which he reaffirmed his administration’s appeal to the Supreme Court to defer hearings on the volatile issue of the scrapping of Article 35A of the Constitution.
Malik’s first political impulse obviously was to calm down the Valley’s streets stirred up by protests against petitions challenging the provision incorporated in 1954. The Article, as it exists, gives the Jammu and Kashmir legislature a carte blanche to define the state’s permanent residents and delineate their concomitant privileges in terms of jobs and ownership of property. The grounds the Governor cited — as the administrator of J&K — for deferment of the Court’s hearings were as much geared at calming frayed tempers. ”The views of the people can only be articulated by an elected government,” he said in a candid acceptance of his administration’s limitations in tendering a view on the sticky subject rooted in the state’s troubled history. Moreover, the detentions that triggered the abductions had broken an informal covenant between the state police and the militants to keep families out of the conflict, said an officer with considerable policing experience in the Valley. He believed the tit-for-tat commandeering mounted disproportionate pressure on the security apparatus. Other officials conversant with the abduction drama agreed. In their view, the Governor’s intervention somewhat contained the damage.
Militants and insurgents across the globe strategise to make security forces resort to excesses against the local population. The purpose is to blur the lines between the outlaws and the forces of the rule of law that give the State a moral high ground in bloody battles. It doesn’t matter who started this because, regardless of who won, the detention-abduction chain broke nearly three decades of an unwritten accord that saved the warring sides’ kin getting caught in the unending crossfire. The terrain the policemen negotiate in the Valley is socially arduous. They have to balance their anti-militancy tasks with their charter to safeguard people from crime and violence. Right now, that balance does not exist, what with the police leadership’s proclivity for swashbuckling. The way they publicise encounters and intelligence successes often put their local contacts in harm’s way. Intimidation at times is inevitable. But the police cannot marshal popular support against insurgency by expending human rights. Urgency must now be accorded to devise ways to strengthen their weakened popular connect. Of help towards that could be a sober execution of Malik’s district-wise outreach through his advisors, two of whom are Kashmiris familiar with the local milieu.
The Governor has his task cut out. The number of militants in the Valley today is around three hundred but the situation is as grave as it was in the early 1990s. At that time, the armed groups would boast of numbers in thousands with active cross-border support from Pakistan. The insurrection’s increasingly indigenous nature and its connect with the local youth drives home the imperative of minimising collateral damage arising out of the police’s catch and kill approach. Even the army and other uniformed forces locally guided by the police must come across as respectful of the rule of law. That alone can defeat the militants’ narrative to mobilise the youth. But such an image makeover won’t be possible without a police that fights militancy but serves, not persecutes, innocent people.