Shot through the heart: what Machil fake encounter did to Kashmir
Life imprisonment for army personnel who murdered three men could be a watershed moment. No Kashmiri ever thought they would see the army take action against its own for 'kills'. 5 armymen get life termindia Updated: Nov 13, 2014 20:25 IST
The news of the army convicting five of its men, including two officers, for the fake encounter at Machil in north Kashmir took me back in time to 2010.
The Valley had erupted in collective anger after news broke that the army had picked up three young men on the promise of finding them jobs had actually killed them and passed them off as militants trying to infiltrate into India from Pakistan.
The anger was intense and the crowds that took to the streets only grew in numbers. The protests were not limited to areas around Nadihal village from where the three men had been taken.
Over the years, reporters covering Kashmir have come to realise and understand that protestors persist on the streets when their anger is genuine; when they know that the 'encounters' are not just fake but are in fact cold blooded murders. The same was visible in 2000 when the army passed off five Kashmiris as foreign mercenaries in what is now infamously known as the Pathribal encounter. The bodies of the five had even been burnt so they could not be identified.
The sheer fury of the protestors had forced then chief minister Farooq Abdullah to exhume the bodies. DNA tests had established that the five were neither infiltrators nor mercenaries but innocent Kashmiris.
Unlike Farooq, his son Omar Abdullah was not able to deal with the angry protestors in 2010. Quite unlike Farooq, who stood by the graves of the Pathribal boys as their bodies were being exhumed, Omar crawled into a shell and locked himself in as his state went on to witness one of the worst phases of violence.
Slogan-shouting, stone pelting boys and girls took over the streets of the Valley and chief minister Omar Abdullah was nowhere to be seen. Edgy personnel belonging to the CRPF (Cent Reserve Police Force) and the local police responded to stones with bullets and the death count only kept mounting as civilian after civilian, innocent after innocent kept getting shot.
I went to Srinagar in the summer of 2010. 'Don't you have blood on your hands?' is the question I wanted to ask the chief minister but Omar, while agreeing to meet me in his office, refused to be drawn into an interview.
He sat by the window of his office in Srinagar's secretariat, looking grim and helpless. Normally an easy man to converse with, Omar was in no mood to talk but finally did ask a question: What do you think I should do?
The answer was simple and obvious: you have to step out and assuage your people. 'You have to visit the injured and go to homes that have lost young ones.'
The same evening, news came in of Omar having gone to Srinagar's hospital to meet with the injured but he had made a fatal mistake. He took a helicopter instead of driving, even walking the streets lined with stones.
He will probably not mind me revealing our conversation, for in a tweet in December 2012 - two-and-a-half years later - he wrote, "I made the mistake of not being seen or heard in 2010 summer".
Today, as news came in of the army holding its own guilty (and this itself is rare and a first), he tweeted again, saying, "This is a watershed moment. No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases".
It is a watershed moment indeed. No Kashmiri ever thought they would see the army take action against its own for 'kills' that have oft been used as strategy to bolster records. For too long - and they will never admit to the unwritten rule - army units have been judged by 'kills' and weapons recovered.
Questions are being raised about the timing - about the army's announcement coming two weeks ahead of the first phase of the election. My take on this is simple: the politicians, Omar and his National Conference will be the most worried about the timing because the arrest of five army men has only served as a reminder of the sheer incompetence of his government to deal with the fall-out of Machil.
As for the Kashmiris - it is a long-awaited balm.
(The views expressed are personal)