Sense of siege only fuels the alienation
With Kashmir all set to face urban local body and panchayat elections, an unprecedented additional 400 companies of troops have been called in for reinforcing the security grid. The government’s decision to seek additional paramilitary troops for conducting elections did not come as a surprise. Infact, since 2016 civil unrest, there has been a constant build-up of troops in the valley. The 238 additional companies of forces requisitioned for Amarnath Yatra this year were retained by the state before an additional 162 companies were called in to provide “environment of security” for the polls. The clarion call for withdrawal of troops from the valley, which had gained traction even among Indian mainstream parties some years back, has been relegated to distant memory.
Heavy deployment of troops in the streets of Srinagar and other towns of the valley may succeed in ensuring smooth conduct of polls, but it is also fraught with long-term dangers stemming from increased confrontation between angry civilian population and the troops.
Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized conflict zones in the world where human rights violations are commonplace. These human rights abuses are often attributed to the large number of troops deployed across the valley more so since they also enjoy impunity under laws like AFSPA. The policy makers in Delhi, however, seem convinced that deploying more troops is the only remedy for the political disquiet in the valley.
In a recent interview with Naveed Iqbal of ‘The Indian Express’, Governor Satya Pal Malik admitted political “mishandling” of Kashmir over the years. “India has made mistakes, and its mistakes have, in the process, alienated itself. Because of what has happened, India is being presented as an occupation force…” With the huge presence of troops, this perception is only reinforced.
Already averse to the presence of paramilitary forces, people are further infuriated when they see their area under siege of the troops. The authorities may justify the measure for the sake of law and order. However, they ignore the long-term impact on the psyche of people and the consequent repercussions. The sense of siege only fuels the alienation. It also has a bearing on the peace prospects of which the reduction of troops is considered as a fundamental aspect.
The successive governments have spoken of the need to reduce the visibility of troops, but turning the valley into a fortress can make no headway in this respect. New Delhi wants Kashmiris to believe in the Indian democracy, but the huge build-up of troops doesn’t help this cause. The military camps and bunkers were set up in 1990s in the nook and corner of the valley to check the activities of militants. However, while the militant numbers dwindled, the camps and bunkers remained untouched. In the times of civilian unrest such as the one we witnessed in 2008, 2010 and 2016, these military establishments have proved to be the trouble spots often leading to the shedding of civilian blood.
The regional parties – National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party – have also been the culprits for reinforcing the dependence of civilian governments on troops. They have been relying quite heavily on the army and paramilitary forces to wrest control of the situation whenever it seems to slip out of their hands.
Speaking during a debate on CNN-IBN news channel during 2010 unrest, I remember NC president and former chief minister, Farooq Abdullah vociferously asserting that the state government led by his son Omar Abdullah was in need of more troops to bring the situation under control. Similarly, Kashmir witnessed increased military engagement during Mehbooba Mufti’s tenure.
In the past, demand for removal of military establishments was met with cold response, often stemming from the threat perception propagated by the intelligence and security agencies. Reports about increase in infiltration attempts from across the border are often used as excuses to counter any such move. The political leadership should not be misled by such reports. Infiltration bids are not subject to presence or absence of bunkers in civilian areas. Instead it depends on the security arrangements on the borders and so be it. In 2018 as New Delhi searches for a way out of the cul-de-sac in Kashmir, reduction in number of troops can act as an important measure towards return of normalcy.
In his interview with Indian Express, Governor Malik asserted that his first priority is to reach out to people and give them a sense of comfort. He must be conscious of the fact that this cannot be achieved by keeping more forces on the streets and one can only hope that the additional troops deployed for conduct of urban local body and panchayat elections are not retained after the polls. There is a need to address the alienation among the masses, particularly the younger generation of Kashmir, through other means. Dismissing the genuine public anger as a law and order problem will only infuriate the young Kashmiris further. The sooner it is understood, the better.