Kashmir on the brink of more unrest as civilian killings deepen alienation & anger
Kashmir is once again under hartal. Schools which were about to re-open on Monday after two and a half month long winter vacation have been closed for three more days. The ongoing Kashmir Administrative Service Examinations has been deferred. And parts of South Kashmir and Srinagar have been put under security lockdown.
The reason for this is the killing of four civilians during a shoot-out between the militants and the security forces on Sunday evening, in which two militants were also killed. According to local residents, a short gunfight ensued after militants attacked a security vehicle. In retaliatory action, the security personnel killed two militants and also fired at a vehicle carrying four civilians who died on the spot.
In its statement, the Army said the alleged slain civilians were Overground Workers (OGWs), travelling in the same vehicle as the militants.
“Militants travelling in a vehicle fired upon army personnel who retaliated by firing several shots, leading to a brief exchange of fire. During the exchange of fire one militant was killed instantly and later three OGWs were found dead,” the statement read.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, however, backed the version of the local residents to the extent that the persons other than the militants were civilians. However, she said they were killed in crossfire.
“Deeply distressed by more deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire in Shopian. My heartfelt condolences to the deceased’s families,” Mehbooba tweeted.
Army later too agreed that the slain youth other than two militants were civilians but added that the investigation would reveal the level of their cooperation with the militants.
"No doubt they were civilians but investigations will reveal their role with militants,” the Army officers Harbeer Singh and NS Negi told reporters during a press conference.
The killings have once again brought Kashmir to the brink. The fresh civilian killings have followed shortly after three persons were shot dead by the security forces in the same district.
Though the state government had filed an FIR against the Major Aditya over the killings, it has since backtracked from it. In its response to the notice of the Supreme Court following the petition of the Major Aditya’s father against the FIR, the state government denied it had even named the Army officer in the case.
This has created a deep resentment in the Valley about the perceived blanket impunity enjoyed by the security forces.
“The establishment, both in the state and at the centre, can’t seem to care less. The ruling PDP might make some noise as its core constituency falls in Kashmir - more so in South Kashmir - but the party soon succumbs to the pressure from New Delhi,” an editorial in a local daily read. “If any more evidence was needed it was provided by the FIR against the Major Aditya for the killing of the three civilians in a recent encounter. After asserting that the FIR against the Army officer will be taken to its logical conclusion, the state government has now denied that an FIR in the name of Major Aditya even existed”.
On the ground, the fresh civilian killings are threatening to tip Kashmir into yet another turmoil. On Monday, massive clashes erupted across south Kashmir. The groups of youth took to the streets at Pulwama, Awantipora Tral and Shopian and in many villages to protest the killings.
In many areas, the mosque loudspeakers called on people to express their solidarity with the families of the victims. The Hurriyat has also called for a march to Shopian on Wednesday, a move that will only prolong the troubled situation and in turn threaten the peace during spring, the season when tourists start wending their way back to the Valley. According to the government’s economic survey report recently tabled in the state assembly, the last year saw the lowest number of tourists visiting J&K in the past six years - bulk of them comprising pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi and Amarnath shrines.
And with the violence showing little signs of abating, omens are not good for this year too. According to an estimate, 45 people including 15 security personnel, 19 militants and 10 civilians have lost their lives since January.
“With more than 200 active militants in Kashmir, the frequency of the encounters and the consequent violence is likely to increase which will detrimentally impact the state of affairs,” said a police officer dealing with the counter-insurgency. “On our part, there is always an effort not to cause any civilian killings which become a cause for a mass disaffection”.
But as Shopian killings have once again underlined, this will be easier said than done. The civilian killings have become a constant feature of the ongoing turmoil. In past such killings have chiefly been responsible for pushing the state over the edge. Some amount of accountability for the security personnel responsible for these killings would have gone a long way to address the anger but the fate of the FIR against Major Aditya has made it more difficult for the state government to intervene in the event of a human rights violation.