It seems like just another searing summer in the Kashmir Valley. Gun-wielding terrorists targeting civilians, infiltration from across the border, youths joining the terror ranks, increased fear among local people, especially minorities, and security forces on their toes.
In the last five months, 18 people have been killed in terror attacks, most of them carried out by ‘hybrid’ militants. These ‘part-timers’ get trained online and pose a major challenge to the security forces because they have no prior criminal record.
The Narendra Modi government’s claim that ‘normalcy’ has returned in ‘Naya Kashmir’ by pointing to the high footfall of tourists is at odds with the ground reality, which the government keeps ignoring.
Bereft of a concrete political strategy, coupled with the lack of an inclusive approach, has taken Kashmir back to 2017.
It is also why the killings of civilians in Kashmir is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Killings, recruitment back
After abrogating Article 370 in August 2019, the Modi government tried to maintain control by deploying large military, suspending internet and imposing strict curfew. The year still saw 46 civilian killings in terror attacks.
The next two years — 2020 and 2021 – saw lockdowns and curfews that forced people to remain indoors. It led to a marginal drop in civilian deaths — 37 in 2020 and 35 civilian killings in 2021.
But now, the trends of 2017, when 71 civilians were killed followed by 80 the following year, appear to have returned. As of May this year, 18 civilians have been killed with the security establishment fearing the number will rise.
Recruitment by militant groups in the Valley is seeing similar trend. In 2021, over 60 had joined terror outfits as of May. This year, the number stood at 52. In May alone, 12 youngsters took to the gun.
Their victims? A mixed bag of soft targets. While most are local civilians, including Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs, others are non-locals who work in the Valley as labourers, shopkeepers, government employees as well as Muslims who are seen as siding with Indian government’s policies.
The killings raise a number of questions. What has really changed in the valley in the past three years since the Modi government made Jammu and Kashmir a Union Territory? Is the influx of tourists the only parameter to assess normalcy? What about the terror ranks increasing their base by recruiting youths online? The growing infiltration numbers? The disgruntled and fearful local people? Is the BJP’s politics in the rest of the country having an impact in the Valley?
Crackdown, more forces no solution
The stone-pelting incidents in the valley have come down drastically, civilian deaths as collateral are almost zero, and the protests that often led to law and order situations too have reduced significantly.
This may be an indicator of a ‘controlled’ law and order situation, which the J&K police say is extremely important to ensure there is no loss of life. But is it normalcy? There is no straight answer.
People on the ground have told ThePrint that the situation in the valley is “controlled” and not “normal”, saying that they “fear being slapped with the draconian Public Safety Act if they express any sort of dissent”.
Over 500 people in J&K are in jail under the Act, 150 of whom were arrested between March and April. Such is the situation that the jails do not have space to keep people booked under the Act and many warrants are lying unexecuted. More than 800 people were detained in October 2021 over suspicion of being involved in a spate of civilian killings reported that month.
The police say that ensuring security of the people is of utmost concern, even if it means heavy crackdown and more arrests.
According to the police, a number of over ground workers (OGWs) and their associates have been booked under PSA and UAPA, which they claim has acted as a big “hindrance” for the terrorists. Moreover, many local residents are now coming forward to give tip-offs about movement of terrorists, or someone known to them, joining militancy, police said.
Pumping forces on the ground, however, is certainly alienating the locals, who then get encouraged to join the terror ranks. Little visible development on the ground and growing unemployment also play in the minds of youngsters who then take up arms. Some of these OGWs, although not ideologically motivated, fall for the money being pumped in by terror organisations from across the border.
Kashmir requires a robust political strategy as a solution to counter terrorism. More so with the entry of ‘hybrid’ or ‘part-time terrorists’, who are difficult to track down. Whether it was the killing of the owner of Krishna Dhaba, the TV artist or a wine shop worker, police found involvement of these ‘hybrids’ who are often recruited and trained online on how to use a pistol. These ‘hybrids’ operate on a case-to-case basis and even their parents and neighbours do not know of their association with any terror group.
These are disgruntled local residents, who are either students or work in the Valley, which indicates a clear disconnect between the administration and the people.
No CM, bulldozer effect
A big factor contributing to the growing disconnect is the absence of a Chief Minister since 2018, when the state government was dissolved after the BJP ended its alliance with Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP.
Locals say there are no political representatives whom they can approach with their grievances. While there are 13,761 panchayat representatives in the ten districts of Kashmir, they aren’t of much help as people say they either have to approach the district commissioner or other bureaucrats.
“These bureaucrats are government servants and do not understand our issues. For them, nothing is at stake. At least politicians have to hear the people out from their constituency because it is the people who voted them to power,” a local resident told ThePrint, not wanting to be named.
With the delimitation report now out, residents are waiting for an election to be announced — but not until J&K’s statehood is restored. This has been another point of contention between the local politicians and the Centre.
A source in the security establishment said the use of bulldozers to demolish people’s homes and shops in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh has become another sore point. It has made it difficult for the police to convince people that the Modi government is working for them with an inclusive approach.
“They question us about what happened in Jahangirpuri (Delhi), what is happening in UP or MP. They tell us that this government is only alienating them further by tagging them as terrorists. What is happening in the rest of the country has definitely had an adverse impact on the situation in the Valley, pushing the people even further away. It is defeating their own narrative, their purpose,” the officer said.
While Pakistan is trying its best to take advantage of the disgruntled youth, it is important for the policymakers and leaders in Delhi to bridge the disconnect before it is too late.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)