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Kashmir: Unleashing Non-Lethal Terror

By Nawaz Gul Qanungo

08 September, 2010
Kashmir Times

New Delhi’s cruel obsession with the argument of lethal vs non-lethal methods of crowd control in Kashmir does not mean that it has failed to identify the ever-growing political nature of the conflict. It is just that it chooses not to acknowledge what it knows is staring it in the face. Sadly, India’s persistence with its law-and-order theory means that a worse phase of turmoil in the valley is never too far away. For, any non-political method of “control” in Kashmir will ultimately prove lethal

Late last month, the chiefs of Indian state police, central paramilitary forces and intelligence officials met for an annual conference in New Delhi. “We are concerned that we have not been able to stop the vicious cycle in which the state is caught,” the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, told the gathering while referring to the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir. “I am afraid Jammu and Kashmir is now caught in a vicious cycle of stone pelting, lathicharge, teargassing and firing, leading to casualties and resulting in more stone pelting.”

“The security forces have been instructed to act with great restraint,” the minister told his men. It was Wednesday. And while the minister was busy talking in New Delhi, three young sisters were mourning the death of their only brother in the Soura locality of Srinagar. His name was Omar Qayoom Bhat. He was 17.

Omar was among the hundreds of young boys randomly picked up by the local police in order to break the spell of the current unrest. While in custody, he was beaten up severely enough to die in the hospital two days after he was released on bail. He was a class XI student.

The very next day, it was the turn of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to talk to the security top brass. “I would like to pay tribute to the officers and men of our security forces who have made the supreme sacrifice in fighting Naxalism and other anti-social elements,” he told them. “I would also like to repeat what I said in my speech on independence day. We recognize that the Naxalites are our own people and are ready to talk to them provided they abjure the path of violence.” He next went on to deliberate up on the situation in Kashmir where “despite the curtailment of militant activities, the public order dimension had become a cause for serious concern.”

“...The experience begun successfully by the Rapid Action Force for non-lethal crowd control needs to be examined for being followed by other police forces as well.” He went on to conclude: “We need to revisit standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and more focused measures.” Four days later, a protest in Anantnag was fired up on by the police and paramilitary forces. Irshad Ahmad Parray was killed. Like Omar Bhat, he had no bullets in his body. “He had received a volley of pellets in his chest and abdomen,” doctors in a Srinagar hospital said. “We received him dead.”

Obviously, the world that Dr Singh and his home minister lives in doesn’t seem to be the one where Kashmiris are killed in cold blood, day in and day out. Irshad was nine years old. Standard operating procedures and crowd control measures have certainly been revisited. They don’t waste their bullets anymore.

The term “vicious” added to “cycle of violence” vis a vis the recent protests in Kashmir is a phrase that has been repeated countless times by the Indian establishment. Its media has been more than willing to lap up. An impression has been created in India wherein the act of demonstration by protesting Kashmiris has somehow been brought on a par with, or even worse than, that of the police and security forces, who have been on a killing spree in the valley since three months now. Not less than sixty-five unarmed protesters and bystanders, mostly children and young boys and girls, have been killed since June 11*. Not a single death among the police or paramilitary, not even a serious injury. A few teeth, as the Indian media informs of them, have been broken or lost.

A newspaper report during the current turmoil simply compared the “violence” in Kashmir with that of Andhra, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. It mentioned: “Police in Uttar Pradesh killed 104 civilians and injured 145 in 608 incidents of police firing in 2008. Maharashtra reported 47 civilian deaths in 89 incidents of police firing.”

“Fatalities caused by police firing in Jammu and Kashmir,” the reported said citing figures published by the Indian home ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau, “have been far fewer than in many other States less threatened by large-scale protests.” The nature and purpose of protests in Kashmir doesn’t seem to be an issue for the analysis. “Indian police forces,” the report quoted an “expert”, “used to be internationally regarded for their crowd control skills.” Part of the problem, it added, lies in deteriorating riot-control skills. Riot?

Interestingly, a crowd control method that wouldn’t kill could not only encourage more protests, but also encourage more people to join such protests. Parents may not only stop being anxious about their children going out to protest, but feel persuaded to join the people on the streets themselves. People who avoid joining protests due to the physical risks it involves may join as well. In effect, it is not unlikely that truly non-lethal methods could lead to more and bigger protests.

However, as has been proved by the experience of the debility the so called non-lethal pellet guns have caused to the injured and the horror it has left among the doctors who have been operating up on such injured people, the idea is not merely to minimise killings. Rather, it is an easy method of crippling young men and women so that they are not on the streets for months. What’s more shocking is even if the injured recover later on, they are not able to lead a normal life.

A statement of a police official quoted by a local newspaper points precisely at this: “In a single fire of a non-lethal weapon, we can target dozens in a mob and neutralize them for months.” (Emphasis added). One is forced to recall Manmohan Singh’s words: “We need to revisit standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and more focused measures.” A tag of NLW (non-lethal weapon) placed on the weapon is all that’s needed to unleash an effective non-lethal terror. The police has not even been trained in the use of these weapons. At any rate, all the talk of water cannons and pepper guns has proved not just futile but evidently deceptive. While in opposition, the person who spoke about these devices in 2008 was none other than the current chief minister himself. Today, the very idea of “crowd control” is essentially a denial of Kashmiris’ right to assemble, let alone protest.

A RECENT ANALYSIS in The Economist argued that “the cycle of protests [in Kashmir] will resume [even after the current protests abate]... [but] at some point they will become so big that they can only be contained by killing more of its citizens than a democracy can stand.” The mood on Kashmir’s streets today suggests that indeed the protests may get bigger with time. The fact that both New Delhi and the local administration led by the National Conference have decided not to utilize any political acumen to tackle the crisis only bolsters this possibility. Looking at the past, however, the largest democracy of the world doesn’t give much of a bother on whether there’s a limit on how many more killings ‘it can stand’ in Kashmir.

Of course, the very idea of perceiving protest in Kashmir as a problem of law and order is flawed. And to control it with lethal or non lethal methods won’t have as much an effect on the ground situation as a simple admission of the fact that the problem in Kashmir is political and needs a political approach towards a possible resolution. The core of the matter remains that any non-political method of “control” in Kashmir is, by its very essence, a lethal one.

However, to say that the Indian establishment and the state administration is so blatantly incompetent and removed from reality in Kashmir that it doesn’t know this reality would not merely be an underestimation of their intelligence and information but to think so would be an outright naivety. Of course, New Delhi knows what it faces in Kashmir and what it would take to genuinely tackle the issue. The truth is New Delhi does not want to acknowledge that reality. It pretends that it is lost in the crowd in Kashmir when certainly it is not.

The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be followed at drqanungo.blogspot.com