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Dealing with the Kashmir militancy problem: A journey without maps

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An unprecedented event in the 28-year-old history of Kashmir insurgency took place on August 31. The local police released 11 family members of Kashmiri militants in return for the militants freeing an equal number of relatives of policemen taken captive by them in tit-for-tat abductions. This was the first time that the militants had targeted family members of serving policemen.

The militants demonstrated that they could readily adapt to the new rules of engagement. The State, which had tried to change the rules of the game in dealing with insurgency, was the biggest loser.

How did this come about?

Other developments took place almost simultaneously on August 29 and 30.

The National Investigating Agency (NIA) arrested Syed Shakeel Yousuf, son of Hizbul Mujahidin chief Syed Salahuddin, in a terror funding case for allegedly receiving money from his father who is based in Pakistan. Salahuddin’s older son, Syed Shahid Yousuf, had already been arrested in June by the NIA, in the same case. Security forces were also alleged to have set fire to the homes of two militants, Shah Jahan Mir of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Syed Naveed of Hizb-ul-Mujahidin in Shopian.

No one knows for sure who ordered the arrest of militants’ kin, blurring the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The militants responded by kidnapping an equal number of policemen’s relatives – including seven sons and three brothers of serving personnel. As a video of one of the abducted relatives pleading for mercy went viral on social media, all hell broke loose. The police lost their nerves, immediately releasing the relatives of the militants. The militants freed their own captives in response.

In the search for scapegoats, the first head to roll was that of the chief of intelligence, Additional Director General (CID) Abdul Ghani Mir. This was followed by the removal of the Director General of Police S P Vaid. Had these officers ordered the detention of the relatives of militants of their own volition and their subsequent release?

If they had, then they deserve severe disciplinary action for risking the morale of the police force in the state. Provoking retaliatory abductions by ordering the arrest of relatives of militants should not be punished by mere transfers. If men serving in the army or the police have to pay for their actions by endangering the lives of their family members, they will not be able to follow orders.

However, it is unlikely that the new strategy was the handiwork of local police officers.

K Vijay Kumar, security advisor to the Governor under Governor’s rule, is an expert on counter-insurgency. It is difficult to believe that the unnamed officials now taking credit for releasing the detained relatives of militants were not involved in targeting militants’ families in the first place.

However, a strategy that obliterated the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is doomed to fail in its long-term objectives. Casting the net far too wide can worsen the situation in an insurgency-affected region. It undermines moderate voices that could serve as a counterweight to the militants and turn ordinary citizens against the state.

Another move fatal for political reconciliation was burning the houses of militants’ families. Security forces in Kashmir already routinely set fire to houses where militants forcibly take shelter. The policy of punishing innocents is thoughtless since they can hardly be expected to argue with a gun. Once the militants have been cleared from the building, the house is brought down using explosives or set on fire.

Experts claim that this is done because the house could be mined which could lead to further casualties. But the burning of houses is seen by people as “punishment” for sheltering militants.

This popular perception follows from previous actions in the 1990s where security forces burnt down houses, sometimes even entire settlements, after an encounter with militants. It happened in Pattan in Baramulla in August 1990, and in January 1993, the Border Security Force set fire to parts of Sopore. According to Kashmiri civil society activists, even today properties of villagers caught up in “encounters” are wantonly destroyed by the security forces as “punishment”.

Legally, owners of properties destroyed in cross-fire with militants are eligible to get compensation. However, such claims are often denied on the grounds that the owners sheltered the militants, or are far too meagre to help rebuild the house. By allegedly burning the family homes of militants in Shopian on the intervening night of August 29 and 30, even when militants were not sheltering inside, the security forces may have crossed yet another red line.

Burning of houses and targeting non-combatants goes against any chance of gaining legitimacy with the local communities and winning hearts and minds.

Kashmiri public intellectuals say that unlike the militants of the 1990s, the youngsters now attracted to militancy are not amenable to any moral control from their family, community elders, teachers or even local Imams. Their recruitment is through social media and networks of friendship. Most importantly, they seem no longer afraid of dying, well aware that the life of a militant in Kashmir today is less than six months.

This is why families may not want their children to join militancy, but they rush to encounter sites to thwart the operations of the security forces. Quite literally these militants are their “own”.

The latest counter-insurgency strategy in the Kashmir Valley requires a serious rethink. Such heavy-handed tactics indicate that the present dispensation in Delhi is incapable of a political initiative that could resolve the Kashmir conflict in a long-term sense.

Until this policy changes, Kashmir and its inhabitants are likely to be confronted only with brute force, often verging on vengeance, masquerading as “political initiative”.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi

The views expressed are his own