In recent times in the Kashmir Valley, mobs comprising thousands of violent youth have routinely been converging on encounter sites with a view to thwart counter-insurgency operations.
In early April, when the security forces gunned down as many as 13 militants in a couple of villages in the southern part of the Valley, their principal opponents were not the terrorists holed up in houses but mobs shouting anti-India slogans and pelting stones at the security forces. This was repeated in Kulgam district 10 days later when soldiers shooting at three terrorists holed up inside a house were attacked by a huge mob.
The Army lost one soldier in the action while four civilians were killed; and the Army was forced to retreat to prevent further civilian losses, allowing the terrorists to slip away amidst much cheering. This sort of situation has become routine. During anti-insurgency operations, a few hundred soldiers, most of them concentrating on the gunfight, are confronted by a few thousand extremely violent, though unarmed civilians. This invariably poses a dilemma.
In such a situation, one option would be to exit the operations, a choice that has been exercised several times in recent months, allowing militants to slip through and mingle with the crowds. Civilian mob control, on the other hand, inevitably means firing upon adamant and violent youngsters as traditional riot control methods cannot work in such circumstances.
Neither can water cannons or similar means be summoned nor can policemen with shields and batons stop mobs numbering in the thousands. The police and paramilitary forces, who are usually present during every operation, try to use pellet guns to stop the mobs but often fail and have to resort to firing, which can lead to civilian deaths. Pellet and bullet injuries make for sensational headlines, despair and popular anger.
Civilian killings provoke extreme grief and even greater anger, further fuelling the cycle of violence. These killings help recruit more youth and become the casus belli for the armed insurrection. The political leadership, both in Srinagar/Jammu and in New Delhi, have time and again asked the security forces to operate with extreme restraint during operations. The Army brass are also well aware of the vicious dynamics that flow from deaths during mob control.
Yet, civilian deaths continue. Bullets and pellets do not deter the mobs. This increasingly appears to be part of a larger strategy to provoke the security forces into shooting to maim, injure and kill civilians. The response during counter insurgency operations has become routine. As soon as news on an operation is received by the network of anti-India activists in an area, mosques begin to blare out details of the operation and call people to converge on the encounter site.
Young children, even girls, and youth leave the safety of their homes and begin to collect at the operation site. In many cases, the mobs behave as if they want the security forces to fire upon them. For every injury or death is a moral defeat for India’s security forces. Photographs of young people with pellet injuries and mass funerals constitute powerful messages that provide sympathy for the separatist cause, not just in the Kashmir Valley but in the rest of the world as well.
Morality, as the amorphous leadership of young Kashmiri activists have realised, is a more powerful weapon than the gun. Therefore, it is being used as a tool. The use of morality as a weapon is not an invention of the Kashmiri separatists. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protests used the same basic principle and British colonial violence only served to swell the ranks of India’s freedom fighters.
Unlike the strategy of Kashmiri separatists, however, Gandhian methods did not operate in tandem with brutal terrorists or militants. Non-violence was the only method, and death or martyrdom was never eulogised.
The Kashmiri mob methodology, on the other hand, appears closer to the one evolved by the Palestinian extremists. On March 30 this year, Hamas organised the “Great March of Return”, where an estimated one hundred thousand Palestinians were to march to the Gaza border, cross it in complete defiance of Israel’s defence forces and move towards Jerusalem.
The march was expected to be a nightmare for the Israeli forces as letting the protestors through into Israeli territory would mean destruction of the country’s integrity while stopping the thousands would cause an unprecedented bloodbath that would shock the world.
The Israeli forces, however, made it clear that no matter what the moral consequences, they would use as much force as necessary to prevent the Palestinian border march. As it turned out, instead of a turnout of 100,000 marchers, only about 35,000 turned up. The event ended with just 17 casualties.
In other words, it was the resolve as well as the restraint of the Israeli forces that won the day. They had made it amply clear they would use as much force as required to stop the marchers from crossing the border. Yet, instead of using maximum force, they used a minimum, thus keeping down casualties.
Of those killed, Israel claimed that as many as 12 were Hamas terrorists. The Hamas, of course, won’t let Israel rest and the failed March 30 event is expected to be the precursor of many similar challenges.
Similarly, the Indian security forces will continue to face mounting challenges during encounters; the aim of its opponents each time would be to provoke soldiers into using excessive force. The administration must respond by convincingly countering the propaganda that India’s security agencies are bent upon massacring innocent civilians.
No matter how difficult the situation, India’s security forces have no option but to constantly calibrate their response. They have to be firm, and yet avoid a bloodbath.
Also, urgently required is a political offensive against the anti-India elements, but this sadly is nowhere on the horizon. The gun thus remains firmly placed on the shoulders of our jawans....