Even as Kashmir's chief minister Mehbooba Mufti made a passionate plea for the revival of dialogue and the application of a 'healing touch’ on the wounds of Kashmir, the Indian Army is set to deploy its troops on patrolling duty on the streets of the state to help quell the more than month-long unrest in the Kashmir Valley and bring it back to normalcy.
This is the second time in five years that the army has been called in to assist security forces in the restoration of order in Kashmir following a spate of violent protests that has seen the deaths of 60 civilians so far this year and has paralysed normal life with over 30 days of curfew.
Army sources both at headquarters and at northern command confirmed to DNA that a decision in this regard has been finalised.
"Army will be deployed on major highways and at the sensitive points in support of the state police and paramilitary forces based on an elaborate plan worked out at the headquarters level (in Delhi)," said an official who did not wish to be identified.
The army has already moved in to secure crucial roads near Sopore and Narabal to protect the strategic Srinagar-Baramulla-Kupwara highway in north Kashmir. Sources here said the army may be deployed to patrol the streets and stage flag marches if the unrest continues beyond Independence Day (August 15) and the conclusion of the Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) on August 18.
This issue was apparently conveyed to chief minister Mehbooba Mufti yesterday, when she met India's central government leaders including interior minister Rajnath Singh. Sources close to her told DNA that she pleaded political options be explored rather than the military be used to curb the current unrest in Kashmir. She stressed the need for the taking of bold and tangible initiatives to reach out to the people, including the revival of dialogue with Pakistan and stakeholders (read the separatists) in Kashmir.
The earlier decision to bring in the army - primarily engaged in counter-insurgency operations and the guarding of sections of the disputed border with Pakistan - to help restore order was taken by the Omar Abdullah government in 2010 when the Valley erupted in a three-month long cycle of violence. Back then, 116 youth were shot dead by security forces in the protests that followed a fake encounter in Macchil in which the army tried to pass off three villagers it had killed as militants.
Mufti, who was an opposition leader at the time, had then called for Abdullah’s resignation. But while in power, she seems to lack the ability to come up any new initiatives to deal with the resentment of the Kashmiris, and has resorted to following in the footsteps of her predecessor.
Shortly after the top brass of the army visited Mufti and assured her "all possible assistance to the state government to bring peace at the earliest’’ would be provided, a meeting was held at the 15 Corps Headquarters in Badami Bagh, Srinagar on August 5. Discussions were held at length on these options by the army, Rashtriya Rifles, Central Reserve Police Force or CRPF (deployed in Srinagar), J&K Police, and the civil administration. The move to deploy the army to assist the CRPF and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police is being considered in view of growing apprehensions of militant attacks or violent protests organised by the locals close to Independence Day - observed as a black day in Kashmir - and the conclusion of the Amarnath yatra next week.
A major deterrent to bringing the army out onto the streets remains the conditions of its rules of engagement. The army's Victor Force which operates in Awantipora (south Kashmir) and Kilo Force which operates in Kupwara (north Kashmir) have both been working out a coordination plan between them so as to prevent the mobilisation of protesters. "Army has been tasked to take over what is called in security parlance the Highway Domination and Corridor Protection," a source added.
In turbulent south Kashmir -- the districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Tral and Anantnag -- young men and boys have taken control of the streets and entry is restricted. Roads are blocked with large stones, burnt tyres, and tree logs that act as barricades while local youth take turns to patrol the streets and keep a vigil against nocturnal raids.
The killing of the local Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in the village of Bemdoroo on July 8 led to a spontaneous outpouring of grief and rage against the security forces. News reports and rumours of security personnel opening fire on unarmed civilians, abusing women, children and the elderly on the suspicion of having participated in the protests has created deep resentment against the men in uniform.
The state government is under mounting pressure to calm the enraged population and put a stop to the rising casualties. Restoring stability, restarting schools, colleges, government offices, and trade - which has been hampered since the beginning of the protests - is also an immediate priority. Flag marches by the army in the affected areas will no doubt project its domination and put it in charge of security. However, deployment of troops in civilian areas could trigger a deadly backlash, if there are any fatalities of protesters.
Some of the worst violence in the early days of the unrest took place in parts of south Kashmir with the police shooting over 20 and retaliatory mobs setting fire to police stations and military outpost. That the region is also the bastion of ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Mufti family has added constraints on the ruling administration, to ensure that that situation does not arise.
Sections favoring the army’s deployment argue that the strict enforcement of curfew will bring down violent clashes and minimise casualties, and that it would cause fatigue among the protesters like in the previous cycle of violence.
A senior CRPF official, on the condition of anonymity, said the presence of the army will help in resuming daytime traffic on the national highway and restoring connectivity. "Stone pelters and protesters are a major concern for us. For now, we are forced to carry the vehicle movement only at night that includes escorting the Amarnath yatris."