Army Takes Charge in Four Kashmir Districts as Forces Hold Ground
(There have been reports in mainstream newspapers suggesting that policemen have been evacuated from police stations in four districts of South Kashmir. However, our reporter has found a welcome coordination among all the forces, something that was missing in 2010. In fact, the army has provided the ‘steel frame’ within which the paramilitary forces have also held ground.)
The Azad Gunj bridge spans the wide width of the Jhelum river in Baramulla. On Sunday 14 August, it presented a scene straight out of a war film. Police and CRPF jeeps and lorries pushed forward three-quarters of the way across the bridge towards the congested Old Town, as men from those forces moved in bullet-proof, battle-ready lines on either side, and in taut rows in front of the vehicles.
They fired tear-gas shells and pellets at a melee of running, yelling boys on the road and along the bank on the Old Town side of the river. After a while, those forces slowly moved back. By then, there had been a lot of injuries, some on each side.
That high-voltage battle was the district police’s reaction to the Pakistani flag being raised in a formal ceremony with young people in school uniforms. Students in school uniforms were lined up and two horses decked out for the ceremony. Led by an irate district officer, the police and CRPF swung across the bridge before a speech could be given after the flag raising.
A couple of army soldiers in a green Gypsy jeep behind the column of CRPF and police vehicles muttered unhappily that the battle of the bridge had been unnecessary. The forces maintained an uneasy truce for several weeks, they said, but this action neutralised all that restraint.
Whether they were right or the gung-ho police officer who charged into battle was, the propaganda purpose of the little event was served. Even though motorcycle-borne youth swooped in to smash video cameras in Old Town, footage of the event — and the following carnage — was broadcast on Pakistani channels and such international platforms as Al Jazeera. But then who cares about international opinion as long as one’s own propaganda sounds okay to one’s backers and bosses?
The caution of those army jawans was well-founded, but the important point is that they were there to back the other forces, right behind those forces’ vehicles in case they needed to be called forward. That reflected a significant difference between the way things were in 2010 and are now. Kashmiri youth exploded in rage in 2010 too, as they have since 9 July, but that year, the army remained assiduously away from the action. It was the right thing to do, then.
This year, the army — aware that this is a more potent challenge — has stood squarely behind the police and the CRPF. The three forces have worked in close coordination. Wherever one sees CRPF men and army men deployed, one also sees a policeman, if not several — except of course in the army’s anti-militant or anti-infiltration operations away from civilian populations.
In fact, in some of the worst affected areas, the army has coordinated closely with the other forces. In Kupwara, for instance, stone-pelting mobs emerged in such large and vigorous numbers between 13 and 16 July that the director general of police flew down to Kupwara and got the three forces to work together.
Some officers had feared at the time that every police station and post in the district might be burned down by irate mobs. But senior officers posted there say that the army has since provided ‘a steel frame’ for the other forces to function. It has worked.
Improvement on 2010
This is a great improvement on 2010. That summer was an absolute nightmare in Kashmir as seething, boiling masses of young people took to the streets with stones. They were most vehemently visible in the lanes and gullies of inner city Srinagar — ‘Downtown’ — but their rage spilled far and wide across the Valley as the cycle of stoning and firing and stoning and firing went on and on for several weeks.
That year, the police and the CRPF were the arms of the state — flailing, for the most part, like the arms and feet of a tumbling octopus. The army remained assiduously out of it. When the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah ordered a flag march in desperation, a column of army trucks decked with red flags drove along the Dal Lake — away from the city.
Mess of Six Years Ago
That was a very good strategy for the army that year. For, that mess was created by chaotically uncontrolled, trigger-happy police and CRPF — almost as if key men on the ground were determined to queer the pitch for India — and the political authorities, at least in the state, were out of their depth.
This year too those who should have strategised for the state seemed to have lost the plot on those two crucial days — 8 and 9 July. (8 July was the day militant commander Burhan Wani was killed.) Indeed, it seemed once again as if key persons on the ground were out to queer the pitch.
Tough to Maintain Restraint
Thereafter, the state’s response has been much better pitched and controlled — at least in terms of police and military tactics. Compared with 2010, the forces’ restraint has been commendable and sometimes amazing.
Some horrifying encounters have occurred but, thankfully, one of those is now under the scanner of the Supreme Court, and the Northern Army Commander, Lt General Hooda has publicly regretted and castigated another.
It will become increasingly tough to keep restraint in place. Increased coordination is sorely needed.
(The writer is a Kashmir-based author and journalist. He can be reached at@david_devadas)