A tinderbox waiting for a match

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Twilight zone Lal Chowk, the hub of protests in downtown Srinagar, wears a deserted look during last month’s curfew
Twilight zone Lal Chowk, the hub of protests in downtown Srinagar, wears a deserted look during last month’s curfew, Photos: Abid Bhat

BEYOND THE overarching backdrop of the six-decade-long Kashmir problem, it is local political factors that have precipitated the current crisis — a Central government no longer afraid of a turbulent Kashmir, emboldening it to hang the 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru in disregard of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s reservations; and a chief minister trying to redeem his electoral pledge about withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and, in doing so, assert some independence in a state where he has often struggled to appear in command.

Other factors include the army, which refuses to concede ground on AFSPA arguing it offers them space to operate in a disturbed area still dormant with militancy; and the Jammu & Kashmir Police, which controls 90 percent of the law and order in the state. The police are in favour of revoking AFSPA and have contested the army’s claims on the number of active militants, saying there are only 100-odd militants and even they are operating in the hinterland. Amid all this, the militants are looking for an opportunity to strike with maximum impact to make their presence felt.

The situation has some more dimensions. It is also about a chief minister desperate to avoid more deaths in the renewed uncertainty, fearing this will deepen and prolong the unrest in the pattern of the 2010 turmoil when 120 youth, most of them teenagers, lost their lives. Hence he wanted the security forces to carry fewer lethal weapons and exercise maximum restraint while dealing with crowds.

This is why when CRPF Inspector General (Operations) SS Sandhu defied the direction saying his force will follow its own standard operating procedure and carry lethal weapons, the state government felt there was a cause for alarm.

Abdullah complained to Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde about the CRPF’s defiance. According to sources, Shinde called Sandhu and advised him to cooperate with the J&K Police. This put the onus on the CRPF to prevent further killings. The approach seemed to work. After the loss of three lives on the first two days of the protests following Guru’s hanging, the government succeeded in reining in the violence over the next week.

The state was stabilising when fresh turmoil was triggered by the mysterious death of Mudassir Kamran, a Kashmiri student based in Hyderabad. Kamran, who was pursuing a doctorate at the English and Foreign Languages University, was found hanging in his hostel room on 2 March, just a few days after his arrest for taking part in a protest against Guru’s hanging. The subsequent killing of a protester, Tahir Ahmad Sofi, by the army in Baramulla pushed the situation off the cliff.

Just when the state government was coming to grips with the fresh crisis, militants mounted a suicide strike on 13 March, the first such attack in three years, at the CRPF’s 73 Battalion camp, killing five men and injuring 11 others, four of them civilians. CRPF personnel in anti-riot gear were allegedly playing cards in an adjacent school compound when they were targeted by militants, who were clad in cricket gear with weapons hidden in a kit bag. In another attack on 27 March, gunmen ambushed a vehicle of the J&K Police’s Special Operations Group in Shopian.

“There have been more than 1,000 stone-pelting incidents since the protests broke out in February. And we were satisfied that we have drastically reduced the loss of life in comparison to the 2010 unrest,” says a senior police officer on the condition of anonymity. “It is this success that the militants want to unravel. This (13 March) attack is to disrupt the coordination among the security agencies.”

Of late, the J&K Police have been painstakingly trying “to rid itself of the counter-insurgency reflexes” cultivated over the past two decades and get into a crowd-control mode. “It was not easy. For 20 years, we had AK-47s in our hands while confronting angry crowds. Our first instinct was to fire,” says the senior police officer. “But the successive periods of unrest since 2010 have forced us to rethink, re-strategise and reformulate our response.”

The retraining process included various measures such as holding joint exercises with the CRPF, educating the police about the psychological and practical aspects of crowd control, getting them off the habit of using lethal weapons in response to large demonstrations and training them in the efficient use of non-lethal weapons.

The police also got experts from Harvard University to train its personnel in better mob control. This programme included simulated crowd-control exercises. One such exercise was held last year at Lal Chowk, the traditional hub of the protests, at the busiest time of the day, which even took people and the media by surprise, who mistook it for real disturbance.

“Our aim has been to shift from an improvised approach to a deliberate and thinking response,” says the police officer.

In 2011, the police also went for a major weapons upgrade to tackle the protests. The new arsenal included vehicle-mounted tearsmoke devices, blast dispersal cartridges and stunlac grenades. On top of it, the police also procured body protectors, polycarbonate shields, polycarbonate sticks, helmets and visors, bulletproof bunkers, pump-action guns, water cannons, anti-riot rifles, and rubber pellets.

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