In many ways Kashmir has not left the limelight. An area with unmatched beauty and peace, it is now witnessing violence which is being misconstrued across media channels. The recent encounter in Pulwama which resulted in deaths of three militants, loss of one soldier and seven ‘stone throwing civilians’ has given those supporting the movement,including so-called arm chair human rights activists, new ammunition.
It is evident that none of those criticising the army and claiming use of undue force have ever witnessed stone throwing and interference during operations,when lives are at stake. They remain unaware that one distraction during encounters can lead to loss of life or limb. Sitting comfortably in posh residences, these activists seek to blame security forces for deaths of stone throwers. They have failed to understand reality.
The press adds to the confusion by stating civilians, avoiding the true term, stone throwers or Over Ground Workers (OGW). Stone throwing is an organized industry in Kashmir, which employs youth across all ages. There are multiple instances when those involved have admitted in camera to the financial aspects involved, however this is ignored.
Those behind the inciting and controlling payments, stay behind, pushing others in front. The forces must respond, failing which they are likely to become casualties. Those OGWs charged with stone throwing subsequently join militant ranks.
In a counter-terrorist operation a few days ago, a fourteen-year-old terrorist was eliminated. It emerged that he was initially a stone thrower who graduated into becoming a terrorist. It was prior to this encounter that the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, had stated that stone throwers are OGWs who graduate into terrorists. When he made this statement, he was criticized. None who criticized him, subsequently came out in support of the truth of his statement, once the incident occurred.
In May last year, Major Gogoi, seeking to avoid opening fire when rescuing trapped polling officials, tied one stone thrower to his jeep and moved out without firing a shot, thus avoiding civilian casualties. He was accused of violating human rights. He faced the wrath from arm chair activists. He could have fired and justified it, as he was within his legal rights as those he had come to rescue, were in danger of being lynched.
In the Pulwama case, the mob was pelting stones and damaging security vehicles were also threatening them, forcing them to respond, which they did, with weapons they possessed. You fire, you are charged with using excessive force, you do not fire, adopt innovative means, you are charged with Human Rights.
In March this year, a column of Garhwal Rifles came under heavy stone pelting in Shopian as it was moving through a village. The crowd got close and even attempted to lynch a JCO. The column responded by firing in self-defence and the State Government lodged a FIR against them. It was the Supreme Court which came to their assistance and stopped the investigation. Firing in self-defence is permitted everywhere but in Kashmir.
There are multiple videos of stone throwing, mainly from the post Burhan Wani elimination available in the open domain. They are evidently not a means of protest as is claimed by terrorist sympathisers, but an action aimed at intimidating security forces from carrying out their tasks. Yet, every individual injured or killed in security forces retaliation suddenly becomes an innocent bystander, who was either watching the proceedings or just happened to be passing through.
The golden rule in handling protests like stone throwing is to target those directly in the front line thus forcing the others to retreat. Bullets do not travel like rockets targeting the rear of the mob. Hence all who are hit are in the front. If the mob instigators seek to place youngsters in the front, then they should be held responsible by the locals. Further, disrupting security forces operations by indulging in stone throwing is not akin to a cricket match where cheering is done from the side lines. When faced with mob frenzy, retaliation would come swift and fast.
Earlier, security forces would leave an encounter site immediately after an operation to avoid engaging mobs armed with stones. In an earlier incident when they did so, locals rushed in, resulting in loss of lives by unexploded bombs left behind by slain militants. To ensure safety of locals, security forces now clear the site of unexploded munition, adding to their own risks.
It is only those who have operated in the valley who understand the tensions soldiers go through daily. Security forces represent the Government which is being objected to, hence are insulted and obstructed as they go through their tasks. The hatred is evident when separatists demand bandhs and strikes when militants or OGWs are killed, but maintain silence when innocent locals, police or army personnel on leave, are kidnapped and brutally murdered by militants.
Security forces seek the same militants who are being protected by a section of OGWs. They operate under severe restrictions seeking to avoid collateral damage. However, being human, when threatened and faced with mass protests by stone throwers, seeking to injure them, they would respond and when they do, it is with weapons in their possession. Those who seek to prevent encounters from taking place, pelt stones and rush to encounter sites are doing on the directions of those paying them, aware that it is against the law and could lead to loss of lives.
OGWs fail to realize that they remain a minority. Information flows because majority of the residents of the valley desire peace and wish to avoid providing shelter to militants, even if they are locals. Those being pushed forward also never notice that those inciting them remain in the background in relative safety.
Loss of life is always painful, and no security force desires it. There are always attempts to avoid firing at protestors. The easiest option for security forces is to withdraw when faced by stone throwers, but such an option is not considered as it would convey a wrong message.
Firing leading to mass casualties only occurs when security forces livesare at risk. It would be ideal if elders convince the youth to stay away from encounters, protests could be done in a more democratic manner, rather than stone throwing. Unless this happens, there would always be a risk of loss of lives.
(The author is former Major General in Indian Army)