The image of a Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of an army jeep, apparently as a human shield, captured on a video now in circulation, should trouble anyone who claims to have the country’s best interests at heart. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was right in telling the Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, that this and other scenes of alleged excesses by soldiers were “washing away all the progress” achieved in the Valley. Indeed, over the years, despite the constant backsliding and the tortuous trajectory, and in spite of the enormous work left undone, the political process in the state and the security processes and procedures along with it, have travelled some valuable distance. Incidents such as those captured in the video imperil the new possibilities. They must be investigated and those behind them punished. Gen Rawat must send out a message to every soldier in the Valley, and elsewhere in the country too, that such aberrations will not be tolerated. Because they tarnish the image of the army as an institution, and also give elements trying to create trouble in Kashmir a stick with which to beat India. Arguments that this was the “best way” to teach the Valley’s stone pelters a lesson, or that this method “saved lives” as the soldiers did not have to shoot anyone, or that soldiers have a right to protect themselves even if it means tying a man to their jeep, do not hold. Quite simply, the state cannot equate itself with those challenging its writ. If it does so, it runs the risk of losing its moral legitimacy over them.
The limitations of any strategy that seeks to focus on Kashmir while ignoring the sensitivities and concerns of Kashmiris must be obvious. A territory is nothing without its people. Keeping Kashmir engaged with the idea of India means building bridges with its people, and giving them stakes in it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently asked Kashmiri youth to choose between “tourism or terrorism”. The complexity of the Kashmir issue cannot be reduced to that blithe binary. But when personnel of the security forces unleash brutalities in Kashmir, when they take up position against the Kashmiri people, it is they who invite accusations of delivering disaffected young Kashmiris to extremism.
But if the onus is on the Army in this moment, it is also — and more — on politics, on the political leadership in Srinagar and Delhi. The high-visibility proliferation of videos, and the war between the videos, is taking place in the space vacated by a political process apparently gone missing. A message seems to have gone out that the Modi government is not interested in talking to Kashmiris anymore, that it is now implementing a “muscular” policy. Indeed, the Centre has made no attempt to reach out to the people of the Valley, where the unrest of last year has spilt over into 2017. The immediate need is for the security forces to acknowledge their mistake, and make amends. And then, the political threads must be picked up again in Kashmir