Another cycle of violence in troubled Kashmir has provoked hysterical commentary and predictions of "a new phase" of terrorism in the Valley.
The reality is that this is Kashmir's "normal". Cycles of violence - particularly street violence - have occurred with insistent regularity over the past years, even as the incidence of terrorist violence and related fatalities remains relatively low.
For all the strident commentary, the reality is that the security forces (SF) have acted with restraint. Fatalities among protesters and the particularly disturbing injuries - including partial or complete blindness as a result of the "non-lethal" pellet guns - have been the consequence of patterns of inadequate deployment in particular areas and overwhelming violence by frenzied crowds, necessitating augmenting levels of use of force.
The present escalation, as was the case with past cycles, will die down - and, indeed, has already dramatically diminished at the time of writing.
Unfortunately, it is almost inevitable that another phase of turmoil will crystallise, sooner or later, around some other incident or event.
Despite the state's long experience of dealing with such incidents and developments, however, it appears that the wheel is reinvented on each occasion, and there is little evidence that the lessons of the past inform responses in each renewed spiral of disorders.
It is useful, consequently, to review some of the difficulties and deficiencies of response in the present case without rancour or attempts to point fingers.
It must be abundantly clear that such situations present difficult challenges for the political leadership. There have been many and misconceived exhortations for politicians to "reach out" to the agitators and "find a political solution acceptable to all stakeholders".
This is politically correct nonsense.
There is little possibility of any such outreach at present, particularly in the more volatile centres of the agitation. It is unrealistic to expect politicians to go out and talk to the people, or to expect the people to listen to them, in phases of escalation, with the intimidation of the terrorists a pressing reality in the background.
The problem is not the absence of political initiatives in this phase; it is, rather, their absence in intervening periods of relatively low violence which no political party appears to have exploited to address enduring tensions and to contest persistent processes of Salafist-Islamist radicalisation in the state.
Moreover, the agitation itself was both predictable and preventable, but there were errors of assessment, both of scale and location. This suggests a very high order of the failure of intelligence - particular in view of the fact that there had been a massive media build-up on Burhan Wani.
This had been backed by ill-considered statements by officials from time to time, virtually confirming Wani's "rock star status". It is now of little utility to harp on the fact that Wani had never executed a single major operation.
|There were errors of assessment, both of scale and location. (Reuters)|
If that was the case, then past threat assessments vigorously projected by the SF were clearly false. In any event, once Wani was killed, there was reason to withhold details, at least till adequate security arrangements had been made to contain what should have been predictable fallout in the Valley, where street violence has been a recurrent phenomenon.
That said, it is abundantly clear that, while Wani's death created some natural sympathy, the escalation of street violence was substantially orchestrated and was clearly linked to provocations from Pakistan - not only from the terrorist leadership, but also directly from the Army command and from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It remains to be seen whether there was a direct chain of command and flow of resources from Pakistan to those who were engineering the street violence in Kashmir, but this has certainly been the case in the escalations of 2008 and 2010.
It is useful to recall that Pakistan and India share the same frameworks of law and enforcement, and those who direct such activities across the border are well aware of the limitations of enforcement agencies and the patterns of possible responses.
While no immediate and dramatic political initiatives can be expected in a situation of heightened disorders, it is crucial that political leaders do nothing to undermine the authority of SF.
Regrettably, both the state and central government are guilty in this regard. Both chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, issued statements directing SF to "exercise restraint".
Crucially, public calls for restraint from high office would appear to confirm claims that preceding SF responses were lacking in restraint. Such a conclusion is, however, possible only after a detailed examination of each case of police firing or use of force in which deaths or grievous injuries have occurred. Needless to say, no such examination has yet occurred.
Even if there are apprehensions of excessive use of force, or a feeling that the SF needs to be cautioned in this regard, there can be no justification for public posturing.
During the Assam agitation, for instance, I was specifically sent in to control a particular jurisdiction where firings had resulted in almost daily fatalities among demonstrators for several successive days.
My mandate was to end the cycle of police firing and retaliatory protests and demonstrations. These orders were, however, secret, personally communicated to me, and I did not share this information even with my immediate subordinates. [That situation was brought under control thereafter without a single shot fired, through the use of cane charges alone].
In a volatile situation, it is an error to place any public constraint on the responding forces, or to provide an assurance to demonstrators that the quantum of force would not exceed a particular level.
Such public directives will only encourage greater escalation by the protestors in the confidence that they would not be dealt with by extreme measures - even if such measures have been taken off the SF spectrum of options.
Funerals of militants in Kashmir have been attracting thousands of "mourners" and the state has done little on this count. This is not a new problem, and it certainly isn't unique to Kashmir.
In Punjab, the funerals of terrorists had become occasions for mass mobilisation and violent demonstrations, and on many occasions, armed terrorists mixed into the crowd, and orchestrated an escalation by opening fire on the police and paramilitary personnel in attendance, in attempts to draw fire against the crowds.
Any fatalities would, of course, renew the cycle of protests following each killing. A decision was consequently taken not to allow public funerals; only the family was to attend the last rites, and this was implemented.
This may create some resentment - but this would be a far lesser predicament than the crises created by mass and violent mobilisation in the wake of each terrorist fatality.
There has been a widespread failure on the part of state agencies to correctly manage perceptions, and this is an aspect that demands urgent attention. A certain quality of machismo is inevitable on both sides of an armed confrontation, but it serves little purpose for state forces to be putting out photographs with cross marks against terrorists killed, or to hold hasty press conferences to announce the latest killing of a prominent terrorist, without preparing well in advance for the expected fallout.
The state must, above all, appear to be circumspect, resorting to coercive measures as a last option, rather than exulting in these.
This crisis in Kashmir will also pass, as have those that preceded it. It is crucial that the opportunities of the intervening peace are not wasted. There has been a complete abandonment of political processes - rather, there has been active engagement in divisive politics - and this is something that needs to be reversed.
It is now necessary to speak to the people against terrorism, even in areas where terrorists are dominant. In the Punjab, when terrorism was peaking, public meetings were organised in the worst affected villages. A stage was set up, and people were brought in to speak.
In the beginning, there was no one in the audience - not a single person. But they heard what was being said in their homes, since loudspeakers had been installed.
People began to talk among themselves and gradually accepted that what was being said was reasonable and right, and over time crowds at such meetings swelled to the thousands.
What is happening in Kashmir is not unique; it has occurred many times, in many different parts of the country. At a particular point in time, subversive and extremist forces appear to be dominant, indeed, overwhelming.
But they have been defeated again and again. What is required is a measure of political sagacity and determination, and a sustained pursuit of strategic goals, without the constant distraction of sentiment and of perverse political agendas.