x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Army ready to quell Kashmir protests

After a long summer of unrest, a security clampdown is intended to break the cycle that has turned the military into hate figures.

Kashmiri protesters pick their way across a road scattered with rubble in Srinagar after further demonstrations against New Delhi's rule.
Kashmiri protesters pick their way across a road scattered with rubble in Srinagar after further demonstrations against New Delhi's rule.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // The Indian army yesterday urged demonstrators in Kashmir to keep away from military garrisons after a separatist leader called for protests next week at military camps. The warning came as the army announced a "joint strategy" with the police and paramilitary forces to stifle a summer of violent anti-India protests that have led to dozens of deaths.

The details of the strategy were not made public for "operational reasons", except that security personnel would "exercise maximum restraint", but the move signifies the army's increasing and unprecedented involvement in quelling public protests. "The army makes a sincere appeal to people?to avoid confronting army camps and vehicles," Lt Col JS Brar, a defence spokesman, said at a news conference in Srinagar yesterday. "The [separatists] are misleading ordinary masses and trying to create a wedge between army and the people for vested interests."

In July, when this latest wave of secessionist violence first flared up, 17 army columns, consisting of 1,700 personnel, was deployed in the Kashmir valley for the first time in the last two decades to enforce a curfew. The army was deployed then only as a deterrent, but this time it might actively be involved in security arrangements. The new strategy was devised at a meeting Wednesday night chaired by the chief security adviser of the state, Lt Gen N C Marwah, to counter an appeal from the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's for Kashmiris to protest in front of military camps on Tuesday.

Maintaining internal security in India is usually the domain of the police and paramilitary forces. The army is reserved exclusively for counter-insurgency operations and securing India's borders. But as the violence in the Himalayan state shows no signs of abating, it seems the army's role has expanded to include tackling civil unrest. Lt Col Brar said next week's planned protest was a "deliberate attempt" by separatists to distract the army from its "primary roles". Just before his press conference began, Mr Geelani was placed under house arrest for the third time this month.

In a telephone interview, Mr Geelani, who leads the hardline All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of Kashmiri separatist political groups, said the march to the army camps is meant to be a gesture to "evoke the conscience" of military personnel. "We want to tell them that 'you are just doing your duty, but yours is an illegal occupation,'" he said. During the march, Mr Geelani, who enjoys popular appeal in the valley, has urged Kashmiris to shout "Go India Go back, We Want Freedom." The planned protest is part of his "Quit Kashmir Movement" launched in late June against the presence of 700,000 security personnel in Kashmir.

Since its launch, he has intermittently announced "protest calendars" - which lay out a schedule for street protests, shut downs and sit-ins against "Indian occupation". Mr Geelani insisted that he had issued a "strict directive" to his supporters to ensure that the protest march remains peaceful "at any cost". He said he had appealed to them to the protesters not go "too close" to the camps. Only one elder from each village is entrusted to walk up to military camps and hand over a "letter of protest" to the camp commander.

But in these volatile times, not even Mr Geelani can guarantee that the march will remain peaceful. During his Eid sermon on Saturday, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a moderate separatist leader urged a crowd to march up Lal Chowk, the main square of Srinagar, for a "peaceful sit-in" to protest the killings of civilians in recent months. The marching crowd soon turned into an angry mob that went on a rampage. It burned down a police outpost at the city's white-marble Hazratbal Shrine and other government buildings.

With public sentiment inflamed against the military presence, "it will be very difficult for the army - or even Mr Geelani - to stop crowds," said a 37-year-old resident of Srinagar, who "morally supports" the protests. "When my three year old son sees an army soldier, his immediate reflex is to pick up a stone." In the current wave of violence, the writ of the state is not being challenged by a separatist cartel or a militant insurgents, he said, but by the hot-blooded youth of Kashmir.

"The movement is changing," he said. "In the beginning, the masses followed leaders. Now the leaders are following the masses." The resident, who requested anonymity fearing reprisals from security personnel, said that in the last two days the electricity supply in his neighbourhood - located in the old town, the main location for the clashes - had been cut off. Yesterday, water supplies also appeared to have been switched off.

This, he alleged, was a part of government strategy to coerce protesters into submission. "It is meant to wear out people, to break their resolve to protest," he said. "But it won't stop Kashmiris." A tenuous calm settled yesterday over the streets of Kashmir, sealed off by razor-sharp rolls of barbed wire, as normal life seemed paralysed with the curfew entering its fourth day. There were reports of killings from some parts of the valley that have raised the death toll to 94.

People were locked indoors, even as public appeals grew to relax the curfew temporarily for people to buy food provisions and seek medical treatment. Security personnel went around neighbourhoods, instructing people through scratchy loudspeakers not to come out of their homes. @Email:achopra@thenational.ae