Shopian civilian deaths: Let down by their government, people in Kashmir seek refuge in religion

Following the deaths of four civilians on Sunday during an encounter between the security forces and militants in Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian district on Sunday, the indications of a violence-hit summer are already being felt across the state. There is a worry that again the cycle of protests and arrests might soon take over the Valley only to be aggravated if further deaths of civilians happen in the process.

The state machinery has already ushered into an alarm mode in a tragic continuation of the ritual of previous summers. On the very first day after winter vacation, children had to miss their school as a panicky state government closed down all educational institutions, fearing widespread protests, again.

In the early 90s when Kashmiri militants would fire few rounds at men in uniform and then disappear, the response of the forces would be to go on a rampage and allegedly shoot anyone who moved, in a deadly spasm of retaliation that Kashmir knows as “cross firing”. Things have changed a lot since then but it has failed to wipe out the notion of suspicion entirely. Even with so many years passing by now and even with the forces becoming far more humane in their approach, there is always a concern that unscrupulous elements in the security apparatus might pass off alleged extrajudicial killings as victims of “crossfire”.

Security forces claim that the four deaths on Sunday happened as the unfortunate victims were caught at the wrong place at a wrong time and died in “cross fire”. Whatever be the reason of death, the truth that no one can ignore is that they were the sole breadwinners of their respective families. Their deaths may have a far-reaching impact on the coming summer in Kashmir, something the state government doesn’t want. This explains why Education Minister Altaf Bukhari wasted no time in ordering educational institutions to remain closed till Wednesday, fearing a repeat of last year when students, many of them females with bags in one hand and stones in another, led a mini-uprising against the state government.

The situation is simmering. On Monday and Tuesday, dozens of protesters were injured in clashes. Incidents of stone pelting were reported from all districts except Ganderbal. Dozens of students have been detained in Anantnag. South Kashmir areas are particularly tense where the local population has borne the brunt of the security forces’ operations against militants.

However, to say that such operations in absence of any political outreach will produce a positive change in Kashmir will be living in a fool’s paradise. As the bodies of militants are lowered in graves, there is an unending line of new recruits ready to join the fight where they know life is short. Most militants die a very young age, and they are encouraged by a groundswell of support by a rebellious population who have little reasons to repose trust in the institutions of the state.

A friend recently said young boys are dying in south Kashmir at such an alarming pace that parents may soon have to turn to north to look for a match for their daughters because there would be no eligible bachelors left in the south!

But at the heart of these killings is a question that needs an answer. Are the lives of ordinary Kashmiris so cheap that even in instances where the violation of the operational code of conduct by forces is established and the rules of engagement have been violated, why is it that no one is punished?

A brutal but honest answer to this question was given by Shabir Lone, a cousin of Gowhar Lone who was among the four civilians killed on Sunday night by the Army in Shopian, “Common Kashmiris are killed like ants.”

Even as the very mention of the name of an Indian soldier thrusts an entire nation behind his back, it is also equally important for the country not to turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings committed by security personnel.

The people in the state feel let down by the system, and hence they take refuge in religion. Ask them why they have given up on the elected government and they will tell that God will ultimately dispense justice. They have lost faith in the very institutions which were supposed to offer them a sense of security and respect.

In today’s Kashmir, a funeral prayer for the victims of Sunday’s bloodbath in Shopian by young men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder, a blasphemy under the jurisprudence of Islam, is defined as an act of resistance and celebrated. This should worry us all.