NEW DELHI: Ever since the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 a steady rise in the alienation of young Kashmiris from the rest of India has been bringing the valley closer to a precipice. The death of five Kashmiri youth in three days through firing by the police and security forces has brought it to its brink. The trigger was the alleged molestation of a young girl by an army jawan. But in an unprecedented turn of events the girl herself refuted this charge. In a video interview posted only a day later, she asserted that she was slapped and dragged towards a police station by a young man as she came out of a toilet located close to an army bunker; that a crowd gathered ‘within seconds’, and was incited to attack the bunker by a group of youth, one of whom she recognised.

The authenticity of the video has been challenged but it is difficult to see what threats or inducements the army could have used that would make her family risk social ostracism and put themselves in danger by letting her give such a graphic account of what had actually happened to her. It is therefore virtually certain that the supposed molestation was another ‘false flag’ operation mounted by unidentified ‘separatists’ to incite a spontaneous public reaction, and a heavy footed Indian crackdown that would help them to harvest another group of martyrs for the Kashmiri cause.

From the separatists’ point of view the operation was an unqualified success, for it sparked instant valley-wide protests, shut downs, curfews and stone throwing to which the security forces responded by imposing curfews, blocking the internet, and firing upon the attackers and stone pelters. Their success is bound to embolden the separatists. So as summer advances more provocations are bound to follow. In the infinitely darker political climate that prevails today, if these are dealt with in the same manner as the Omar Abdullah government dealt with the stone pelters in 2010, it could easily set the valley on fire.

Ms. Mehbooba Mufti knows this and will undoubtedly not display the callous indifference that the Omar Abdullah government did. But as we saw during the Shri Amarnath land scam in 2008, restraint by the security forces will only make the separatist youth more reckless and leave the defenders in the bunkers and encampments with no option but to open fire in self defence.

If this vicious circle, of provocation followed by police firing followed by still more provocation, has to be broken the first step must be to end the reliance of the police and CRPF upon opening fire into the protesters to restore control.

The main, but not only hurdle to this is a lack of protective gear. It is arguable that the Indian police, not only in Kashmir but throughout India , is the worst equipped force in the world. Photographs and videos of Chinese troops suppressing the Tibetan uprising of 2008 show them wearing helmets , goggles, leg guards, knee length boots, elbow and forearm guards and, most important of all, carrying large transparent plastic shields through which they could see their attackers and defend themselves. Similar equipment is being used by the police even in poor countries such as Mali, the Congo and the Ivory Coast. But for 69 years after independence the Indian police continue to use old cricket pads to guard their legs and short bamboo shields that allow them to defend themselves only at the expense of blinding them to the next onslaught.

Up to date equipment will make it possible for them to adopt proactive measures that break up mobs before they have the time to coalesce fully and develop their destructive momentum. But to make such tactics a part of their routine deployment they will need extensive retraining. This has never been seriously attempted anywhere in India because firing on one’s own people to maintain law and order has remained the preferred, low cost, way of controlling crowds, long after the colonial masters who initiated it, have returned to where they came from.

Today this has created a huge backlash that has enabled Maoists and other left wing groups to establish their dominance over almost a tenth of the country. In Kashmir the continued reliance on firing with live ammunition as a last resort will create fresh militants by the score, the hundreds and then the thousands and play into the hands of the separatists. A drastic reform of methods for maintaining law and order is therefore an imperative need.

Re-equipping and retraining the police may give Kashmir a reprieve from violence , but for lasting peace the central government will have to find a way of accommodating Kashmiri ethno-nationalism within the Indian mosaic as it has accommodated a myriad others in the past sixty nine years. The formula it evolves must be one that Kashmiris themselves feel empowered by. For without their acquiescence no government in Pakistan will able to sell a future agreement with India over Kashmir to its own people. Thus peace within Kashmir is also a pre-requisite for peace with Pakistan.

Police reform must therefore be accompanied by measures that promise to end the rule of the security forces in Kashmir. The first essential step towards this is the announcement of a cease fire along the lines of Mr Vajpayee’s unilateral cease fire in December 2000, followed by the declaration of a general amnesty for all the 31,000 militants who were ‘processed’ through the government’s interrogation camps papa1 and papa2 in the ‘nineties, all the stone pelters who have been arrested since 2008, and all the militants presently roaming free in south Kashmir, provided they lay down their arms .

A general amnesty is needed in order to close the history sheets on past offenders, and give them a clean slate with which to start a new life. Security hawks in Delhi are bound to oppose any such measures, but their panacea –to hunt down and kill ‘terrorists’ one by one has conspicuously failed to restore peace. Instead it has given Pakistan’s ISI all the justification it needed to keep sending infiltrators across the LoC. Worst of all, it has unleashed the never-ending police reign of terror out of which a new generation of armed militants, led by the likes of Burhan, has been born. Offering a carrot in place of the stick could hardly yield worse results.

(Photograph BASIT ZARGAR)