The alliance between India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the local People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the restive Jammu and Kashmir province is being severely tested over recent civilian killings by the army amid a mounting civilian rebellion.
Government forces are at loggerheads with one another as police have filed murder charges against the army. While the BJP is vehemently supporting the army, the PDP wants an investigation to be “taken its logical end”. The army is protected by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which gives it sweeping powers in the state.
The latest spark came late last month in Shopian, 60km south of provincial capital Srinagar, when protests broke out against the army’s effort to remove banners featuring rebels. Three young civilians were killed and a dozen injured as the army fired directly at the people, aiming above the waist, as evident from head injuries. The army said it had fired in “self-defence” when a mob tried to lynch an officer and snatch his weapon.
The opposition parties have accused the government of aggravating the situation. Former chief minister and opposition leader Omar Abdullah said there is a sense of impunity within the armed forces and cited a notorious case of army excesses eight years ago. In April 2010, three civilians described as Pakistani militants were gunned down in what is often labelled in India as “fake encounter”, or extrajudicial killings. Four years later, a court martial convicted five army officers of staging the killings. Last year, the armed forces tribunal suspended the life sentence for the accused.
Instances such as these continue to inflame local anger. The mood against the army has taken a turn for the worse in recent years due to its operation “All Out” against the rebels in which more than 200 were killed last year. Adding to the anger was a video that surfaced last year of a group of soldiers parading a local man tied with ropes on the bonnet of their vehicle.
Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant general, said there was little else the army could do as situations like the one in Shopian are deliberate instigations. “The army does fire warning shots when mobs are at a distance but when protesters draw closer unfazed by the firings, shoot-to-kill becomes the norm for soldiers,” he said.
But political activist Inam Un Nabi, who has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, told This Week in Asia that both coalition partners are exploiting the violence. “It suits the BJP as it doesn’t want peace with Pakistan and uses the unrest in Kashmir to rally votes elsewhere,” said Nabi, adding that the PDP does little more than make the right noises.
However, the latest killings threaten to snowball into a political crisis, deepening the chasm between the two alliance partners. The PDP has continued to lose support, even in its strongholds, amid the fresh civilian uprising since the killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. More than 120 civilians have been killed in just a few weeks in these protests. For the BJP, on the other hand, a strong army goes hand in hand with its projection of muscular nationalism. That may not play well in this troubled state, but helps it garner support in the rest of the country. Senior BJP leaders have, accordingly, rallied behind the army again.
This is not the first time the coalition partners have been at odds. But given past killings by the army, it seems unlikely that the accused will be prosecuted.
While the political war of words between the opposition parties and the two coalition partners continue, a 10-year-old boy succumbed to injuries from a shell at a site of gunfight eight days ago in the same district.