Deja vu in Kashmir
Kashmir is on the boil again. Some 14 civilians, mostly teenagers and young men, have died in clashes with security forces since June. Most of the Muslim-majority valley has either been under a curfew or shut down, and soldiers have staged a flag march in the capital, Srinagar.
The usual, banal recriminations have begun. The governments - federal and state - blame "outside elements", local separatists and opposition parties for stoking protests. The separatists and opposition parties point to a collapse of governance and failure to respect the pro-freedom sentiments of Kashmir's people. Analysts say the mess is again a result of the government's "failure of imagination" in moving forward on this restive region.
The truth may be more prosaic.
Look at the pattern of killings - they are grimly similar. Stone throwing protesters come out in hordes and security forces fire in "self defence." A young man is killed and more protests follow. A shot is fired again, and another one dies. And so it goes on. Heart rending scenes mark the funerals and pictures of the dead young men evoke chilling responses. "Each passing day," a Kashmiri girl writes on Facebook reacting to a picture of a blood stained boy killed in the firing, "any hope left dies just inside me, just withers away, just vapourises bit by bit, and when hope dies, nothing remains, nothing." India cannot afford an alienated Kashmir.
Why are so many young people dying in demonstrations in Kashmir?
Security forces say they are forced to fire because the stone throwing mobs are often unpredictable and violent - one report suggests some 200 policemen and paramilitaries have been injured in the stone throwing in the past month. But stone throwing as a form of protest in Kashmir dates back to the 1930s - the present chief minister's grandfather led such demonstrations against the region's rulers. In central Srinagar - some call it Kashmir's Gaza Strip - the tradition has endured.
Rights groups and many Kashmiri people say that using maximum force to subdue stone throwers is a brutal, exaggerated response. They say that security forces in Kashmir have fought militants for over two decades, and are not trained for civilian crowd control. A Kashmiri friend of mine says, "There are very few places in the world where civilian protests are controlled by men with live ammunition and AK-47s."
The government has been making noises about raising a special force dealing in modern crowd control techniques - using water cannons, the malodorous and non-lethal "skunk" spray, noise machines, for example - but nothing has happened so far. In Kashmir even tear gas canisters and rubber bullets have killed protesters raising suspicions that security forces are not properly trained to use them.
Heavily armed police and paramilitaries taking on civilian protests can only heighten tensions in a region where sentiments remain fragile, and things can spiral out of control very fast. Surely, many ask, it does not take a lot of imagination to form a special crowd control force for the region.
Kashmir requires delicate handling, but governments appear to botch up whenever the going seems to be relatively good. The 2008 agitation was triggered off when the local government decided to transfer to a Hindu religious trust 100 acres of land, sparking off widespread protests among Muslims - the decision was later rescinded. Last summer the alleged murder of two women by security forces plunged the valley in unrest. This year, it began with the death of a young stone thrower in police firing. Most Kashmiri people I speak to wonder: Why don't the authorities learn from past mistakes?