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Srinagar Army deployment driven by panic?

Praveen Swami

Poor crowd control training leading to fatalities in Kashmir urban clashes every summer, say experts

NEW DELHI:Early in the morning, half a company of soldiers from the Army's Srinagar-based 31 sub-area command rode from the cantonment to the airport. In the afternoon, the troops returned, this time driving through tense inner-city neighbourhoods.

Wednesday was the first day in 17 years that the Indian Army had been ordered out to assist civilian authority in Srinagar — but, ironically enough, there were fewer military vehicles on the city's main highways than are seen on normal days. No actual Army deployment has taken place in the city and, Defence Ministry sources told TheHindu, none is planned: the Srinagar-based XV corps has instructions only to stand by in the event of a crisis.

The Jammu and Kashmir government called for military aid after three weeks of bruising urban violence, which broke out on June 11. Four people were shot dead by police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel on Tuesday, bringing the fatalities in the recent violence to 15. Police say six other civilians were killed in clashes earlier this summer, as well as in incidents linked to clashes.

The last time the Army was out on Srinagar's streets was in April 1993, when elements of the Jammu and Kashmir Police mutinied. Later, that October, the Army was called into action after jihadists occupied Hazratbal, a revered shrine that houses a relic reputed to be a hair from the beard of Prophet Muhammad. In 1999, troops were called in briefly for assistance in an attempt to rescue officials trapped in a terrorist assault on the headquarters of the Jammu and Kashmir's Police crack counter-terrorism force, the Special Operations Group.

Never, however, has the Army been asked to assist in urban crowd control in Kashmir's cities — and many experts are asking if this summer's clashes, appalling as their toll has been, constitute the kind of crisis that justifies calling out troops.

Figures published by the Union Home Ministry's National Crime Records Bureau suggest panic, instead of a calm appraisal, may have driven the decision to call in the Army: the clashes on Srinagar's streets are like a long-running fever, not an emergency that needs surgical intervention.

In 2003, the year the People's Democratic Party-Congress alliance government took office, six people were killed in 47 incidents involving the use of lethal force by police. Thirteen civilians were killed in 2004, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed's full first year in office. Police are recorded as having opened fire on 123 occasions.

The next year, though, fatalities in police firing rose sharply to 50. That September, the State government withdrew Border Security Force units committed to counter-insurgency operations in Srinagar, and replaced them by the Central Reserve Police Force, in an effort to contain killings of civilians.

In 2006, the year Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad took office, there were no civilian fatalities caused by police. Even though Srinagar saw some urban violence that summer, in the course of protests against a prostitution racket in which politicians were implicated, there was little bloodshed.

But the next year eight civilians were killed in 47 instances of police firing.

Fatalities rose sharply in 2008 — a year when large-scale protests against the grant of land-use rights to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board tore apart Jammu and Kashmir. The State government reported 43 deaths and 317 injuries in 379 incidents involving use of lethal force by police.

Data is not yet available for 2009, but a senior police official told TheHinduthat more than 15 civilians had been killed in police firing last summer too.

National problem

Fatalities caused by police firing have been far fewer in Jammu and Kashmir than in many other States less threatened by large-scale protests. Police in Uttar Pradesh killed 104 civilians and injured 145 in 608 incidents of police firing in 2008. Maharashtra reported 47 civilian deaths in 89 incidents of police firing.

Police in several States, the data shows, are more likely than their Jammu and Kashmir counterparts to open fire to kill. In 2007, 30 civilians were killed in Andhra Pradesh in 45 incidents of police firing; eight died in Jammu and Kashmir in 47 incidents. Back in 2006, the Andhra Pradesh police killed 72 civilians in 79 incidents of firing, while 138 Chhattisgarh residents were shot dead in 213 incidents.

Part of the problem, experts say, lies in deteriorating riot-control skills. “Indian police forces,” notes the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management's Ajai Sahni, “used to be internationally regarded for their crowd control skills. Police managing agitations in Punjab or Assam quite routinely dispersed crowds of tens of thousands of people without opening fire.”

“The fact that police forces across the country are using lethal force to disperse a few hundred people throwing stones,” Mr. Sahni argues, “shows something has gone badly wrong.”

Army sources said the Jammu and Kashmir government had been told troops were untrained in riot control duties, and would be unable to assist in crowd control. “We were told our presence was intended to be demonstrative,” a senior officer said, “and that we would not be drawn into riot-related duties.”

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