The anger that drove General Bipin Rawat’s remarks on Kashmir this week isn’t hard to understand: Four soldiers lost their lives because of the actions of a pro-jihadist mob throwing stones. The chief of the Indian Army, though, is not permitted the luxury of angry outbursts. He speaks for a nation’s policies, and must therefore choose his words with care. “People who have picked up arms,” General Rawat said, “and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them. They may survive today but we will get them tomorrow”. For any serious observer of the situation in Kashmir, this formulation raises extremely troubling questions.
In essence, the problem is this: Even though the violence which tore Kashmir apart this summer gone has abated, troops and police personnel operating in rural areas continue to be attacked by stone-pelting young men. These mobs are rarely larger in strength than a few dozen, but clearly have the support of hundreds, even thousands, of bystanders chanting pro-independence slogans.
There is no doubt they constitute a serious problem for counter-terrorism operations. Yet, to conflate these young men with terrorists is to do precisely what jihadists seek. The members of these mobs are not joining jihadist groups; they are not headed to training camps in Pakistan; they are not carrying guns. The state police ought to be making efforts to prosecute their criminal wrongdoing — but to join together the actions of the stone-throwing delinquent, or the political radical, with those of armed terrorists is both legally untenable, and politically indefensible.
The fundamental premise of the People’s Democratic Party, now in alliance with the BJP, still holds: To give young people disenfranchised and alienated in the course of two and a half decades of violence a home within the political system. General Rawat’s language is all the more indefensible because there is no evidence that violence levels have escalated to a point where military aggression is needed: Fatalities escalated sharply in 2016, it is true, but are still at levels lower than all years from 1990-2008, far more difficult times when the Indian state succeeded in asserting its authority. Treating young rural Kashmiris who, for reasons legitimate or otherwise, are angry with the Centre, as enemies to be hunted down, is a project that will lead to certain defeat. New Delhi needs to put space between its impulses and actions, where reflection might flourish.