‘Handle with care’

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It’s very sad that a poor tourist, who certainly had nothing to do with the politics concerning Kashmir, has fell to the stones of an unruly mob at Narbal. Previously also there have been incidents wherein tourist vehicles were targeted by the stone-pelters, but both state authorities and the society in general, instead of acknowledging the dangers chose to deny it. And today the ugly results are staring us in the face when an innocent and unsuspecting tourist has lost his life – a death which could have been avoided had the authorities shown some care and caution, and the people in general not condoned and patronized unruliness on the roads and streets of Kashmir. By the way scores of locals continue to be at the receiving end of the mob fury here on daily basis, and unfortunately their trauma and their losses are not even accounted for!

Coming to the policing public protest — even if it may not be violent, is always a big challenge. And here the situational difficulty increases manifold as most of the protests turn into stone-pelting clashes within no time. With overly violent agitations of past few years in hindsight — every single civilian killing fuelling more protests and more civilian killings, thereby setting up a vicious spiral of killings — it is important for the state to be careful in handling the situation. But as of now no such care and caution is visible, certainly not vis-a-vis the larger fallouts and repercussions of avoidable violent action.

Those who have been in Kashmir’s protests, either as active participants or as passive onlookers, or even as someone just caught in it for “being at the wrong place at wrong time”, as also those who have been on the police side – would attest to it that the adrenaline rush during such situations often clouds things so much so that making rational and wise choices becomes very difficult. This is not justifying the behaviour of the ‘actors’ (protestors or police and other security agencies) in such situations, but the aim is to highlight the pitfalls so that they are avoided.

Police (and paramilitaries in our case) are the coercive arm responsible for the maintenance of internal order within the territorial boundaries of the nation-state. But they need to maintain a delicate balancing act of respecting freedoms and individual rights of the civilian populations – even at times of grave provocations by who is seen as the “political other” – together with the protection of public security and public order. The degree to which this balance is upheld is a way to measure the effectiveness and legitimacy not only of the police but even of the democratic societies. Therefore, the spatial strategies employed by police within the frontiers of public space while policing a protest demonstration, “reflect the amount of respect that the state shows for the civil and political rights of its citizens and the overall quality of democracy in the political system.”

For the past few years, Kashmir has been witness to violent street protests, marked by the ‘kani-jang’ or stone-pelting. While as in the pre-militancy era, it was concentrated to certain pockets of Srinagar downtown largely, but today it is widespread throughout the Valley. Again this is not to condone stone-pelting – in fact nobody would/should do that! The point that needs to be understood is that the sheer frequency of such clashes asks for devising better policing tactics for dealing with such protests with no or very little collateral harm.

Then there are also questions surrounding the existence of “public” or “democratic” space in contemporary politics of Kashmir; and whether or not the politics around these spaces have changed. How do we understand political protest in spatial terms? Is there such a thing as democratic space in the “world’s largest democracy”? And how does the state negotiate its coercive arms – the police and military – to deal with the common citizenry who it claims to be its own, particularly at a time when their behaviour is/may not to the liking of the state? Is shooting to kill the only answer? Can there be less lethal and more effective ways of dealing with the street violence that threatens public security and order?

This brings us to questions pertaining to the “legitimate use” of force. Right from Max Weber almost all political geographers have conceded to the state its right to monopolization of the “legitimate use of violence over a given territory” for sustaining order and ensuring an organized administration. However, what is important for the state and its coercive wings to understand is that while in challenging situations they enjoy right to “legitimate use of force” (violence that is ‘legal’), in no situation is this right “absolute and arbitrary”. Here, it must be noted that it is the ‘illegality of violence’ that has actually been one of the major causes of anger and alienation here which have in turn provided constant supply of fuel for the continuation of trouble here.

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