The provocation for violence is often very different from the underlying cause. After days of >unrest in Jammu and Kashmir’s Handwara town , in which five civilians died, it now emerges that the trigger for all the moral outrage and protests — the report of a >molestation bid on a young woman by a soldier — may not have had any basis in fact. She submitted before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Handwara, that she was assaulted by a local youth, and not by any of the Army personnel stationed in Handwara. The facts of what actually happened are still contested, but the manner in which the rumour of the involvement of an Army man in the attack spread through the town points to the widespread distrust of the armed forces in the area. The >dismantling of four Army bunkers at the town square was thus a necessary, and welcome, response to bring the situation under control and to restore normalcy in the area. The larger reason for the protests was precisely that: the high level of resentment in the town against the obtrusive presence of the Army. Reports, factual or rumoured, of the assault on the young woman provided a spark to draw attention to what is locally perceived as the larger problem: the repressive force of the Army against civilians. The deaths of young people in subsequent protests further aggravated the local population’s anxiety about failing to keep young men and women out of harm’s way. The dispiriting takeaway is that if it had not been the assault on the young woman, it would have been some other issue.
The response from the locals, including government servants, holds out a lesson for the Centre. It is that such incidents will tend to recur as long as a deeper political engagement eludes Kashmir. However much the Centre may defend the deployment of the Army citing strategic reasons, it remains an inescapable fact that its obtrusive presence adds to the political alienation of the people as well as sporadic human rights violations and harm to civilians caught in the crossfire. In fact, Handwara is one of the areas relatively free of militancy, one that witnesses good turnouts in elections. That the Army demolished four bunkers instead of asking for reinforcements in Handwara following the violence is partly on account of this reading of the situation. Street protests, and violence against the armed forces on some emotive issue or the other, have unfortunately become a part of everyday life in Kashmir. Given the persisting militant activity in the Valley, reducing the Army presence in any substantive manner is not an immediate possibility. But steps such as reducing the Army deployment in densely populated areas, and ensuring accountability for the actions of the security forces, should help keep the fragile peace in the Valley.