The next time we hear that government forces have cornered militants or a group in a residential area in the Kashmir Valley, should we expect the casualty figure to outnumber all previous ones and set a new record of sorts? Given the state of affairs, ordinary impassioned people, who flock the encounter sites, are unlikely to heed the warning of army chief General Bipin Rawat and the soldiers, emboldened by the statement of the general, are likely to fire more ruthlessly at the unruly mob.
This is a scary situation, one that no armchair analyst in Delhi or Mumbai would be able to analyse, or predict the quantum of damage it could do to the fragile peace in the Valley.
When a gunfight starts these days in the Valley, youngsters living as far as 20 kilometres from the site of the encounter rush to the scene to engage the armed forces in a 'match'. This is done deliberately to deflect the attention of forces and provide enough space for militants to flee from the scene by diverting the energies of the armed forces. In almost every gunfight these days in the Valley, forces are surrounded on multiple sides by angry youths who pelt stones at them, fully aware of the consequences. They do it either when the forces are approaching the site of the encounter, in the middle of the encounter or while leaving it.
It is not that the protesters have not been fired upon before. Search 'Kulgam encounter' on Facebook and a plethora of videos will show you how the stone pelleting mobs were fired at. In any recent encounter, forces had to deal with hostile crowds swelling near the sites under siege, sometimes forcing them to abandon such ops.
What Rawat's statement will do is as follows:
Until now firing was the last resort. Now it is likely to be the first. But will that answer the larger problem at the heart of what attracts people to such danger where they put themselves in the line of fire? Will killing stone pelting youth solve the problem? Or will it further alienate them?
The answer to such questions is not very difficult, because if the the forces start firing at the mobs, there will be a massacre every time a gunfight starts in any part of the Valley, looking at the number of people who participate in these incidents.
There is no doubt that these diversionary tactics by such unruly mobs have diverted the attention of forces and helped the cause of militants. But ask any official in Kashmir and they will tell you that they were not limited to the extent that they were unable to carry out the counterinsurgency operations, although they had to face a bit of difficulty. While one can't deny that the previous three operations — that took a huge toll on the army — have proven fatal for the armed forces in general and in terms of casualties, it is quite possible that this strategy will be revisited.
But one has to understand that these operations are happening just after the Valley began limping back to normal after months of unrest following the killing of Burhan Wani in July.
The network of informers and real-time intelligence providers had almost vanished for the security establishment during the unrest. And as the forces try to regain that lost ground and rebuild new networks of informers, there are likely to be more encounters in coming months and maybe more casualties.
More then 60 youths, who have joined the militancy in the aftermath of the Wani killings, are not Pakistan-trained battle-hardened rebels, unlike their peers from the early 1990s. They have been, during the unrest, trained on the windows of homes of sympathisers and in the nooks and corners of the south. Their chances of getting neutralised at the hands of the armed forces are higher than those of the foreign militants operating in the Valley.
So as snow begins to melt and the ground in Kashmir is prepared for more gunfights and more pitched battles between the forces and protesters, one can only hope that Rawat's statement was more of a symbolic warning than a real threat. If it was the latter, there will be a monthly Gaw Kadel massacre in the Valley.
No one wants that to happen.