So how did the brutal lathicharge in the hostels of the NIT campus take place? Who ordered it?
There are several possibilities.
One, the new Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti may have ordered it. She is also the state’s home minister. If that were true, it would have marked her as a foolhardy leader who did not have the political sense to see where it would lead. But, according to generally well-informed friends, she did not order it.
Two, it is possible that someone near the top of the police hierarchy ordered it. That would point to the possibility that the force as an institution does not want the new coalition to remain stable. It is certainly true that the police has generally been much happier with governments run by the National Conference than with the PDP.
Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of the PDP had reined in the Special Operations Groups of the Jammu and Kashmir Police when he was chief minister between 2002 and 2005. Senior officers of the police and other forces were unhappy with him at that stage; the power, influence, unaccountable funds, budgetary support, medals and quick promotions of counterinsurgency had been alluring for many of them.
A third possibility is that those who are on the back foot within the PDP after the foiled palace coup against Mehbooba Mufti over the past few weeks may have played a role. That seems far-fetched, though, for it raises a question over how those who tried but failed to get power could influence the police to this extent.
The fourth possibility is that police officers at the local level went overboard while trying to control a potentially explosive situation. This fourth possibility seems to be the most likely scenario. The police have claimed that they were trying to stop non-Kashmiri students from coming out on the roads holding aloft the Indian tricolour, shouting slogans that might have provoked a reaction.
If so, the police officers and men on the spot did right to stop the students from taking to the streets, but went overboard while doing so. Instead of simply holding firm at the gate to stop a procession from emerging onto the roads, they beat the students and chased them all the way to their hostel, and then down the corridors and in their rooms. These excesses are evident on video recordings.
That the policemen were wearing helmets indicates that they came prepared for a riotous altercation. They were apparently prepared to face brickbats and were determined to teach the students a lesson, to force them to stop their agitations. The agitations had begun after an unruly face-off with some Kashmiri students following India’s cricketing defeat by the West Indies last Saturday.
During Tuesday’s police action, some of the students suffered terrible injuries, and required surgery. Many Kashmiris have argued that they commonly suffer such things, and worse. This is true, but it is no defence or excuse. Rather, it is an argument to stop such atrocities against all students, and others, whatever their origins.
In trying to repress the NIT agitations with such vigour, the police displayed an appalling lack of political savvy, with no sense of the likely results on public opinion both across India, in Jammu, and within Kashmir. The alternative is much more disturbing: a cynical willingness to stir a dangerous hornet’s nest of political reactions in order to destabilize the new coalition.
Since that alternative is appalling to accept as likely, we must presume that it was indeed a lack of political savvy. Particularly in a police force in a perennially explosive and internationally high-profile place like Kashmir, this sort of political naivety is unacceptable.
It was obvious from the moment that information about the barbarous police attack started filtering out of the sealed-off campus on Tuesday evening that it would have a terribly damaging impact on the new and delicately poised coalition that had taken office in Jammu only the previous day.
Thankfully, leaders of both major coalition parties have shown maturity. Yet, the fracas has taken a toll on both, since there have been strong reactions from hard-line activists on both sides. And, amid reactions in Jammu and elsewhere, the issue continues to spiral.
The police action at NIT was almost as flawed as the extremely ill-advised cordon-and-search operation (the first in Jammu and Kashmir) which took place at Srinagar’s Chota Bazar area on 18 January 1990. That set the stage for some very damaging events over the next couple of days – in terms of brutal excesses, mass alienation, anti-Pandit animosity, and the exodus of Pandits from the Valley.
Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had resigned the previous evening, Governor KV Krishna Rao had been replaced, and the new governor, Jagmohan, had not yet taken over in Kashmir. The Director-General of Police and the IG of the CRPF, the force which conducted the Chota Bazar operation, were both at Jammu for the investiture of the new governor.
It is imperative that the Jammu and Kashmir Police, and those in the state government and the Home Ministry who manage the forces maintain a responsive institutional memory of what went wrong over the past three decades, of things that set the stage for militancy and for a communal divide in the state and beyond. The last thing we need at this stage, when a most dangerous militancy is on the rise, is to repeat the mistakes of history.