Even though 2018 may have been one of the bloodiest years that Kashmir has seen in recent times, yet there are several reasons to be optimistic. The most significant development during the year gone by has been the successful conduct of Panchayat elections in the state and three things make this event even more special. First, the Panchayat elections were held after a gap of 13 years. Second, people once again disregarded the election boycott call given by Separatists. And the Third, which is also the important achievement, is that despite Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) threatening candidates and voters, the elections went ahead as scheduled.
Threat from terrorists failed to deter the electoral candidates, such that in Pulwama, which is considered to be a hotbed of terrorism and a secessionist stronghold, as many as 151 candidates filed their nomination. Similarly, even the voters defied threats from terrorists and came out to cast their ballot, embarrassing both the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) which gave a poll-boycott call and terrorists who issued death threats to those being involved in the election process in any way. Though the Hurriyat tried to use the low turnout percentage as a ‘fig-leaf’ by claiming that its poll-boycott call was successful, but the very fact that even after all these threats as many as 33% of the people in Kashmir valley turned up for voting debunks Hurriyat’s claims. This also goes to prove that despite all the turmoil in Kashmir and Hurriyat’s claims of public resentment against “sham elections” being conducted in the state, the people of Kashmir continue to repose faith in the democratic process.
Creating an atmosphere conducive for the conduct of Panchayat elections wasn’t an easy task and the security forces, law enforcement agencies and even the public had to shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears for this purpose. The biggest challenge came from terrorists who embarked upon a bloody campaign of intimidating people by abducting and killing innocent civilians whom they suspected of working as spies for government forces. In order to terrorise local Kashmiris, the Hizbul Mujahideen even tried to copy Islamic State’s (IS) methods by posting graphic videos on social media of helpless boys in their teens being forced to ‘confess’ that they were passing information about terrorists to government forces and then being mercilessly gunned down. Though this has been happening ever since terrorism started in Kashmir, 2018 saw many cases, where parents of those killed on suspicion of being informers have openly challenged the terrorists to prove that their sons were indeed spies. However, no terrorist group has done so even in a single case and this exposes the web of lies that they weave.
With more than 250 terrorists being neutralised in 2018, it is evident that despite threats from terrorists, the public is actively cooperating with government forces by providing them precise information regarding whereabouts of terrorists. The terrorist groups and the Hurriyat allege that a only few ‘bad hats’ are spying for the government forces in exchange for pecuniary gains but they fail to provide a convincing answer to the question that when death is the only ‘punishment’ for informers, why would so many risk their lives just for a little bit of money? Having failed on this account, terrorists tried to intimidate local Kashmiris serving in security forces or police by abducting those who had come home on leave, forcing out confessions of having participated in operations against terrorists and then killing them. The Hizbul Mujahideen also ordered Special Police Officers (SPOs) to quit or be prepared to die and to demonstrate that this was no idle threat they even killed many SPOs but barring a handful, the entire rank and file of these dedicated policemen continues to serve with full enthusiasm.
The next positive development in Kashmir during 2018 is that there is a discernable decline in the number of youth joining terrorism when compared to the previous year. In 2016, the total number of local youth who joined terrorism stood at 84 but this figure shot up to 128 in 2017, which was the highest ever recorded in the last one decade. However, the number of locals who joined terrorism in 2018 stands in the pre-2017 region of 80 to 85 (once we discount those who quit terrorism by surrendering to the government forces or police). This is again the cumulative result of public resentment against terrorists killing their own people and the humane approach adopted by security forces and J&K Police, who are performing the role of facilitating surrender of terrorists and bringing them back into the mainstream through compassion and counseling with full commitment.
The year 2018 also saw a drastic reduction in the number of shutdowns in Kashmir and the credit for this goes entirely to the public whose resentment against frequent shutdowns in 2016 and 2017 forced the Hurriyat to finally admit in November 2018 that it was looking for alternatives to ‘hartal politics’. Reduction in the number and frequency of protests and shutdowns has given the ailing tourism industry of Kashmir the much needed shot in the arm and statistics prove this beyond any doubt. While the tourist inflow in 2017 was lowest in six years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of tourists who visited Kashmir in 2018 and this has helped thousands of locals who rely on the tourism industry for their daily bread and butter.
It may be a bit premature to pronounce that normalcy has returned to Kashmir but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the abnormal spike in the graph of terrorism related incidents in the last two years has receded considerably. This spectacular achievement is due to consummate professionalism in the face of grave provocation and enhanced risks posed by mobs appearing at encounter sites as well as immense sacrifices made by the government forces. In 2018, nearly 50 security forces personnel and policemen attained martyrdom in their line of duty and what makes this sacrifice even more praiseworthy is that despite being specifically targeted by terrorists local Kashmiris serving with the security forces and police haven’t got intimidated by threats from terrorists or even by incidents of their unarmed colleagues being murdered by terrorists.
The year gone by will be remembered as the one during which government forces were able to successfully reverse the negative trend of escalating violence in Kashmir and all this was made possible by active cooperation of the public.