“The price of a life cannot be set in monetary terms,” said Rajnath Singh, home minister of India, as he announced ex-gratia payments to the families of civilians killed in the Kulgam blast.
On October 21, at Laroo in Kulgam district, security forces killed three Jaish-e-Mohammad militants in an armed encounter. They then allegedly left the scene without sanitising the area. Minutes later, live ordnance exploded, killing seven – including a ten-year-old child – and injuring over 40 others.
Eyewitnesses confirmed a scene of horror.
“I saw a youth, with his ribs jutting out from his chest, being removed from the site,” said Sameer Mushtaq, a freelance photojournalist. “People were carrying out a heavily built, middle-aged man, whose hand had been ripped apart. Blood was dripping from the wounded head and neck of another man.”
A second eyewitness, who filmed the scenes on his mobile phone, saw the injured and the dead lying on top of each other. “I haven’t seen anything as horrifying as this ever in my life,” he said.
This is for the first time the Centre has announced an ex-gratia payment (Rs 5 lakh) to the families of people killed in such circumstances. “I have been told that the operation had concluded and the security forces had left but some people went there and an explosion took place due to some reason,” Rajnath Singh told reporters in Srinagar. “We are pained at the loss of lives.”
However, Singh’s announcement of ex-gratia payment implies an explanation beyond ‘some reason’ – that is, that some responsibility falls on the security forces. After prolonged gunfights, it is a mystery why security forces did not spend the time to search the area for leftover ordnance.
Top brass of the J&K Police said the forces did not violate any standard operating procedures (SOP), although they admitted the tragedy was ‘avoidable’. Kulgam’s superintendent of police, Harmeet Singh, said that locals were digging in the rubble in search of arms and ammunition. “They sell such things to militants. An AK-47 magazine fetches them Rs 1,200, a rifle or a pistol much more,” he told The Quint.
This only rubs salt in the wounds of the bereaved locals. Colonel (retd) Alok Asthana, who has criticised the reward to Major Gogoi for using a civilian as a human shield, told The Wire, “Indeed the army has a responsibility to clean up an area before they make it open to the public.”
The incident in Kulgam “has deeply shaken the whole of Kashmir”, said CPI(M) MLA M.Y. Tarigami. “The legitimate question of the people is whether this tragedy could have been averted. The SOP of 2012 makes it mandatory on security forces to sanitise the encounter site before leaving. Why was it not done in Larro, Kulgam? Strong voices are emerging in and outside the state that a credible enquiry should be held to fix the responsibility so that such tragedies could be avoided in future.”
Amnesty International India said in a statement that the ‘safety of the civilian population should be of paramount importance’.
“What transpired in the aftermath of the Kulgam encounter could have been avoided had the authorities taken extra caution to ensure that civilians would have access to the area only after proper sanitisation of the encounter site was done,” said Aakar Patel, Amnesty India’s executive director.
Patel urged the authorities to ensure all those “responsible” for the incident are “brought to justice for their failure to protect the human rights” of the population.
Unexploded ordnance left behind by the army has claimed civilian lives in Kashmir in the past as well. In Budgam district, the army had used the 375-acre Tosa Maidan as a firing range since 1964. In 2014, when Omar Abdullah’s NC-Congress coalition refused to renew the lease, the meadow was handed back civic authorities – but it remained strewn with hundreds of unexploded shells. Some 70 people have reportedly been killed and hundreds maimed in explosions in what locals nickname the ‘death trap’.
If killing as many militants as possible is New Delhi’s benchmark for achieving peace in Kashmir, the statement of the army chief, General Rawat that neither the forces nor the militants will be able to achieve their goal, suggests otherwise.
Rather than the home minister doing all the talking on the Kulgam incident, the onus was on the army chief to issue a statement. If General Rawat can question why stone-throwing people in Kashmir should not be treated like ‘terrorists’, his silence on the Kulgam incident can only be taken as wishful, where the army has failed to observe its own SOP, resulting in a terrible loss of human life.
“The Centre, led by the BJP, refuses to draw lessons from previous mistakes. It has compounded the problem in the past four years and deepened the alienation and mistrust among the people,” said Tarigami.
Emptying the Centre’s wallet scarcely serves the purpose of building confidence in Kashmir – but a willingness to be held accountable definitely would. The refusal to acknowledge a lethal blunder undermines even the best efforts to regain the trust of a heavily alienated population.
In Kulgam, locals said they suspect the security forces of intentionally leaving the ordnance behind – to deter civilians from approaching encounter sites in the future.