Army can’t tackle stone-pelters alone, where is the counter-narrative?

Vaibhav Tiwari
Rajnath Singh appealed to youths of Kashmir not to get waylaid by Pakistan's mischievous propaganda on social media.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday told the Lok Sabha that the Indian Army was doing everything possible to curb cross-border terrorism. He assured the House that the forces will continue doing what it takes to rein in miscreants. In the same breath, he said that stone-pelters were organised through Facebook and WhatsApp groups to disrupt the anti-terror operations. There is no doubt that the Indian Army is fully capable of keeping the protesters at bay while practising maximum restraint to minimise civilian casualties. However, the question is how the forces would stop them from turning up at encounter sites? The Home Minister fell short of informing the nation how youths will be dissuaded from jeopardising anti-terror operations.

The Home Minister was making a statement in the House a couple of days after the Kulgam encounter in which three civilians lost their lives and 17 were injured in pellet gun fire. As the forces were engaging the terrorists, hundreds of civilians turned up at the encounter site and pelted stone at the army cordon. It was done to break the cordon and allow the militants to escape. After practising restraint initially, the forces opened fire at the rampaging crowd. Later, tear gas shells and pellet guns were also used to disperse stone pelters. The stone-pelting was in continuation of a dangerous trend as such blatant abetment to terrorism has been witnessed at encounter sites for some time now. This not only jeopardises their operation but also the lives of soldiers involved. The alarming frequency of this dangerous trend had led the army chief Bipin Rawat to issue a warning to such youths that strict action would be taken against people involved in stone-pelting. With summer around the corner, experts believe that incidents of such criminal intervention would increase and using force against the miscreants will only contain the situation for the time being.

Make no mistake, the separatists and their handlers are waiting for the opportune moment to lay siege in the valley by using civilians as a shield. Like in 2016, after militant Burhan Wani’s death, the law and order situation had spiralled out of control in the valley. According to some reports, dozens died in clashes with law enforcement agencies and thousands were injured in pellet gun fire. The Central and the state governments had a tough time to control the rampage. Pakistan used this opportunity to embarrass India internationally. The separatists want to script a similar story this year. (Also read: PPF, small saving schemes interest rate revised: Government lowers interest rate by 0.1 per cent from April 1)

Summer has set in the mountainous state. The cross-border coffers that had suffered the demonetisation setback, seem to be flush with cash again. The money would exchange hands and waylaid youths will again be pitted against the state that would be forced to deal with them sternly. The forces would have to fight their own citizens yet again. The question that should be asked from the state and the Central government is: where is the counter-narrative?

Rajnath Singh appealed to youths of Kashmir not to get waylaid by Pakistan’s mischievous propaganda on social media. However, the appeal is not enough. The government will have to form and propagate a counter-narrative to calls from across the border to take up arms and stones against the state. Army and other forces can fend for themselves, but it would not solve the larger problem. Every civilian killed would be used against the country in the perception war that Pakistan has unleashed on India. Through these social media channels, the handlers would want to whip up strong sentiments against India. The government needs to battle this technologically. A counter-narrative is the need of the hour. The government needs to reach the smartphones of the masses like Pakistan does. The government needs to explain each and everything to the masses individually. A news channel reported on Thursday that stone-pelters get money to throw stones. Their pay band, according to the channel was, from Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000. These young men risk their lives for an insignificant amount. The government should engage such elements and bring them into the mainstream. There is a war of perception going on, India needs to win it.

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