The Pulwama killings deepen fault lines and, in the absence of a government, make the road ahead more fraught.

Each time a civilian dies at the hands of the security forces in Kashmir, a bridge breaks irreparably between the Valley and the rest of the country. In Pulwama on Saturday, seven civilians were killed when the Army opened fire at a protesting crowd that gathered near the site of an encounter in which three militants and an Army jawan were also killed.

Governor Satya Pal Malik, who took charge earlier this year, has said on several occasions that the idea should be to win the hearts and minds of people through “love and understanding”. Killing, he is likely to agree, is not the way to go about that. The standard justification from the Army in all such incidents has been that its soldiers fired in self-defence. If so, the question, asked countless times before, needs to be asked yet again: Why do they shoot to kill? In 2017, the Army chief General Bipin Rawat had said all civilians who gather at encounter sites and obstruct operations by security personnel during encounters “will be treated as overground workers of terrorists”. Whether or not his words have acted as a dog whistle, scores of people have been killed near encounter sites over the last two years, reinforcing the impression in the Valley that soldiers, protected by AFSPA, act with impunity, and that while India insists on Kashmir’s centrality to its territorial integrity, it does not care about Kashmiri lives.

The Pulwama incident, just as the six-month long Governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir is set to segue into President’s rule, does not augur well for the coming months. It will feed the narrative of repression and brutality against Kashmiris that is the staple of militant and separatist propaganda, which in turn will feed the spiral of violence. There is no elected government in the state that can act as a shock absorber in these dark times. The Centre’s policy on Kashmir since 2016 has been to put down militancy with an iron fist, while shutting down all political outreach. A special representative appointed over a year ago had sparked hope of a more nuanced approach by the government, but Dineshwar Sharma has had nothing substantial to do since his appointment. The holding of panchayat and urban local bodies elections was touted as a grand achievement as there were no violent incidents during the polling. But it is time to admit that brushing issues under the carpet is no substitute for policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said he needs no one’s advice on Kashmir. His government needs to go back to the drawing board.

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