8 MAY 2018
A violent time
The Shopian fury shows a need for a political outreach to various sections in the Valley
Shopian in south Kashmir is on edge. On Sunday five militants, including slain Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani’s aide and a Kashmir University assistant professor, were killed in Badigam village of Shopian district in an encounter. In protests that followed, at least five civilians died and over 130 were injured in clashes with the security forces. Sunday’s violence capped a week of violence in Jammu and Kashmir, with a death toll of at least 24. Early on Sunday morning, a gunfight broke out after a Rashtriya Rifles unit launched a cordon-and-search operation on a specific input. As the firefight between the two sides began and when security forces rushed in more reinforcements, including para-commandos and the Jammu and Kashmir police’s Special Operations Group, civilians began to gather in protest. Dozens took to the streets, throwing stones at the security forces, who retaliated with teargas and pellet guns. The security forces believe it was a strategy to distract them and facilitate the militants’ escape. The protests were not just limited to the operation site, and clashes were reported from at least two other locations in the Valley. Sunday, unfortunately, was not an unusual day in the Valley. It reflected a new normal, which includes daily violence involving the security forces, civilians and militants, all of it mostly ignored by the Indian political establishment. It not only highlighted how Shopian, once a relatively peaceful area, has been transformed, but also how violence in the Valley shifts to different geographies instead of being confined to traditional militant strongholds.
According to official data, after claiming a few thousand lives annually starting 1990, violence in the State began to decline in 2007-08, with 2012 seeing it dip to 117 deaths. However, starting 2013 it has been climbing back up sharply. The killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 triggered a fresh round of violence and several dozen local youth have taken up guns since then. In 2017, all of 358 people died in the Valley. Episodic spells of stone-pelting, with the intensity and duration varying, have posed a particularly difficult dilemma for the security forces and the civil administration. The challenge is not only to calm the street and stare down militants. It is to do so in a manner that keeps civilians out of harm’s way, so that alienation does not deepen. That the authorities are failing to do so is evident from reports of increased recruitment by militant groups even in once-tranquil areas such as Shopian. Home-grown militancy is a reflection of alienation, and the alarming reports of its revival demand a security strategy as well as a political outreach. In 2010, the political establishment responded to the summer of intense protests by reaching out to the Valley with an all-party delegation. The Centre must consider sending a similar all-party delegation to the State, before summer sets in.
Abandoning the daily price revision of petrol and diesel sets back an important reform
The price of oil has been shooting up for weeks now, with Brent crude oil futures hitting their highest level in more than three years on Monday, at more than $75. But for two weeks now, the state-owned oil companies have kept petrol and diesel prices unchanged. Since April 24, the oil companies have abandoned the daily price revision. Since then, the prices of petrol and diesel in the national capital, for instance, are stuck at Rs. 74.63 and Rs. 65.93, respectively. This is a glaring freeze, given that since the Centre introduced the dynamic pricing mechanism in June last year allowing oil marketing companies (OMCs) to revise fuel prices daily, the retail prices of various domestic fuels had been on a steady uptrend owing to the steep rise in international crude oil prices. The price of Brent crude oil, it is worth noting, has rallied by more than 50% since June last year. Against this background, domestic fuel prices were raised to their highest level since late-2013 last month until the price freeze began on April 24. The new pricing mechanism also caused prices to show more volatility on a daily basis compared to the earlier regime when prices were revised periodically, mostly on a fortnightly basis. Further, the rise in domestic fuel prices in response to rising crude oil prices has been quite inelastic recently. Petrol and diesel prices rose by 1 to 2% in April while Brent crude rose by more than 8%. This comes as a pleasant surprise considering that domestic fuel prices, which while not falling to an equal extent when crude prices witness a sharp drop, generally keep pace with any rise in oil prices.
The retail price of petrol is a hot political subject and successive governments at the Centre are routinely held responsible for it. It is therefore speculated that the OMCs are under pressure from the government to withhold upward revisions in the days before Karnataka goes to the polls. While Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan stated last month that the OMCs have not been instructed to refrain from raising prices, no reason for the freeze has been offered. The performance of OMC stocks in the last few weeks also suggests that the markets are not convinced. It bears repeating, in the wake of the upcoming State elections and the general election next year, that the Centre must resist the temptation to go back on its previous reforms to the fuel pricing policy. After all, it is now clear that the policy of offloading the burden of high fuel prices on consumers by transferring the burden on to the OMCs is unsustainable in the long run. The government should opt to ease the burden of fuel taxes. The best way to do this might be to bring domestic fuels under the purview of the goods and services tax. For now, there is enough room to bring down prices by reducing excise duties on oil.