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Foreign Policy: Tear Gas in Kashmir

Author: Jeffrey Stern
February 12, 2010

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Jeffery Stern discusses how "crowd control" measures sometimes wind up rousing bigger and angrier crowds is an apt metaphor for India's Kashmir policy problems.

When  you fire a tear gas shell, you're supposed to aim below the chest. That's basically agreed upon, it's written somewhere: an understanding extracted from a code of conduct housed in an operating manual stuck in someone's desk drawer. "The policemen are trained to fire the tear gas shells in a parabolic way and not directly," the Inspector General of Kashmir's police force told a local paper, describing in a decidedly sterile manner the intended trajectory of a little steel projectile whose intended target is, after all, civilians.

It's also understood that often, this does not happen. Tear gas shells rocket off walls and ricochet and dance and skip across the concrete, so "non-lethal" intentions don't necessarily beget non-lethal results. You don't know where the thing is going to end up really, and sometimes -- in the case of especially zealous protesters -- where it ends up is hurtling back through the air at you. So you fire them where you want the gas to go and hope you don't learn later that it hit a soft part of someone's body, producing the precise inverse of the effect you intended. "Minimum force" weapons can prove plenty forceful, and "crowd control" measures sometimes wind up rousing bigger and angrier crowds.

The wayward tear gas canister is perhaps an apt metaphor for India's problem in its Himalayan northwest, where it administers to a province of people who don't want it there, and where it is trying to control the population with enough force that Indian authority is respected; not so much that it's resented.  And it's a wayward tear gas canister that catalyzed violence last week in Kashmir, after an incident that began when a 14-year-old boy headed out to play cricket with his friends on January 31.

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