Reacting sharply to rise in causalities suffered by government forces in combating militancy in restive Kashmir, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat on February 15 said that those obstructing military operations will be treated as Over-Ground Workers (OGW) of terrorists. Though he warned such “anti-national” Kashmiri youth of “harsh action”, it sounds like a sweeping statement from the Army’s top commander.

General Rawat said security forces in Jammu and Kashmir are facing higher casualties due to the manner in which the local population is preventing them in conducting the operations and “at times even supporting the terrorists to escape.” “We would now request the local population that people who have picked up arms, and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them. They may survive today but we will get them tomorrow. Our relentless operations will continue,” said the Army Chief.

People staging protests in a bid to salvage besieged militants, is not an isolated incident but a wave which has gripped entire Kashmir. On February 12, when gunfight was underway in Kulgam district of south Kashmir, thousands of people from over 45 nearby villages and adjacent Shopian district marched towards the encounter site.

But then does it mean every protester will be labeled as an OGW? Is the world’s third largest Army so desperate in Kashmir that it wants to look at every Kashmiri through the prism of terrorism where every Kashmiri is a supporter of militancy if not necessarily a militant?

After all, both militants and OGWs are “deadly outlaws”, who are either arrested or eliminated. Kashmir has a recorded history of security forces justifying civilian killings by labeling them as OGWs.

In April 2015, when slain Hizbul commander Burhan Muzaffar’s brother Muhammad Khalid Wani was shot dead in Tral, Army defended the killing saying he was a “listed OGW and not a civilian.”

“It has been confirmed that Khalid Wani, who has been operating as an over-ground worker, had taken the three youth, who were later arrested by the police, to meet (his brother) Burhan (Muzaffar) for their recruitment into terrorist tanzeem. The incident has thus prevented the three youth from being misguided by the late Khalid Wani into joining the militant ranks,” an Army statement had said.

Police, however, had refrained from endorsing the Army version. As of now, the state government acknowledges that Khalid was not an OGW but a civilian. The government vide an SRO has decided to pay compensation for his killing. So if the Army chief looks ahead to label crowds of people chanting pro-aazadi slogans as OGWs, the youth will feel further pushed towards the wall.

The statement has far-reaching consequences in the international forums as well. Does General Rawat want to publicly convey that Kashmiri people don’t support Army? Pakistan may cash the remarks to uphold its stand that “Kashmir is a disputed territory” and that now even Indian Army has “vindicated the stand that every Kashmiri has picked up arms for the cause of liberation.”

Army Chief’s statement may be an acknowledgement of the ground reality in Kashmir and need to resolve the K-issue. But it equally poses questions on Army’s goodwill operations in the trouble-torn region.

Over the years, in the wake of allegations of rights abuse, Army has been trying to “win the hearts” of people. In May 2012, the then General Officer Commanding 15 Corps Lt Gen Syed Atta Hasnain asked soldiers to use “heart as a weapon” to reach out to people of Kashmir.

But General Rawat’s statement of labeling civilian protesters as OGWs raises questions over Army’s iconic slogan: Jawan Aur Awwam—Aman Hei Muqam!