March 21, 2009 12:58:42 am
Following an unfortunate incident of firing at allegedly unarmed civilians in Sopore,the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir,Omar Abdullah bowing to popular pressure demanded the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the state. Unsurprisingly,in subsequent news reports,anonymous army sources strongly defended AFSPA and argued that its withdrawal would weaken the fight against terrorism.
But why should an allegation of this nature against the army lead to calls for withdrawal of the AFSPA? The Indian Parliament passed the Act in 1958 to enable effective counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland. Essentially,it grants the armed forces the right to operate in disturbed areas in aid of civil power. Under Section 6 of the AFSPA,the initiation of legal proceedings against any member of the armed forces operating under its provisions requires the prior approval of the central government. Therefore,while a First Information Report was registered against the army men in the Sopore incident,the local administration was powerless to prosecute them. And that is the crux of the dispute: How meaningful,the separatists argue,is the talk of autonomy when a duly elected government has to seek New Delhis approval in such cases?
Leaving aside the emotive debate and the separatists Machiavellian tactics,has the time come to reconsider AFSPA in Jammu & Kashmir? It is a question which needs to be debated seriously and widely as it is one that will determine to a large degree the states path towards complete normalcy. The AFSPA was extended to the valley in 1990 in response to a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war which had led to a gory spectacle of ethnic cleansing and killings of innocent civilians. The local police was overwhelmed and army intervention was necessary to take on heavily armed and indoctrinated terrorists. In recent years,however,the security situation has improved dramatically with violence down to pre-1990 years in 2008,only 69 civilians died due to terrorist violence. More importantly,the long-suffering people of the state are tired of the culture of the gun. Even separatists have been forced to eschew the path of violence.
At the grassroots level,AFSPA serves as a rallying cry for the separatists. They cite it as an example of New Delhis imperialist designs in Kashmir and its disdain for the elected government in Srinagar. Indeed,one of the important reasons for Kashmiri disenchantment with India has been New Delhis propensity to interfere in the states administration. With separatists relentlessly stoking the memories of rigged assembly elections of 1987,and with the same coalition in power again,Omar Abdullah faces charges of being a lackey of New Delhi,dictated by its considerations,rather than the interests of the Kashmiri awam.
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After voters rejected their call for boycotting the 2008 assembly election which saw impressive turnouts even in their stronghold the separatists are in complete disarray,with leaders like Sajjad Lone reportedly keen on contesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. The artificial unity cobbled up during the Amarnath agitation last summer among the two dozen separatist groups has come apart,and the very future of the movement is in doubt. The political situation in the state,in fact,is much closer to normal now than at any other time since 1989.
Acting on AFSPA would sound a death-knell for the separatists by removing one of their strongest emotive weapons and simultaneously strengthen Omar Abdullahs credibility and political standing. Also,it would further marginalise the remaining terrorists in the valley by providing a peace dividend to the vast majority which has expressly rejected terrorism,while incentivising the recalcitrant few to follow suit.
Many analysts quote Nagaland where AFSPA has been in place since 1958 as an example of armys resistance to its removal in Kashmir. While the armys role in restoring normalcy to Kashmir cannot be overemphasised,and though its preference for the protective cover of AFSPA is understandable,the greater challenge in the final phase of the counterinsurgency operation is seizing the political space. Security inputs are important,but the decision on AFSPA has to be a political one; it cannot be guided solely by the armys preferences. What is required is not a military-bureaucratic decision but a political one with active involvement of the state government.
The solution lies in finding inventive ways to balance the security and political imperatives. Here is a model which can be considered: rather than looking at the valley as a whole,smaller administrative units blocks or sub-districts should be considered singly. The state government should fix benchmarks of violent terrorist incidents and deaths for revoking AFSPA in each of these areas. This would accordingly lead to withdrawal of Rashtriya Rifles units from the population centers in the areas from where the AFSPA is lifted. Quick Reaction Forces of the Rashtriya Rifles,however,must be placed at selected central locations to respond to any major terrorist incident. These actions should be contingent upon a continuous review process: if the security situation breaches the threshold in a certain area,AFSPA can be reinvoked. At the same time,troop deployment along the Line of Control and counter-infiltration operations should remain at status quo.
By all yardsticks,Kashmir is moving towards normalcy. The window of opportunity may not be open for too long. Seize the opportunity while it exists.
Rohit Pradhan and Sushant K. Singh are associated with Pragati The Indian National Interest Review
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