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Vale of fears

The prime minister’s renewed pledge to check human rights abuse in Kashmir comes at a particularly fraught moment....

Written by Rekha Chowdhary |
June 10, 2010 2:12:57 am

For all the expectations riding on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two-day visit to Kashmir,and the hope that it would result in fresh initiatives for dialogue with the separatists,nothing concrete has been proposed. All the prime minister held out was his government’s commitment to furthering the dialogue process,and its willingness to talk with representatives of any group that shunned violence.

Kashmiris can perhaps draw some satisfaction from the prime minister’s acknowledgment that expanded economic opportunity and employment opportunities were necessary,and very important,but not sufficient for their well-being. By placing emphasis on the political process,the prime minister has clarified that the Centre is not negatively inclined towards the internal dialogue,and that it remains an open option. However,ironically enough,dialogue is not the primary concern for Kashmir at this point. It is,rather,the human rights violations by security forces.

There is a strong undercurrent of resentment in the Valley against the killing of non-combatants and ordinary citizens. This ongoing grievance has been inflamed by the recent fake encounter in the Machail sector of the line of control,where army personnel shot three persons from Nadihal Rafiabad and declared them militants. The incident highlighted the issue of killing of innocents,and gave fresh impetus to demands for withdrawing Armed Forced Special Powers Act (AFSPA),which shields the security forces.

The issue had gripped the Valley for days before the prime minister’s visit,engaging not just political leaders (both separatist and mainstream voices),but also the intelligentsia and civil society. Local newspapers were full of comment on the issue,many directly seeking the prime minister’s intervention. The system of incentives for killing militants — rewards and promotions — came under fire. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Chairman Yasin Malik went on a fast demanding a withdrawal of this “cash for kill policy”. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed similarly appealed to the prime minister to review this skewed incentive policy. Reflecting Kashmiri sentiment,Chief Minister Omar Abdullah,who had earlier ordered a magisterial probe into the fake encounter,argued for an amendment in the AFSPA. Reflecting the trust deficit that deepens with such incidents,he claimed that there is now a question mark over every encounter.

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It is this concern that the prime minister primarily addressed. Acknowledging Kashmir’s complaint,he reiterated the government’s commitment to protect human rights even while dealing with terrorism. In a situation where “some civilians have to suffer” in the action of security forces,he emphasised the need for accountability,saying that it becomes necessary to act against those responsible for such acts. Affirming that security forces have been strictly instructed to respect the rights of the civilians,he assured the people that any deficiency in the implementation of these instructions would be removed.

The prime minister’s assurance,however,has been preceded by action already taken,in the Machail encounter case. A day before the prime minister was to land in Kashmir,the army took action against those involved and ordered an inquiry. It relieved the commanding officer of the unit that carried out the operation and suspended a major who was actually involved in the “encounter”.

The impact of the prime minister’s intervention will depend in the action that follows in this case. Kashmiris have a lingering wariness about the attitude of the army. They cite the Pathribal encounter,in which five innocent Kashmiris were killed in 2000. After a CBI investigation,five army personnel belonging to the Rashtriya Rifles were identified as having killed these Kashmiris for reward,and charges were brought against them. However,action against them is still pending because the required permission from army has not been available. There is another case of civilian killings from 2007,when police and army personnel were involved — a case investigated by the Special Investigating Team of Jammu & Kashmir police. While the police personnel have been arrested,action against the army officers has not been taken.

The trust deficit needs to be addressed,and this could have been begun only at the level of the prime minister. His emphasis on human rights is not new — his earlier statement of “zero tolerance” to such violations has been widely publicised,though it has not generated the hoped-for restraint on the part of the security forces. This reiteration of his stand,and his strict message to security forces may be taken more seriously now. However,the matter of human rights violations by security personnel needs a more thorough and structured response,either by withdrawing AFSPA or amending it significantly.

The writer teaches political science at Jammu University

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