Justice might not be too far for the families of three innocent Kashmiri civilians murdered in Machil by armymen in 2010, with a military court sentencing five of its personnel to life imprisonment for the crime. Though that sentence has to be confirmed by a higher authority, it is a wholly welcome break from the past in a state where the Indian army has often been accused of stalling efforts to investigate and punish human rights violations by its soldiers. The judgment in the Machil fake encounter case comes close on the heels of another rare turn by the army, when it took responsibility for the deaths of two teenagers in Budgam earlier this month, shot dead when soldiers opened unprovoked fire on the car in which they were travelling.
No one believed that justice would be done, tweeted Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, as he welcomed Thursday’s verdict. That is precisely why the army cannot let this be a one-off case. The people of Kashmir will rightfully remind it of the other festering wounds — from the Kunan-Poshpora mass rapes in 1991 to the Pathribal fake encounters in 2000 to the memories of Kupwara in 2005-06, when soldiers killed three boys, “mistaking” them as militants — when it has shrugged off flagrant violations as collateral damage. This is a moment for the army to build on, by putting in place systems of accountability, by coming down hard on a toxic culture of immunity, which led armymen to first lure and then murder three men, all in the pursuit of medals.
When faced with the growing anger and resentment against the wide-ranging powers of the AFSPA, the army has always pushed back, arguing it needs the shield of the law to operate in conflict areas like Kashmir and Manipur. But the larger questions are these: can it ensure that the due process followed in the Machil case is the norm, and not the exception? Is it willing to accept the extent to which it has alienated the people of Kashmir and work towards redressing that sense of injury? Only if those answers are in the affirmative, can it be believed that justice is possible, even under a law like the AFSPA. In a Valley littered with hundreds of unmarked graves and haunted by the memories of young men who disappeared into the night, never to return, this judgment is a glimmer of light. Only the state and the army can ensure that it is the augury of a new day.