A trooper of the Central Reserve Police Force confronts stone-pelting during the valley-wide street protests in Kashmir in the summer of 2010
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Dec 11
India is witnessing a bitterly polarised debate over J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s proposal to revoke the Armed Forces (J&K) Special Power Act (AFSPA) from Srinagar and Badgam districts in Kashmir; and from Jammu and Samba in the Jammu region. Abdullah, backed by broad swathes of the media, wants a peace dividend for Kashmir after a year of relative normalcy. This could be provided, he says, by loosening AFSPA, an emergency law that has since 1990 given army soldiers in J&K the legal backing to search, apprehend and shoot to kill. The army, backed opportunistically by the BJP, insists that the fragility of the current peace makes it too early to loosen AFSPA.
In its opposition to loosening AFSPA, the army has been painted as an unreasoning bully with an aversion to Kashmiris and a pernicious addiction to violence. This is not true. The army has, in fact, offered a persuasive counter-argument in meetings of the Unified Command Headquarters with Omar Abdullah, listening in. But since the military seldom leaks or tweets, its viewpoint remains unreported.
AFSPA, which was first imposed in 1958 across the northeast in response to the Naga uprising, was legislated by parliament for J&K on 5th July 1990, when Azaadi-chanting mobs took over swathes of the valley. AFSPA’s special powers apply in “disturbed areas” that must be notified by New Delhi or the J&K Governor in the Official Gazette. [This is commonly confused with the “Disturbed Areas Act”, a separate J&K legislation that gave additional powers to the J&K Police in 1992. This lapsed in 1997, when it was not renewed] Today Abdullah wants the denotification of Srinagar, Badgam, Jammu and Samba as “disturbed areas” under Section 3 of AFSPA.
The army says not yet, because Kashmir presents not just a law and order problem but an existential threat to India. It rebuts the J&K CM’s assurance that AFSPA can easily be re-imposed if the situation deteriorates; arguing that this might be politically impossible. It worries about the logistical lifelines to army outposts on the Line of Control, which run through Srinagar and Badgam. The generals reject Abdullah’s contention that the army does not operate in Srinagar and Badgam and, therefore, does not need AFSPA there; they say that while the CRPF mans city check posts, army columns dominate the rest of these districts to keep militants at bay. The approaches to Srinagar airfield, used by civilian airliners and military aircraft, are secured by the military. Within Srinagar itself lies the massive cantonment of Badami Bagh, headquarters of 15 Corps, which is responsible for the defence of the valley.
Top military commanders tell Abdullah that the peace of 2011 was a tactical pause after three straight years of “intifada-type” street agitation. This would let a fatigued populace recover; intensify participation from intellectuals and students; and neutralise the J&K Police. After this mid-course correction, 2012 could well see a resumption of the agitation.
The army rejects Abdullah’s implicit assumption that J&K has transitioned from conflict to “post conflict stablisation”. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar apparently urged Kashmiri hard liner, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, during their meeting in Delhi in July to prepare for a long struggle still ahead. Equally worrying for the army is Srinagar’s slothfulness in reintegrating over 20,000 surrendered militants, who could rejoin a reinvigorated struggle.
Running alongside the army’s security case is a competing narrative of political transformation. After 3 years of street protests in Kashmir, Chidambaram’s Rajya Sabha speech on 5th Aug 2010, admitting that J&K was “a unique problem requiring a unique solution”, was followed by sustained internal peace building. That autumn, a massive rally at Langate, in north Kashmir, saw participants renouncing violent protest if human rights violations were prevented. Then Kashmir’s moderate separatists spoke out against killings by militants after Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith leader, Maulana Showkat Shah, was assassinated in Srinagar in April. Forced by popular Kashmiri pressure, the Lashkar-e-Toiba issued an apology. The peace of 2011 and record tourist arrivals in Srinagar are a reality; the army’s prediction of the coming storm may remain just an apprehension.
What neither side will contest is that AFSPA has become a lightning rod for Kashmiri discontent. It has developed into an evocative symbol of repression, resulting in the army being besmirched in controversies in which it played no part, such as the police firing on Kashmiri demonstrators in 2010. It has also allowed ISI propagandists like Ghulam Nabi Fai to propagate the notion of “India’s military repression of Kashmiris.”
AFSPA presents an urgent political decision. New Delhi must decide whether J&K is still a conflict zone or whether it is time to reinforce Kashmiri peace. Omar Abdullah is sagacious in declaring that this cannot be a public debate.
If AFSPA is to be loosened, the army’s concerns must be assuaged. Key parties in J&K, and the main national parties, must reassure the army that the re-imposition of AFSPA will not be politicised. Kashmiri separatist and citizen groups must pledge not to allow protests to interfere with army movements to and from the border. A refusal to provide such a commitment would place on them the onus for AFSPA’s continuation. The state administration would need to permanently position J&K policemen and magistrates with army formations so that operations can be launched in a non-AFSPA environment without delay or leakage of information. Most importantly, a focused internal political dialogue must be launched in Kashmir to reassure the army that yet another hard-won peace will not be squandered by political lethargy.