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Withdrawing AFSPA: Political demagoguery or public opinion?
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s call for revocation of the special powers vested in the Army in J&K has its pros and cons, but any decision to this effect must come through only after a careful study of the ground reality
Issue Date - 08/12/2011
When Omar Abdullah took oath as the eleventh chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir on January 5, 2009, the people of the state looked up to him as someone who would steer the state away from its years of insurgency, strife and political brinkmanship. But after being in office for almost three years now, Omar seems to have developed a penchant for landing himself into heavy political weather. His latest salvo, calling for a partial revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in J&K, seems to have caught everyone off guard besides causing a flutter among the political dovecotes. Thanks to some hectic lobbying by Omar to have AFSPA repealed from some areas of the state, political polarity over the issue has ratcheted up both inside J&K and elsewhere in the country.

Omar’s proposal, it is said, has found favour from the Home Minister P. Chidambaram, though New Delhi is loath to taking any decision on the issue in haste. But what’s perplexing is why Omar chose to stake his credibility on such a sensitive issue? In the days since he has been beating the AFSPA drum, Omar has invited a barrage of acerbic comments and now finds himself painted into a corner over an issue that excites the most extremes of political reactions. Instead of finding open sympathisers to his cause, there are more carping critics who have taken umbrage at the manner in which he has whipped up his latest political stunt. Eyebrows have been raised over Omar’s choice in barrelling ahead with his demands straight to the Home Minister in Delhi before even taking his own security agencies and the Army into confidence.

Subsequent to his meeting with Chidambaram, Omar has also met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Army Chief V.K. Singh on the AFSPA issue. Though the Army has been tight-lipped over the meeting, sources tell B&E that the two discussed the J&K government’s demand for withdrawal of the special law from parts of the border state. The meeting is said to have been inconclusive.

Critics of J&K’s chief minister say that his raking up the AFSPA issue is a well-thought out diversionary tactic intended to deflect blame from his recent political troubles. Omar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, the latest being the custodial death of a political worker from his party who was picked up by the police from his official residence. Omar, though, claims that his demand for the repeal of AFSPA reflects popular public opinion. Could he be right? After all, even the three-member panel of interlocutors appointed by the central government to engage political actors in Jammu and Kashmir has reportedly called for the roll back of laws giving the armed forces special powers. And human rights activists have all along described AFSPA, which has existed in the troubled state since July 1990, as ‘a draconian law’ that has resulted in abuse and violation of human rights by the security forces.

According to the provisions of AFSPA, army personnel on duty in J&K or in the Northeast can make arrests without a warrant, or search the premises of a person without following the established procedure. Prosecution can be launched against erring army personnel but only after getting the central government’s sanction, which is not easy. Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared ‘disturbed’. Even a non-commissioned officer has the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to “maintain public order”.

The Army is opposed to any change in the law on the grounds that it needs the protection of special laws when its men are deployed in anti-terrorist or anti-insurgency operations. In its opinion, it is not easy to achieve success in the fight against an invisible enemy in a difficult terrain without the protection of special laws. According to Sena Medal awardee and senior defence analyst Lt. Gen. (retd.) Satbir Singh, “Terrorism in the J&K region needs to be dealt with forcefully.” The Army, on its part, maintains that it always has the highest regard for human life because it itself loses men everyday. “We (the Army) have always applied the principle of minimum force but sometimes, extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures,” says Singh.

Omar’s call asking for AFSPA’s revocation from parts of J&K appears prima facie tenable. Srinagar, Badgam, Samba and Jammu districts have been peaceful for years. And the army ceased counter-insurgency operations in these areas years ago. The home ministry’s latest report says that 69 police and military personnel, 47 civilians and 232 terrorists were killed last year in J&K. Even if murders unrelated to terrorism are added to this number, the state’s rate of fatalities is 3.5 per 100,000 people, which is significantly lower than the comparable murder rate in Arunachal (6.1), Jharkhand (5.5), Mizoram (4.8) or Chhattisgarh (4.2). However, the issues on the ground are more complex than what plain statistics let on. “Political stunts and comments on this complex issue have been most disastrous,” says Singh, adding, “from foreign aggressions, militant attacks to disaster relief, it is the uniformed soldier who has stood by in J&K at the peril of his own life.” For the Army and its troops stationed in J&K, AFSPA is an enabler and a facilitator for the armed forces. It is an operational exigency. “We are not trigger-happy people.Does the CM know the details of terrorist camps and the 5,000 insurgents just waiting to cross over into India?,” asks Singh.

In fact, it would be naive to condone the threat of terrorist infiltration from Pakistan and there is no reason to assume that it has changed its intentions over Kashmir. The threat from China and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan cannot be ignored as well. Several Western media and security reports have predicted the presence of the Chinese Army in the Gilgit and Baltistan regions and POK in Pakistan. If true, this would spell disaster for the India’s security and strategic position in the long run and there could be more problems of militancy in Kashmir than India can grapple with. Many Western security think-tanks have even claimed that Pakistan has ceded Baltistan and Gilgit to China. “The need of the hour is to have total control and an iron grip over Kashmir by the central government,” says foreign affairs and political expert Suvrokamal Dutta. Calling for full powers under the AFSPA to the armed forces and security agencies, Dutta urges them to identify the militant leaders and politicians who are igniting and provoking the masses for violence. “These leaders are clearly directed, abetted and funded by their ISI bosses and Pakistan; as such, it’s important to expose and isolate them,” he says.


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