The decision of the government of India to remove Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the northeastern state of Meghalaya and restricting it to eight police stations in Arunachal Pradesh has kickstarted the debate: Why can’t Jammu and Kashmir follow suit?
In Jammu and Kashmir, the noise transcends the action. Since 1996, whenever an elected government has come to power, parties have used AFSPA as an issue to secure votes. They have raised the pitch many times, but eventually lived with Delhi’s veto over the issue. Earlier in 2015, AFSPA was removed from Tripura. In Jammu and Kashmir a bleak situation has been prevailing since 1990s when the intransigent attitude displayed by Delhi pushed the youth to violence. The law’s psychological impact has done more damage than anything else.
Why is AFSPA despised in Kashmir? It is not just the law that has infringed upon civil liberties in the state, but also the large footprint of the armed forces in the name of security, who have abused their unbridled powers. Examples of Pathribal, Bandipore, Ganderbal, Handwara and Machil staged encounters are still fresh in the minds of the people.
Can or will the state government move towards its revocation? Technicalities aside, it takes political courage to do away with the law. One thing, however, is clear: in the past, the Indian Army has proven more powerful than the political leadership as far as its retention is concerned. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah made an announcement on October 21, 2011 that the AFSPA would go soon. He presumably had the backing of then home minister P Chidambaram but could not overcome the challenge of the Indian Army. Omar flip-flopped till the time he was out of power. The new government, too, had to make it part of the Agenda of Alliance, but it lacks clarity.
“While both parties have historically held a different view on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the need for it in the State at present, as part of the agenda for governance of this alliance, the coalition government will examine the need for denotifying ‘disturbed areas.’ This, as a consequence, would enable the Union Government to take a final view on the continuation of the AFSPA in these areas,” reads the agenda document. It is clear that no firm position has been taken, as the mentioned examination could well take the entire tenure of the government.
Earlier, in February this year, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state that the army’s footprint in the valley had increased due to the deteriorating security situation. “Can the AFSPA be revoked in such a situation? Is it realistic?” she asked. Past experiences have shown that state governments are hardly empowered, especially in Kashmir, where a national party is in the ruling coalition. Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah could never fulfill the mission he promised. More than a decade was spent in committee meetings and writing reports but there was no headway.
When People’s Democratic Party founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed threatened to upset the government of Ghulam Nabi Azad and raised the issue of withdrawal of armed forces and the AFSPA, the government of India announced setting up of two committees to be directly supervised by Defence Minister AK Antony. The announcement was made on April 1, 2007 and subsequently a committee headed by then Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt was set up to review troop deployment and consider relocation and reconfiguration of Indian armed forces from schools. The committee did its work but the one on AFSPA was never set up.
Moreover, two high-powered committees were constituted on September 29, 2010, as a follow-up to the Centre’s direction. After the Cabinet Committee on Security announced the eight-point package for Jammu and Kashmir, which included a review of areas declared ‘disturbed’, two committees, one each for Kashmir and Jammu, were constituted for the purpose during a Unified Headquarters meeting in Srinagar on September 29, 2012.
Soon after this, when Omar announced on October 21, 2011 that AFSPA would be partially withdrawn, it raised hackles within the Indian Army, which opposed it. “Time has come for the revocation of laws which were introduced in the state after the onset of militancy. We have already identified the places from which it will be withdrawn, but I am not in a position to name those areas,” Omar said in 2011. However, it could not be implemented. On October 21, 2012 he reiterated his commitment, saying “the situation and circumstances allow revocation of the AFSPA from certain pockets of JK. You have areas where there is no operational role of the army as the militancy in the state is at its lowest. There are lesser casualties. Therefore, the situation is conducive for its revocation. I will pursue this further and it is worth a mission,” he said. He left office without completing the mission.
No less than a working group, set up by then prime minister Manmohan Singh, has recommended the revocation of AFSPA as a major confidence building measure. The group headed by former vice president Mohammad Hamid Ansari made it clear that it was necessary to do away with the Act as it impinged on fundamental rights of the people.
“Certain laws made operational during the period of militancy impinge on fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public. They should be reviewed and revoked. Law and order matters should be dealt with, to the maximum extent possible, through normal laws,” read the recommendations of the group. Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, set up in the wake of protests in Manipur, also recommended the scrapping of this draconian law, which the experts believe does not conform to the democratic values of India.
In Kashmir, it has been observed that under the cover of these laws, first implemented through Governor’s Ordinance on July 6, 1990 and then extended through the parliament on September 10, 1990, the armed forces have misused their powers. The law provides sweeping powers to the armed forces, making them immune to accountability for misconduct. For example, Section 6 of the law states, “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act”.
Jammu and Kashmir has surely seen a tough time with violence taking a heavy toll. For a long time, we have moved a lot towards what the government of India calls normalcy, that is, dwindling militancy, restoration of democratic institutions and notably large participation of people in elections.
Ironically, a political approach also opened up the space for violence. Today, a violent fight for a political resolution has social sanction. Talking about revocation of the AFSPA may be countered with figures of increased violence and threats to security. Delivery of justice to the victims of violence is the first step towards achieving the goal of political stability. If it is treated as a law and order problem, it will complicate the situation. Footprints of armed forces need to be erased from the scene and the government should come clean on the laws that infringe upon civil liberties of the people.
Jammu and Kashmir must emulate Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.