THE AFSPA IS not merely a draconian law. It is an inexplicable political irrationality. This week brought stark crystallisations of that, yet again. Irom Sharmila — her 12th year into a fast so stoic and steadfast and historic, it literally challenges the human imagination — was brought to New Delhi to appear in a case registered against her for attempted suicide. Almost the same day, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah broke down in the state Assembly over the tragic and unprovoked killing of a civilian in Baramulla. Extreme fortitude, extreme frustration: it should have served to shift the boundaries of the conversation at least an inch. But it hasn’t.
The debate on AFSPA has been trapped in a bizarre rigor mortis for decades. The army insists its men cannot function in a civilian conflict situation without it. Revoking it, they argue, would lower soldier morale and create safe zones for militants to group. This is a fallacious argument. In itself, AFSPA is no deterrence to the growth of militancy. In Manipur, in the years that AFSPA was in full effect, militant outfits ballooned from around 20 to 40 groups. In 2004, when the state erupted in protests against the rape and murder of Manorama, AFSPA was partially withdrawn from some districts. There is absolutely no evidence to show militancy has spiked in those districts in AFSPA’S absence.
Yet, no one seems willing to risk even such token — but potent — gestures in J&K. Omar’s frustration is not new. Back in 2011, speaking to TEHELKA, he had said he was determined to make headway on revoking AFSPA from a few peaceful districts. The army had to stop speaking in forked tongues. If they claimed militancy was the lowest it had been in 21 years, people rightly would expect a peace dividend. Omar said he was determined to give it. If the army would not relent, he’d revoke the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) from some regions as this lay within his jurisdiction. The AFSPA can only be operative in areas declared disturbed. So, in effect, revoking the DAA would revoke AFSPA. “Let’s just take the risk,” he said. “If the DAA can be lifted, it can as soon be put back. If there’s a spurt in militancy because the DAA was removed, what stops us from putting it back? It’s not a commandment from god. It’s a law.”
Strong words, but nothing happened. Both Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram in his stint as home minister had promised amendments that would make the Act more humane. But nothing happened. Now, it appears, Congress leader Saifuddin Soz, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti and Omar are all in agreement: AFSPA must be revoked partially in J&K. If still nothing happens, what are Kashmiris to assume? AFSPA is a commandment from god?
If ever the time was right to repeal this law — even partially — it is now. By its very definition, leadership means taking risks. The army is right to ask for adequate protection for its soldiers, but why insist on excessive protection? Recently, the Justice Verma Committee recommended that violence or sexual assault by soldiers against women in conflict zones should not enjoy immunity under AFSPA, but the army stonewalled even that.
Like the Manipuri mothers who protested naked outside the Rashtriya Rifles base; like Irom Sharmila’s long, resolute fast, in a sense, Omar’s outburst in the Assembly is deeply symptomatic. The AFSPA sits like a canker in the soul of a democratic nation. The country’s political leadership must force the army to confront its bogey.
In just the past one year, the army has gunned down several militants in genuine encounters. In each of these cases, not once have any locals raised an accusatory finger against the army. Not in December 2012 when five Pakistani militants and a local Kashmiri, Atir Ahmad Dar, were shot down in Sopore; not in April 2012 when five militants were killed in Handwara; and again not when two suspected LeT militants were killed in Budgam recently, to name just a few. It is only incidents like the Machil killings and the latest one in Baramulla that set people seething. Why would the army want to immunise its soldiers from the idea of discipline and fair play?
After his outburst, Omar tweeted that his emotions should not be read as helplessness. He is right: he is not helpless. The power to revoke the AFSPA may lie with the Union home ministry, but the power to revoke DAA lies with him. Gratefully, in the tier of Indian democracy, while the army commands respect, it is the elected who have the right to dictate. Omar must remember he was elected to keep promises and preserve the idea of justice.
That’s a good vantage point to give orders from.