The slippery slope of the AFSPA debate

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On 25 July, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah once again raked up the issue of the revocation of the much-maligned, much-debated and much-defended Armed Forces (Jammu & Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990. While he has been plugging away at the AFSPA for years, he mentioned it to launch by far his most scathing attack on the new government at the Centre, entirely aware that the overt nationalist policy of the BJP militates against the repealing of the Act anywhere in the country.

“Some people will never find the time appropriate because they have so much liking and love for these laws,” he said. “Even if we make 100 percent of the guns here silent, they will still find excuses and say the time is not appropriate. If they let us know the parameters to determine the appropriate time, then we will try to achieve those parameters. But whenever we tell them that the time is appropriate, they say not this year but next year. And then the next year, they shift the goalpost. I hope that their thinking changes and the process (of revocation of AFSPA) is started.”

If there was a particular reason or occasion for Omar to have breathed into this issue at this specific time, it wasn’t obvious. More than anything, though, he seemed to want to needle the Narendra Modi government, perhaps in an effort to distance himself from a bit of embarrassing history: that his party, the National Conference, was a partner in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government, which had promulgated the horrific Prevention of Terrorism Act that had led to an escalation of encounter killings in Kashmir.

History is not easily forgotten — or forgiven — in Kashmir. Then, again, nor is party politics, whatever the cost. There isn’t much disagreement that the AFSPA is an overdone and overlong imposition, but every party has its take on why another party has it all wrong — especially if that party happens to be Omar’s National Conference.

“This is clearly a way of playing politics,” says National Panthers Party leader Harsh Dev Singh. “It has already been almost five years since we have started (talking about this), but nothing has been done yet.” And then, upending the reason for having talked about the AFSPA for a half-decade, he says, “Anyway, it is a necessary provision, which gives protection to the army during difficult situations. If these powers are taken away from them, it would lead to a crisis situation in the state.”

This pretty much echoes what BJP leader Jugal Kishore Sharma says: “I think this is a political game. If you want to remove the AFSPA, then first create the right atmosphere in J&K as the state is yet to come under the regions that do not have it. We still do not have peace here and many incidents happen on a regular basis. A few days ago, the Director General of Police had said that a few militants are waiting on the other side of the border and will try to cross it after the snow season ends. Even the legislators, block presidents etc walk with their guards and have escorted cars. So how will you remove the AFSPA? For that, these people should forget about their security.”

The debate on the AFSPA is no longer black-and-white. In many ways, what was once an undoubtedly draconian instrument of the State is seen — at least in political, if not in humanitarian, terms — to have a context. The communists seem to have ‘adopted’ — a slippery word to suit the issue — a what-if approach to the necessity of the Act. “I have always had this consistent opinion that the AFSPA was imposed to deal with a particular situation. Since then, according to security experts and the military establishment, the situation has changed a lot and visibly so,” says the CPM’s state committee secretary Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami. “That is why we have also demanded all the time that there should be a proper surveillance on the situation, and steps should then be taken accordingly to make the Act consistent with its declared objectives.”

Omar, though, sees — as always — the AFSPA as having outlived its necessity. Last year, he had said that militant violence in the state had come down by 70 percent over the past five years. While this is an exaggeration — the statistics are not even close — fatalities due to militancy did drop by about half from 375 in 2009 to 181 in 2013. It is anybody’s guess if he will be able to make his promise take hold: that “the gradual revocation of AFSPA will begin from my government’s tenure and the same will happen”. But no one’s holding their breath: This brittle vow is also Omar’s first step into campaigning for the Assembly election, which could be the toughest and most fractious that he (and the state) has faced in recent years.

The AFSPA was enforced in the Kashmir Valley in 1990, a year after the outbreak of militancy, and was extended to Jammu a decade later. The Act gives the armed forces immunity from prosecution while operating in the internal conflict zones. During the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Omar and his father, Farooq Abdullah, had accused the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of having enforced the AFSPA in the state when he was the Union home minister in the VP Singh-led government at the Centre.

Omar’s outburst — for it was intemperate — was provoked by the failure of his four-year-long efforts to get the Centre to agree to a phased diminishing of the AFSPA from the state, starting with the areas with zero militant presence and, consequently, zero army footprint. But, zero footprint or no, the army has consistently stonewalled his determined bid by invoking worst-case security scenarios should the AFSPA be lifted, even if partially.

In 2011, with militancy-related fatalities down to 183, the then General Officer Commanding of the Army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar, Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain, had even highlighted the unlikely possibility of Kashmir becoming an independent nation by 2014. This escalation of anxiety has been typical of the army whenever it has felt threatened by the possible power vacuum that the AFSPA could leave behind. Hasnain, in fact, raised the bogey when many in the upa government, including the then home minister P Chidambaram, were inclined to review the Act.

Whether or not the AFSPA will be a major poll plank of the National Conference is moot. The party, sources say, is still undecided about it as its manifesto is yet to be drafted. “But we will continue to press for the revocation of the Act,” says Tanvir Sadiq, Omar’s political secretary. “For us, it is not about scoring political points. Our position is based on sound logic and an improved ground situation. All security reports on J&K attest to this fact.”

Then, again, this could be pre-pollspeak. Omar might decide to give it a rest during the election, considering that the endurance of the AFSPA is regarded as one of the biggest failures of his government. In the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the National Conference was at pains to not mention the AFSPA, focussing its entire rhetoric on the emergence of Modi, and on what it felt was the rival PDP’s proximity to him. It was a strategy that, as the electoral outcome revealed, didn’t resonate with the people.

For the moment, Omar is banking upon it resonating. “A Modi-Omar row over the issue will play out well in the Valley. And this is the only way Omar can salvage some lost electoral ground in the state,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “Omar will be seen as standing up to the Centre, a spectacle that catches the public imagination in Valley instantly.”

One such opportunity was handed to him on a platter by the lone BJP minister from the state, Jitendra Singh, who, too quick off the blocks on the very first day of the new government at the Centre, said that the process to revoke Article 370 had begun. Omar was quick to bite back, saying any attempt to abrogate the Article would call into question J&K’s accession to India, and clear the way for a renegotiation of the constitutional relationship between Srinagar and New Delhi.

It’s clearly not a fight that the Modi government is willing to take on right now. What could have escalated into a confrontation — with much of the benefits accruing to Omar — was dampened when the Modi government unceremoniously backed down, saying that no such move was underway. But it’s clearly a battle saved up for another day: The Modi government did not hesitate from making the point that the equations had changed, with the BJP securing three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the state.

And this is why the BJP seems not to be concerned (over and above its usual disdain for opposing viewpoints). “It is not the first time Omar is saying it,” says RP Singh, BJP in-charge of J&K affairs. “Our position on AFSPA is that its operation is required in J&K. We don’t want the Act to go before the situation in the state warrants it. We don’t need to raise it in the polls. But if cm Omar Abdullah calls for its repeal, we will oppose his stand.”

Slowly understanding the virtues of tempered belligerence and oppositional nuance, the BJP had Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju inform the Rajya Sabha, which is still not in the party’s grip, that “the time is not appropriate at the moment to revoke the AFSPA”. What is significant — if one can look beyond politicese — is the word “appropriate”: it recognises the context and allows for a time when a repeal might be warranted.

Perhaps, at the moment, it is as much as anyone can hope for from the Central government of a party sworn to removing the mantle of special status from the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

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