Why Omar Abdullah is right on this

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Riyaz Wani marshals all the empirical evidence to argue why the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is not tenable in the Valley anymore

Common cause People take part in the Srinagar-Imphal march against AFSPA
Photo: AFP

THE CASE for revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in some parts of Jammu & Kashmir pivots on two main contentions: one, often advanced by the political class in the state, is the considerable decline in militancy in recent years, and the corresponding reduction in counter-insurgency operations. J&K Police figures for this year reveal that no militant activity has taken place in three districts and 13 others have registered just single-digit militant violence.

The second contention is a widespread public perception of AFSPA abetting human rights violations by the security forces. The law gives army and the paramilitary forces sweeping powers to conduct operations as “under this Act, no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted”, against security personnel.

And it is these two grounds that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has tapped into to fashion a political narrative for the rollback of this law, initially from only four districts — two each in Kashmir and Jammu. However, the army has stonewalled his determined bid by invoking worst-case scenarios if AFSPA is lifted, even partially. The General Officer Commanding of the 15 Corps in Srinagar, Lt General Hasnain, even painted the possibility of Kashmir becoming an independent country by 2014.

In public perception, the army is on a weak wicket. Rampant violence in Kashmir, which mandated the imposition of the law in the 1990s, has drastically come down. Second, the police and paramilitary forces have proved themselves more than capable of tackling the residual militancy. For example, it was a joint operation by the J&K Police and CRPF that successfully neutralised the fidayeen attack on Srinagar’s commercial hub Lal Chowk in January 2010. Both agencies were praised by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram for the “brilliant operation, executed with great skill and patience”. The police has also been credited with pro-actively stemming the recurrent militant bid to penetrate Srinagar.

In fact, J&K Police in recent years has assumed a principal role in the counterinsurgency operations in the Valley. In Sopore, north Kashmir, the Valley’s only urban district that remains a militant stronghold, it is the police that leads the charge. Notably, it tracked down and killed the Valley’s top LeT commander Abdullah Unni in September this year.

The growing police role has been concomitant with a profound transformation in the Valley. The recurrent eruption of stone-pelting mass protests through the Valley, downtown boys leading the way, has put militancy at a discount. There is now a conscious collective realisation of the effectiveness of public protests over armed resistance. Proof lies in the official figures on the existing number of militants in the Valley: There are said to be only 325 militants holed up across Kashmir, of which only 119 are active.

Between Srinagar and Budgam — the districts where AFSPA is sought to be lifted — there are only 24 militants, with 14 known to be in Srinagar and 10 in Budgam. Budgam witnessed only three militancy cases this year followed by four in Kulgam, five in Anantnag and eight each in Shopian, Ganderbal and Bandipora.

The army has not helped its case by stonewalling action against personnel involved in excesses

Even the Union home ministry in its report for 2010-11 reveals that 47 civilians, 232 militants and 69 police and military personnel were killed in militancy-related incidents. While the 2010 figures of the National Crime Records Bureau show the state in the same period witnessed 101 murders unrelated to militancy.

The army has sought to counter these figures by raising the bogey of uncertain regional geopolitics after the impending exit of the US from Afghanistan. The army’s contention is that militancy in the state is dormant rather than on the way out and asserts it could stage an instant comeback in a more conducive environment. However, Omar Abdullah has countered this argument by offering to bring back AFSPA in such an eventuality.

Similarly, as far as human rights violations are concerned, the army has not helped its case by refusing or stonewalling action against personnel allegedly involved in excesses. Human rights groups in the state like Coalition of Civil Society say the Central government has withheld sanction for prosecution under AFSPA in at least 458 cases of violations sent by the J&K Home Department since 1990. This includes the infamous Pathribal killings where the army allegedly shot dead five civilians and passed them off as the terrorists responsible for the massacre of 36 Sikhs at Chittisinghpora. Similarly, Major Avatar Singh has FIRs against him in seven other killings. Soon after these FIRs, Singh was posted out of the state. He subsequently quit the army and now lives in the United States.

Similarly, in the Machhil fake encounter of three youth in north Kashmir in early 2010, which became one of the factors for the subsequent summer revolt, the army has refused to hand over its personnel for trial in a civilian court. However, it is ready to act against them in the military court.

BESIDES THESE cases where the army and paramilitary forces are widely believed to be responsible for excesses, a substantial number of persons have disappeared. Figures vary widely. While human rights groups put the total number of missing at around 8,000, the government’s own number has wildly varied over the years. In 2002, the then home minister Khalid Najeeb Suhrawardy told the Assembly that 3,184 people had disappeared in the state in 1989-2002. The figure was subsequently revised by the PDP-led coalition government at 3,931 disappearances in 1989-2003. Former CM Ghulam Nabi Azad pegged the number at 693 in 2006 and on 31 March this year, Omar Abdullah put the number at around 113 people. However, talking to the media as an Opposition leader in 2008, Omar put the number at 4,000-odd.

However, the army doesn’t buy the human rights argument for the withdrawal of AFSPA, for it contends it is not alone in this. Army chief General VK Singh, in an interview to a TV channel, pointed out that the police officers allegedly part of Pathribal killings remained untouched by successive state governments. Besides, people in the state are sore about the government not fixing responsibility for the killing of around 120 youth in the separatist unrest last year.

“The question arises: How can a government that adopts silence over the need to account for the dead in last year’s unrest feign righteous indignation over the excesses by the army?’’ asks PDP spokesperson Nayeem Akhter.

However, over and above all this, the ongoing tug-of-war between the CM and the army over the removal of AFSPA has brought into play the problematic question of whether an elected state government should prevail over the opinion of defence forces. If an elected CM in his wisdom thinks that the time is ripe for phased withdrawal of AFSPA, shouldn’t security forces also fall in line after expressing their opinion? In fact, it is this question more than the proposed partial repeal of AFSPA that now dominates the political discourse in the state.

Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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