Army needs to be more transparent and cooperative in J&K
Kashmir is relatively calm. The army feels that infiltration across the Line of Control and violence within the state during the coming summer months will be comparatively low. (As most terrorists are hiding in the higher reaches and thick jungle foliage, the army has launched operations to kill them there.) The paramilitary, CRPF, has a similar assessment. Yet there is tension in the air.
Ironically with diminishing terrorism, alleged Human Rights violations by the army and the CRPF are sticking out like a sour thumb. This is embarrassing the state chief minister, Omar Abdullah, who has promised zero tolerance for such violations. After the Bomai firing on February 23 in which two civilians fell to army’s bullets, the CM ordered a magisterial enquiry to submit its report in a fortnight. The report indicted the army, but the latter’s response from its own court of enquiry was dubious; that civilians were caught in crossfire. An irate Omar travelled to Delhi and met the defence minister. Consequently, the army owned up to its mistakes and promised action against the offenders. Similarly, on March 18, the CRPF shot dead an innocent person in Pulwama district. Omar spoke with the visiting Union home minister and four CRPF personnel including an assistant commandant were suspended. It is evident that the new CM’s message has registered seriously with J&K police that he controls, while for the army and the CRPF, who report to masters in New Delhi, it is business as usual.
As I have visited Kashmir regularly since the summer of 2003 when FORCE was launched, I can appreciate the perspective of the security forces. The army has suffered huge casualties in counter-terrorism operations, because it fights with hands tied back. When the Rashtriya Rifles (for CI ops) were inducted in the Kashmir theatre in large numbers in 1993, the then army chief, late General B.C. Joshi ordered his forces to carry a ‘Do’s and Don’t’ manual on Human Rights violations in individual pockets. Since then, pressure to minimise collateral damage has been maintained. But for units and formations, kills are important to show they are on top. As is true of all insurgencies, the army fears fire coming from unexpected places. There have been umpteen cases of army casualties when they paused to verify antecedents and did not retaliate instantly. Thus, the stress levels are high and frustration is not unknown. Sensing all this, senior commanders are hesitant to punish offenders as this is perceived to affect their morale. And this is where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act comes in handy.
The story with the CRPF is a bit different. Besides being relatively new to Kashmir, they are in a continuous tug-of-war with the police for job recognition. Moreover, for just about everything, they are dependent on the state government and its police. This is not all. There are command issues as well; young cadre officers feel that their views and worth is not fully appreciated by the top brass drawn from the IPS. Take the case of the recently dismissed assistant commandant in the Pulwama killing. Fresh into Kashmir, he was sent for operations without the mandatory three months ground familiarisation. Young officers feel that such reprimands would demoralise the forces’ rank and file. This is their story.
However, there’s another more important story. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has a much wider canvass to balance. He is not even 100 days in office and the main regional opposition party, the PDP, has already accused him of failed promises of generating jobs and dispensing equal treatment to the three regions of J&K. The truth is, Omar Abdullah is reaching out beyond the traditional: he is getting India’s private industry to focus on Kashmir, and ensure that the state rural and urban youth are prepared when these new opportunities finally knock on their doors. With parliamentary elections round the corner, and the state government just embarked on the six years mandate, the PDP diatribe cannot be taken seriously.
But, Human Rights violations are a different ballgame. They have the potential to shatter the prevalent calm in no time. When most people have suffered and lost their dear ones in years of senseless violence, neither good governance nor the well-intentioned Omar Abdullah can prevent the crowds from displaying collective hysteria if an innocent life is lost. This is precisely the opportunity that the broken, demoralised and split Hurriyat leadership is waiting for. All they have to do is to invoke religion from the mosque pulpits into the emotional cauldron and the deadly cocktail for unrest is ready. To prevent this, Omar Abdullah has asked New Delhi to revoke the AFSPA. With General Elections a few weeks away, and given the continuing instability in Pakistan, the revocation of the AFSPA will not be considered anytime soon. Reduction of army, if it happens, will be cosmetic than real. But, there is a lot that can be then now. The army can certainly become more invisible, transparent and cooperative. It should follow the standing operating procedure of taking the policemen on all CI operations even if it means losing real time intelligence. With uncertainty about the composition of the next Central government, and its position on talks with Pakistan and the Hurriyat for Kashmir resolution, the security forces must do its best to contribute to J&K by zero Human Rights violations.