If the government wants the story of Kashmir to change, it needs to convince itself that indeed normalcy has returned
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Srinagar: Will he, won’t he was the fiercely contested question in the Kashmir Valley. A week before the traditional durbar (state administration) was to move to the winter capital of Jammu, chief minister Omar Abdullah announced that his government has decided to revoke Armed Forces (Special Power) Act (AFSPA) from four towns, two each in Jammu and Kashmir. Even as the Union Cabinet secretary, accompanied by secretaries of defence and home, landed in Srinagar on October 24 to review developments on various fronts, rumours circulated that the chief minister is likely to succumb to the pressure from the Union government (read, the ministry of defence). While the chief minister was huddled with the central government emissaries, his uncle, and newly–appointed spokesperson of the National Conference (he also holds the office of additional general secretary), Dr Mustafa Kamal told FORCE, “As far as AFSPA is concerned, we have to take everyone onboard. We cannot be on the wrong side of the government of India.
This has been the governing principal of National Conference enunciated by my father Sheikh Abdullah.” This further fuelled the rumour machinery that perhaps, Omar Abdullah had spoken too soon and he will allow himself to be persuaded otherwise. However, by evening rumour mills were spinning a different yarn. Omar Abdullah was quoted by some local news channels as saying that the decision on the revocation of the Act from Srinagar, Budgam, Jammu and Udhampur would be taken before the Durbar moves to Jammu. “That gives him less than a week to swing it,” remarked one local journalist. “I think he has bitten more than he can chew. The AFSPA issue has been hanging fire for many years but no chief minister has had the courage to revoke it even when the situation had become nearly normal during Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s and early part of Ghulam Nabi Azad’s tenures. How can he do it?” Apparently, the then northern army commander had suggested partial revocation of the Act to chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad in 2008.
Being a Congressman first, Azad declined the advice.In the autumn of 2011, before the leaves of Chinar turned red announcing the onset of the long, dank winter, the issue was not about the politics of AFSPA or its impact on the lives of the civilians. The question was of Omar Abdullah’s courage and Indian Army’s resistance with more people putting their money on the latter. “The army will never allow the chief minister to revoke AFSPA,” said a local businessman and part-time activist, who did not want to be named for the sake of his business.But if the government decides to revoke AFSPA, how can the army stop that decision from being implemented? After all, imposition or revocation of AFSPA is the state government’s prerogative.
The businessman laughed at the naiveté of the question. “The only government we know is the army,” he retorted. “The army rules Kashmir, the state government is a mere puppet. It will do what the army tells it to do. If indeed the state government was more powerful than the army, won’t it be able to prosecute the officers and soldiers involved in innocent killings? Do you know how many complaints and investigation reports are sent to Delhi every year by the state government seeking its permission to prosecute the accused army personnel? Only a fraction gets the government sanction for prosecution and even then the army stalls the legal process at every step. Who is more powerful then?” he asked.
The question may be rhetorical, but it is singed with truth. As it turned out, after a week-long very public process of opinion-building, in which according to media reports even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh intervened to get the two ministers (home minister P. Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony) reach some kind of agreement, Omar Abdullah was forced to defer the decision on the revocation of AFSPA. Underplaying what was clearly a huge embarrassment for him, Abdullah tweeted on October 29, ‘Yesterday’s cabinet meeting had an important decision to amend the Public Safety Act but seems to have gotten lost in the #AFSPA din.’ Under the amendment people under the age of 18 will not be charged with PSA. While the detainee can be held in prison for one year, the case will have to be registered within six weeks, instead of eight weeks as was the case till now. Small change, but this is all the powers a democratically elected chief minister of J&K has. The Hurriyat ideologue and president of Muslim Conference, Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat is not surprised. “Omar Abdullah had problems right from the beginning, both within the state and within the coalition with the Congress.
What can he do, the nature of the state is such,” he says. “Even if you put an angel from heaven in the chief minister’s seat, he will have problems.” While chief minister’s detractors may cite the current AFSPA controversy as another evidence of Omar Abdullah’s immaturity, the truth is that this is one more instance when the government of India let down the office of J&K’s chief minister, thereby undermining the credibility of the institution. Is it any surprise then that the people of the state take neither the intentions of New Delhi nor the authority of the state government seriously? As one retired bureaucrat of Kashmir origin says, “The government of India has consistently eroded the sanctity of those very institutions which it wants to uphold. It encouraged massive-rigging of the 1987 elections. The beginning of insurgency apart, another fall-out of it was that people lost faith in the Indian constitutional institutions. Yet, despite the fact, that for the last two decades, we have been trying to restore the confidence of the people in Indian democratic institutions like the executive, legislature, judiciary, election commission, Central Bureau of Investigation and so on, the Union government has not been able to overcome its narrow-mindedness and petty politicking.”
There is merit in the outburst. Without going too much into the history of J&K, last eight years alone are replete with examples of successive Union governments giving assurances and then forgetting about them. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not only inherited the Indo-Pak peace process but also the reconciliation process in Kashmir from his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee. While Vajpayee said that he was willing to talk peace with anybody in Kashmir within the framework of humanity (as opposed to ‘within Indian Constitution’), Manmohan Singh announced that he was open to unconditional talks. Singh held three round table conferences (RTC) on Kashmir in New Delhi and Srinagar. After the second round table, the government in May 2006 announced creation of five working groups to figure out operational modalities of the suggestions that emerged from the first two RTCs.
The first working group was to focus on the confidence building measures within the state and also involved issues like rehabilitation of those affected by militant violence in the state. The second group was to work out mechanisms for strengthening trans-Line of Control (LC) relations by introducing trade as well as free movement of people. The third group’s focus was on economic development, creation of jobs for the youth (thereby trying to draw them into the mainstream) and also restoring regional economic balance within the state. The fourth group’s focus was to be on principals of good governance by making the state administration more responsive, accountable and transparent. It was also to work on local self-governance and implementation of the Right to Information Act. The fifth, and the most important working group, was to find ways to strengthen centre-state relations. It was to look into the gradual dilution of the special status that J&K enjoyed within the Indian Constitution and see how best the aspirations of the people from the three regions of the state could be met. The working group was to examine National Conference’s Greater Autonomy document, People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) Self Rule proposition among other various proposals made by different people, including Sajad Lone’s Achievable Nationhood. All the working groups submitted their reports to the government, but barring cosmetic implementation of a few proposals, nothing much came out of them. While the Centre-State report was shoved out of sight, the proposals on confidence building measures (CBMs) became part of public discourse in Kashmir. The centrepiece of the CBMs was withdrawal of troops and revocation of AFSPA. By mid-2007, when Congress’ Ghulam Nabi Azad was the chief minister, coalition partner PDP’s Muftis (father-daughter duo) upped the ante so much on the issue of troops’ withdrawal and revocation of AFSPA that they nearly threatened to withdraw support to the Azad government. No sooner had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the Muftis by announcing a panel to look into areas from where the troops could be withdrawn, defence minister A.K. Antony declared that no troops would be withdrawn till the situation improved.
This was ironical. In 2007, a few senior army officers in the Valley had started talking about peaceful conditions and the possibility of partial troops’ withdrawal. But for the MoD and the government in Delhi, the situation was not yet conducive. In what became a regular habit of the Indian Army, huge figures of terrorists sitting across the LC waiting to infiltrate were proffered to make the case that the situation in the Valley was volatile and could relapse any moment.
The situation did relapse the following year, not because of terrorism, but politics. Three subsequent summers, 2008, 2009 and 2010 saw huge turmoil in the Valley for different reasons. In 2008, it was the totally avoidable fracas on transfer of land to the Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board. The issue was precipitated by the PDP essentially to bring down Azad’s government which it succeeded in doing. Once the issue spiralled out of hand, the Hurriyat Conference joined in the cacophony, lending the agitation a Separatist hue. The darkest point of the protest was reached when right wing political parties in Jammu orchestrated a blockade on the National Highway 1A preventing not only essential commodities to reach the Valley but also stopping the truckers carrying harvested apples from the Valley into the plains.
This was a first in the state. Not even at the peak of insurgency or even after the Pandits fled Kashmir had people of Jammu blockaded the highway which is the only road connecting the Valley to the rest of the country. Cashing on the closed road to India, the Separatists organised a ‘Chalo Muzaffarabad’ march ostensibly led by the apple growers which stopped short of Baramullah after army’s intervention. The turmoil finally dissipated by the autumn of 2008, when assembly elections were announced. Putting the summer of unrest behind, people came out to vote in overwhelming numbers and by January 2009, Omar Abdullah-led NC formed the government in coalition with the Congress. Review of AFSPA was one of the rallying points during the elections, even if NC tried to downplay it.
Talking to FORCE in December 2008, a few days after the culmination of the elections and before the results were announced, Omar Abdullah said, “In the view of peaceful elections, there is a case to be made for force reduction in the state and a gradual increase in the role of the J&K police. There are areas now where this gradual withdrawal can take place… You don’t need Pakistan to reduce the level of Rashtriya Rifles, but it will have a huge impact on the ground here. People will believe that there vote has some value, when they set aside a full summer of agitation to vote… even I wouldn’t suggest that we withdraw troops from Sopore… By saying that you reduce the number of forces, I am not suggesting that you take them out of the Valley. They can stay in the cantonment in Srinagar. In case there is a need they can be brought back. How long would it take them to respond from Badami Bagh cantonment in Srinagar?” A few months later, FORCE met chief minister Omar Abdullah in Jammu in March 2009 and his government was already battling its first challenge. Two Kashmiri boys were killed by 22 Rashtriya Rifles in the case of mistaken identity in Bomai area of Sopore. Abdullah was under severe pressure to make good his promise of troops’ withdrawal. But the limitations of his office were obvious. He said, “The state government has no control over it (AFSPA). It is a government of India Act. All we can do is impress upon the central government to revoke it, …but we will have to wait till the Lok Sabha elections are concluded. The fact is, as incidents like the recent one in Sopore where two innocent people were killed by the army in a case of mistaken identity show, we cannot remain immune…” “It is the army that will have to take action. Either they believe in what they say about zero tolerance for human rights violation or they don’t. If they believe in it and if their court of enquiry finds what we have found then they will take it up… From the Prime Minister to the army chief, all have said that there is zero tolerance for such incidents of human rights violation… We want the army to send out the message that suits them, that’s all.” The state government’s troubles only increased.
A few months later, two women (sisters-in-law) were found dead in Shopian. It was alleged that they were raped and then killed. While the first suspect was the RR, the accusations finally zeroed-in on the local police. The Valley was on the streets once again for several months. Despite the provocation, all protests boiled down to the excesses committed by the security forces, hence the demand for troops’ reduction. FORCE met the battle-wearied chief minister yet again in December 2009. “I will not for a moment accept that this (revocation of AFSPA) is not going to happen. I have never set a time table to this, except that I believe that the revocation of AFSPA will happen in this government’s term. I believe that the discussions to modify the AFSPA are at a very advanced stage… in the short term, we need the modifications to come about, but I would like to believe that in course of this government’s term the situation will improve so much that there will be no need for this Act to be in place.” In response to the question on whether he was part of the discussions on the modification of AFSPA, he said, “On the daily basis? No. But the inputs from the state government have certainly been given.”
In the following months, frequent stories were planted in the media that the government was looking at modifying certain aspects of AFSPA to make it more humane. As tourists started flocking to Kashmir in the summer, the issue was once again put on the back-burner till three civilians were killed in a fake encounter in the Machil sector on April 29. The encounter was discovered on May 10 and the police filed the chargesheet against nine army personnel including one colonel and two majors. The protestors once again poured on the streets and the Valley saw unprecedented cycle of stone-pelting and pitched battles being fought between the protestors on one side and police-CRPF on the other. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s June 7 visit to the state did nothing to calm the rage, which seethed after each round of protest because either the police or the CRPF inadvertently ended up killing more protestors every passing day. By the time the protests subsided by September, the civilian death toll stood at 110. Once the people tired of the daily cycle of protests and killings, the Union government announced a team of interlocutors comprising Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari to speak with the cross-section of people in Kashmir to understand their grievances and submit their report to the government. The team travelled through the state over the year — though the Separatists did not meet them — and reached out to various strata of the Kashmir society. They submitted their report to P. Chidambaram in October 2011. While the report has not been made public, several newspapers carried articles on its purported contents. Apparently, one of the recommendations was phased withdrawal of AFSPA immediately.
Like several previous documents, the report must now be adorning the shelves of home minister’s office.
AFSPA Must Go
In April this year, FORCE was back in chief minister Abdullah’s office. Among other issues, AFSPA cropped up again. “The ball has been tossed back into the state’s court,” he said. “We have been told to examine the removal of Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) leading to the removal of AFSPA. I have constituted two groups with the two Corps Commanders, director general of police and the state home secretary to examine Jammu and Kashmir regions separately. After they finalise their recommendations the state will take a decision.” The chief minister did not want to commit on the time frame to do so, but he felt that it should be done after the summer tourist season was over. “There is obvious resistance on the part of the army and that gap needs to be bridged.
I believe that some areas are ripe for the removal of DAA. Security operations are rare now in the main town of Srinagar. There are other similar towns as well from where DAA can be removed. The argument that you need DAA for the army convoys to pass through does not make sense to me. The army convoys pass through other parts of the country as well and you don’t need a DAA for that.” On the necessity to consult the army, he said, “The army is part of the Act. I’d rather be in a situation where we have consulted and discussed the situation with them then having them say that they have been completely ignored in this matter. Ultimately the call will be the state government’s. We will discuss it in the Cabinet and also in the Unified Headquarters before taking a view on it. Once that is done, I will inform the Centre about it and it will go along with my stand.” Once the CM took the decision, as he said he would, the army cried wolf.
Motivated stories were planted in the national media to suggest that the army has not been consulted. And according to form, the Union government decided to let the J&K chief minister slug it out with the army. And as the people of the state believed it would, the army won the day. Settling the matter for good, the state minister for public health engineering, irrigation and flood control, Taj Mohi-Ud-Din (of the Congress party) told the Kashmiri media on October 29 that the matter of AFSPA revocation has been deferred for a year. The state government would review the situation next year. Under whatever compulsions the state government is forced to operate, the fact is that the best time to revoke AFSPA from J&K is now. Talking to FORCE on condition of anonymity, a serving state government official says, “For normalcy to prevail in Kashmir, the army has to be out. You cannot wait for normalcy to return before deciding to tell the army to leave, because that normalcy will never come. The very presence of the armed forces on civilian duties suggests that things are not normal. Moreover, continuous presence of the army undermines the basic precepts of democracy.” In the last couple of years, with the new raisings of the Jammu and Kashmir police, the army itself has trained substantial numbers of JKP as well as CRPF. According to one CRPF commandant in Kashmir, last year alone 400 to 500 CRPF personnel were trained in counter-insurgency by the army at its Corps Battle School in Khrew. While being a central government force, even the CRPF gets the operational flexibility and immunity under the AFSPA, when on CI duties, several of its young officers feel that the Act is not integral to its operations. “According to our mandate, we operate essentially with the state police in the urban areas. Not only the state police decide our deployments, it also decides the numbers needed,” says the commandant.
Interestingly, of the 55 battalions in the Valley, nearly 50 are deployed on static or Road Opening Patrol (ROP) duties, which do not involve cordon and search operations. “Even if AFSPA is revoked, if the state government wants it can extend the immunity that the JKP enjoys under the state’s RPC to CRPF through a special notification,” he says. While some battalions of the CRPF conduct independent operations and also with the Rashtriya Rifles in the rural areas, the issue of AFSPA revocation is limited to urban areas only at the moment, where there has hardly been any militancy-related incident. That militancy and militancy-related violence in the state has consistently been going down in the last eight years is obvious, even if Mustafa Kamal’s figure of 90 per cent reduction in militancy is exaggerated. This is the reason that the army has not had any operation in urban areas for the last almost 10 years. Why must the Act stay if the army no longer operates there? One of the arguments in favour of the Act is that the army has its intelligence grid which extends to the urban areas. If AFSPA is revoked, these intelligence operations will be imperilled. A retired intelligence officer scoffs at this argument. He says, “Intelligence officers do not roam around in uniform, nor do they conduct operations. The moment they invoke AFSPA for their operations, their cover will be blown.” Moreover, over the years, senior army officers have consistently admitted that the best intelligence is provided by either the JKP or the IB, which has substantially beefed up its numbers and operations in the state. In fact, in the last few years IB has recruited Kashmiri boys in the Valley for int-gathering. Besides, for the sake of the army itself, it should withdraw from internal security duties. The extended exposure of young officers in civilian environment has led to the development of vested interests. Not only has it led to dehumanisation of civil population (which is reduced to mere numbers), it has caused desensitisation of the force as well.
Winning Hearts and Minds
“The armed insurgency was largely the result of the alienation of the people of Kashmir,” the retired bureaucrat says. “Over the years, people got tired. They also realised that they were depriving their children of the economic opportunities now available in mainland India. There has been a perceptible change of heart among the people, especially when they look at Pakistan. This is the time for the Indian government to be liberal and large-hearted.” Sentiment is a powerful word in Kashmir. Today, this word perhaps incorporates new realities of both India and Kashmir. The only way to encourage this process is to help the people with generous and benevolent policies. Gradual revocation of AFSPA will show the seriousness of government of India’s intent. Winning the hearts and minds of the people is the government’s job, not the Indian Army’s, because no matter what the army does, at the end of the day it remains the army — a feared institution, whose very presence carries the risk of human rights violations. It is true, most violation do not occur intentionally as one retired Lt General says, “One must remember that it is not intent which leads to violations. They are honest mistakes.” Sure, but innocent people end up paying with their lives for these mistakes. Moreover, no army officer can deny that some violations are indeed intentional. No matter how much one tries to wish them away, Kashmiris with monumental memories always throw incidents like Pathribal or Machil at your face. Says Abdul Ghani Bhat, “Like children in other parts of the world inherit their parents’ wealth or debt, a Kashmiri child inherits the psyche and the problem of his state. You cannot win a war against the memories of collective discontent.” The tragedy of AFSPA is that despite all the in-built safeguards and self-regulatory mechanisms, it cannot bridge the huge gap between intent and accident; a gap into which several innocent lives have been lost. If the government wants the story of Kashmir to change, it needs to convince itself that indeed normalcy has returned, whatever be the intent of Pakistan.