Given that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act [AFSPA] has been in vogue for more than two decades in 20 of 22 districts of Jammu and Kashmir, it is almost a given that the debate over its withdrawal would be prolonged. Stakeholders would make their case, arguing for and against the proposed repeal, sometimes resorting to alarming scenario building exercises. That is precisely what has happened. However, under the circumstances, the stage by stage withdrawal of the controversial Act appears to be the only sober option for the Government of India, for the following reasons.
Firstly, security laws are crucial, but only when the security situation warrants them. Without getting into the contentious debate of the enabling provisions of the AFSPA and the alleged human rights violations the Act perpetrates, AFSPA was a necessity in 1990, when it was first applied. The civilian fatalities had reached an alarming 862 that year. Both presence of the army and the Act, remained relevant all through the next 15 years. The average annual death of civilians between 1990 and 2005 remained precisely at that — 863 with a total of 13,821 deaths. It is for the first time in 2006 that the civilian deaths came down below 500 and since then, it has progressively declined. Since 2007, the state has consistently recorded under 100 deaths. And since 2010, the annual civilian fatalities are even below 50. There is no way that such significant improvement can be ignored.
Secondly, the army does not even operate in areas where it wants the extension of AFSPA. Since last few years, the Jammu and Kashmir police have taken over the lead role in counter-insurgency operations, with the para-military and the army providing a supporting role. Thereby, it makes little sense for the army to demand the continuation of the Act, in anticipation that it may operate in those areas. Neither the police nor the paramilitary benefits out of AFSPA. The ground level situation allows the authorities to reconfigure the force deployment in areas, deploying the army only along the Line of Control (LoC) and limiting its role in the urban areas.
Thirdly, continuation of security laws, beyond their rationalised existence, is demonstration of country’s weakness and not necessarily its strength. The army’s reported contention that the state would secede by 2016 if not for the Act is questionable. Such assessment is almost similar to the subsequent claim by the separatist Hurriyat Conference that without the Act, the state would witness mass uprising. If the presence of over two decades by the armed forces has only managed to create a condition, liable to be overrun in just five years, India needs to rethink its security strategy in the state, much beyond the deployment of armed forces and promulgation of an odd Act. Similarly, army’s contention that the repeal of the Act is a demand only by “Pakistan, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, terrorists and secessionists” is too incorrect. There exists significant support for the move to withdraw the Act in the state and beyond. And moreover, neither the police nor the paramilitary share army’s alarming assessment.
Fourthly, it is important to reach out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir through pro-active measures and expose the agenda of the minority separatists. Development activities in the state, appointment of interlocutors and consistent move to open the channels of communication with every strand of opinion in the state are indicative of New Delhi’s constant endeavour to find a solution to the problem. The stage-by-stage withdrawal of AFSPA adds to such confidence building measures. And more importantly, the improved ground-level situation allows for such an experiment. In a way, such moves are even more important than the attempts to make peace with our western neighbour. Jammu and Kashmir is fast returning to normalcy and there can be no better way to say this.
In August 2004, Manipur chief minister, considered to be a weakling by many, took a brave decision to withdraw the AFSPA from seven assembly constituencies of his state, amid army protests and more importantly, going against New Delhi’s advice. Although the army refused to operate in those AFSPA-less areas, those parts of Manipur didn’t really lapse into extremism in the subsequent months and years. Omar Abdullah’s government in Jammu and Kashmir is also within his rights to un-declare the select areas in his state as “disturbed”, thereby automatically allowing AFSPA to lapse. That’s why it is better for New Delhi to back Abdullah’s decision, rather than allowing the chief minister to take a unilateral decision.
And moreover, the withdrawal of the Act isn’t exactly an irreversible process. It can be brought back the moment situation warrants it.
This article appeared at New Indian Express