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#4129, 26 September 2013
J&K: Noise about AFSPA
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor in Chief
Rising Kashmir

Union Minister of State for Home, M Ramachandran has shrugged off the issue of revocation of controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by putting the ball in Jammu and Kashmir government’s court that there was no formal request from the state in this regard.

In reply to a question by Dr Thokohom Meinya and Gurudas Das Gupta, MoS M Ramachandran said: “Only the state of Nagaland has made a request in working for de-notification of the disturbed area.  Keeping the internal security imperatives in mind, the request could not be acceded to.” What Mr Ramchandran wanted to convey by saying so is not difficult to guess. It is simply to dodge the question and rather discredit Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah who has been repeatedly asking for partial withdrawal of AFSPA and maintaining that the discussion was on. This precisely means that it was taken up with Government of India though nothing concrete could be achieved so far. By simplifying the answer, the MoS has not only negated the demand but also the two committees that had already been constituted to look into it.

Earlier also, Union Home Ministry gave a similar reply to a question posed by National Conference MP, G N Rattanpuri in which it was stated that no formal request had been made by the state for withdrawal of the Act. Looking at the issue through technical prism, first of all there is no need for a formal request from state as in case the Jammu and Kashmir government withdraws the Disturbed Area Act (DAA); AFSPA will automatically become infructuous. But no state government has the power to do so without taking GoI into confidence.

Looking back at the developments that have taken place vis-a-vis this demand, a formal discussion has been on since 2007. When PDP founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed threatened to upset Ghulam Nabi Azad government and raised the pitch for withdrawal of armed forces and AFSPA (obviously he had not reconciled with the handing of power to Azad), GoI announced to set up two committees to be directly supervised by Defence Minister A K Antony. The announcement was made on April 1, 2007 and subsequently a committee headed by Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt was set up to review troop deployment and consider relocation and reconfiguration of armed forces from schools. The committee did its work but the one for AFSPA was never set up. However, Defence Minister himself attended at least two meetings with Unified Headquarters during Omar Abdullah’s tenure and the issue was discussed. Moreover, two high-powered committees were constituted on September 29, 2010, as a follow-up to the Centre’s direction.

After Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) announced the eight-point package for Jammu and Kashmir, that included review of areas declared disturbed, two committees, one each for Kashmir and Jammu, were constituted for the purpose during a Unified Headquarters meeting in Srinagar on September 29.

Both committees have Corps Commanders of Jammu and Srinagar besides the representatives of IB and CRPF as members, so GoI has always been a part of the deliberation and the question of formal request does not arise.

Soon after Omar announced on October 21, 2011 that AFSPA would be partially withdrawn it raised hackles within the Army, which opposed it tooth and nail. “Time has come for the revocation of laws (AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act), which were introduced in the state after the onset of militancy, from some areas of the state within next few days. We have already identified the places from which the Act will be withdrawn, but I am not in a position to name those areas,” Omar said in 2011. However, it could not be implemented. And on October 21, 2012 he reiterated his commitment at the same place i.e. Police complex Zewan saying: “Situation and circumstances allow revocation of AFSPA from certain pockets of JK. You have areas where there is no operational role of Army as the militancy in the state is at its lowest ebb. There are lesser casualties and therefore the situation is conducive for its revocation. I will pursue further for AFSPA revocation and it is worth a mission.”

So far those opposing AFSPA withdrawal have been proved to be more powerful than an elected chief minister. Omar’s statement could not have been an ordinary one as he heads the Unified Headquarters; the high-powered body that synergies the anti-militancy grid comprising various forces. In any case, the UHQ must have the final word on whether the situation was conducive for such a step and Omar as a disciplined politician must not have gone beyond a framework set for such big leaps. At the same time, if the sources are to be believed Omar had the patronage of the then Home Minister, P Chidambaram and he too was in favour of such a step.

Nearly two years have passed since he made the announcement but there is no movement forward and the issue has only become stuff for media headlines.  The way Omar spoke on March 5 in the Assembly in the aftermath of killing of a youth Tahir Ahmad in Baramulla at the hands of Army showed nothing but New Delhi’s assertion that Jammu and Kashmir cannot be empowered politically. The way chief minister seemed isolated on the issues concerning people, it raised eyebrows as to how Delhi has refused to learn from the past mistakes. Withdrawal of AFSPA in any case is in the interest of Delhi to restore confidence and trust among the people. It will also help the Army to set up an inbuilt mechanism to keep a check on the wrongs committed by its rank and file. And above all there is a demand from political parties across the board that time has come to withdraw the Act. One of the Working Groups set by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 and headed by Hamid Ansari (current vice president) too had strongly advocated the revocation of AFSPA.

While Army has its own reservations about its withdrawal but those cannot make the efforts to bring lasting peace hostage for so long. The demand for the revocation of the Act has become viable in the past few months, keeping in view the denial of justice to the victims who have fallen prey to unbridled powers under this Act. Take the case of families of five innocent civilians of Pathribal who were killed in a fake encounter in the aftermath of massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chattisinghpora in March 2000. Even the Supreme Court refused to grant permission that the officers be prosecuted. This is despite a strong case made by Central Bureau of Investigation. Likewise the cases of fake encounters in Ganderbal, Machil and Bandipore are meeting the same fate as Army refuses to co-operate and they do it under the “immunity” they enjoy with AFSPA in force.

Jammu and Kashmir has surely seen a tough time with violence taking a heavy toll on people. But in the past few years we had moved a lot towards what GoI itself calls as normalcy with dwindling numbers of militancy, restoration of democratic institutions and notably large participation of people in Panchayat elections. Delivery of justice to the victims of violence is the first step towards achieving the goal of political stability, which could pave way for resolution. But as long as it is seen as a law and order problem and pump more and more forces, it will complicate the situation. Footprints of forces must be removed from the scene so should government come clean on the laws that infringe upon the civil liberties of the people. By making the statements like the one by Mr Ramachandran, GoI is discrediting the Chief Minister and none else.

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