An Inconvenient Law

The Indian state of Kashmir is witnessing unrest as its political leaders oppose a new law which gives the army more authority.

The troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is simmering again.  This time the issue is not protests against the temporary allotment of land for an annual pilgrimage of Hindus that wracked Kashmir in the summer of 2010.  Nor is it the terrorist strikes that the state has been facing since 1989.  Rather, it is the opposition to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by Omar Abdullah, the elected chief minister of the state and a member of the National Conference (NC) party that is ruling the state in coalition with the Congress party.

The Indian army normally has no power to intervene in internal matters except when asked by the Central Government to assist civil authorities.  However, the AFSPA provides that the government can declare an area of the country “disturbed” and allow the armed forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the area, albeit under civilian control.  Under these circumstances, the Act provides the armed forces the power to use force, even lethal force, against anyone breaking the law.  It allows the armed forces to enter and search any premise and to make arrests without warrant.  It also provides the armed forces with legal immunity for any action arising from these operations.

The Act is not new.  It was used to help quell the violence in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.  That uprising, which nearly snatched Kashmir from Indian control, led to the exodus of half a million Hindu Pandits from Kashmir.

Since the partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947, the two countries have fought two major wars over the status of Kashmir.  India also put down massive Pakistan-sponsored incursions in 1948 and 1999.  In 1989, Pakistan embarked on a strategy of what its then dictator called “bleeding India through a thousand cuts,” by using terrorists to fight a proxy war on its behalf and by encouraging mosques throughout Kashmir to call for separation from India.  The army, called in to suppress the uprising, has gradually restored a semblance of tranquility to the Valley.  The summer of 2011 was perhaps the first since 1989 to pass peacefully.  As a result, tourists have started returning in large numbers to Kashmir, giving a much needed boost to its tourism-dependent economy.

Just as the armed forces have begun to consolidate their hard-earned gains in Kashmir, Abdullah’s demand for the partial removal of the Act from certain districts came as a bolt from the blue.  An exacerbating factor is the statement by the Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram that he found “nothing wrong with Omar Abdullah’s demand for the removal of AFSPA.”  Buoyed by Chidambaram’s support as well as the appeasement policy of the Congress party, Abdullah has further raised the heat on the army by declaring that “no is not an option.”  The opposition party in Kashmir, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has also called for removal of the Act.   

The army is not taking these political attacks lying down.  Northern Command Lieutenant General K. T. Parnaik, whose jurisdiction includes Kashmir, has come out in defence of the Act, saying that “without the provisions of AFSPA, the army will be handicapped.”  News reports suggest also that Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, the army’s commanding officer in Kashmir who is widely credited with restoring a semblance of peace to the region, gave a detailed presentation to the Unified command, which Abdullah attended, depicting how Kashmir might break away from India as a result of the foothold terrorists would gain through the Act’s removal.

Abdullah argues that Kashmir has now returned to normalcy and, therefore, “peace dividends of the summer of 2011 must flow to the people.”   This argument has few takers in the country as the apparent return to normalcy is due to the dedicated work of the armed forces.  Although their operations are constrained by their desire to avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians, they are protected by the Act.  The removal of the Act may bog them down in legal technicalities against “human rights” activists, some of whom might be working in tandem with terrorists.

Abdullah’s demand for the revocation of the Act is an attempt to pander to the hard-line constituency of the blatantly pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.  It is unfortunate for Kashmir that any moderate leader in the valley is seen as a “stooge” of the Indian establishment and is reviled by these hardliners.  Geelani is perhaps the only leader of any eminence who supports separation from India and subsequent accession to Pakistan, in contrast to other secessionists who want Kashmir to be an independent nation.  Geelani has become a mythic figure amongst terrorists for his staunchly pro-Pakistan stand.  Because he has not been participating in any recent state elections, the PDP and the NC have been fighting for control of the pro-Pakistan vote.

The army unfortunately remains the most potent symbol of the Indian establishment in the state as the civil system collapses in the face of terrorist threats.  Both the PDP and the NC are leaving no stone unturned as they vilify the army and project their own Kashmiri nationalist credentials.  Demanding the removal of the Act and criticizing the army also help the PDP and NC distract attention from their own failures of governance in Jammu and Kashmir.  In coalition with the Congress Party, PDP and NC governance in the state has led to rising unemployment and charges of corruption.

Abdullah’s diatribe against the Act is also in part due to the death in police custody of Syed Mohd.Yusuf, an NC worker who was last seen alive entering the residence of Abdullah before being handed to the police for his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal.  Yusuf was known in Kashmir as a political “fixer” and was presumed to be very close to the Abdullah family.  His death in custody, apparently after accepting the charge of collecting bribes in the name of the chief minister, has raised the hackles of the ordinary Kashmiri.  Yusuf’s family and the opposition claim that he was eliminated in police custody to prevent him from testifying against Abdullah.

Yusuf’s death has caused Abdullah’s carefully projected clean image to lose its sheen.  To counter this, Abdullah is trying to present himself as a defender of the rights and sentiments of the Kashmiri people by opposing the Act.  The implications for the security of the common people, who after two decades of hardships are seeing a glimmer of hope in Kashmir, take a back seat.

These developments risk pushing Kashmir back into the quagmire from which it was extricated after immense sacrifice by the armed forces.  History has shown that terrorists will attempt to regroup in the valley during the winter, when infiltrations from across the Pakistani border stop because of the snow-laden mountain passes.  The armed forces use this period to reinforce their presence by selective operations that are likely to be curtailed by the revocation of the Act.  The armed forces feel that removing the Act from selective areas will allow terrorists to use those areas as sanctuaries, leaving the armed forces to fight an unscrupulous enemy with their hands tied.

Abdullah argues that the Act will be removed only from areas where the army has not operated for years and that the army can be called in for operations if required.  The army believes, however, that it is strategically vital to consolidate the progress it has made in stabilizing Kashmir, instead of frittering them away for the sake of political and personal expediency.  Army officers, speaking anonymously, emphasize that the present peace is a fragile one and needs to be nurtured carefully.

The proposed gradual withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan also needs to be factored in when deciding on the revocation of the Act.  The proposed withdrawal may allow the Taliban to return to power, which would have dangerous ramifications for the security of Kashmir.  Kashmir remains an unfinished agenda for the cohorts of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.  The government is responsible for ensuring that reckless populist policies do not permit Kashmir to become an international battleground again.

A law might be inconvenient, but as Colonel Mathieu asked in the movie The Battle for Algiers, “Those who explode bombs in public places—do they respect the law, perhaps?”

 Omar Abdullah perhaps needs to find an answer to this question.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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