The controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, is now right back in focus following a strong push from Kashmir in the wake of the unprecedented and sustained mass street uprising in Srinagar and much of the rest of the Kashmir valley. Although the recommendation for the Act’s amendment or else repeal has not met any consensus amongst a cross section of the main Indian political parties, and is met with strong opposition from the Indian Army to any change to it, indications are the Disturbed Area Act, DAA, would be removed from four districts of the troubled state. It may be recalled the AFSPA is applicable only in areas declared as disturbed under the DAA and hence removal of the latter from any area would automatically result in the withdrawal of the AFSPA from the area. But the question that beggars an answer remains, is this gesture from New Delhi too little, and perhaps too late too. The violent street protests still have not subsided. Even if there have been spells of calm, there is no gainsaying these were very tense calm. The apt analogy for this calm would be the calm of a volcano. No immediate violence but plenty of violence potential at the slightest provocation.
In any case New Delhi’s possible Eid offer is being watched with much anticipation. At this moment, this is not so much a question of whether this is a good enough offer in the long run. On the other hand, the suspense is about whether this Eid gift would be able to quell the current orgy of street violence which has already claimed 60 lives. There can be no doubt about it that this is a throwback on what happened in the Imphal Valley in July of 2004 after the killing of Thangjam Manorama in custody by the Assam Rifles. The explosion of street violence after the outrageous murder also had put a big question mark on the AFSPA then and resulted ultimately not only in the withdrawal of the DAA from around the Greater Imphal area constituting of seven Assembly constituencies, but also ultimately the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, calling for a revisit of the AFSPA. He called for an enquiry commission to look into the AFSPA, and the commission had indeed recommended some radical changes to Act (although many have contested these were mere cosmetic). It would also do well to recall the street protests ended not on the withdrawal of the disturbed area act alone, but also the promise of a review and possible overhaul of the AFSPA backing it up. The suggestion is, the withdrawal of the AFSPA from four districts would not be enough. It would have to be backed up with a more far reaching promise as in the case of Manipur. Indeed, chief minister, Omar Abdullah, is pushing for such a promise from the Centre.
But the Kashmir situation is different from that of the Northeast on many counts. In the Manipur experience of July 2004 for instance, it was not primarily an anti-India sentiment but an anti-AFSPA feeling that drove the protests. Even today, the epic hunger strike protest against the AFSPA by Irom Sharmila, which is less than 100 days from completing a decade, is remarkable for the fact that it is not driven by nationalistic passions. This should also explain why the appeal of her protest is so universal. Nationalistic leaders do not get nominations for Nobel Peace Prize, or even win other lesser, but all the same prestigious international awards for human rights as Sharmila has. By comparison, the street protests in Kashmir are much more hardcore anti-India. The bitterness quite obviously runs deep and is widespread, touching the soul of practically everybody in the Kashmir Valley, including ordinary men, women and children. In fact, many intellectuals participating in various Satellite TV panel discussions have even suggested the AFSPA should no longer be made to bind the Northeast and Kashmir. The problems in these two regions are today very different in intensity as well as in content. This probably is not without merit. When the government decided to shelve the recommendations of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission for the remoulding of the AFSPA, it probably had less of Northeast and more of Kashmir in mind. As to whether these suggestions are taken seriously will be seen in the days ahead. For the moment, everybody is watching intently what the shape of the Centre’s Eid offer would be, and more importantly if the offer would make any tangible difference to the situation on the burning streets of Kashmir.