By Anil Bhat
The withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), promulgated in the North East since 1958 and in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) since 1990, or dilution of its existing powers has been a topic of hot debate in the past year and yet again recently. Various individuals and political parties have expressed different opinions demanding the scrapping or dilution of the so called “draconian” Act based on a general public perception that the Act provides impunity for human rights (HR) abuses by the army and fuels cycles of violence. A perceived return of ‘normalcy’ in J&K due to reduction in the number of terrorists killed /attacks by terrorists/ reports of successful infiltration is also cited as a justification for repeal of the Act.
A recent media report talks of J&K Govt. contemplating to withdraw the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) from ‘greater’ Srinagar in December 2011, because of it reportedly not having been reviewed by the Centre, with or without the Army’s consent with a view to asserting supremacy of the State Govt. There is a precedent in Manipur where the State Govt withdrew the DAA from Imphal in 2004 under pressure from civil activists and political opponents. In eight political constituencies of Imphal, the Army was replaced by Manipur Police ‘commandos’, who have been torturing and even killing persons who they suspect publicly with total impunity. Manipur has been described by a local journalist as a ‘functional anarchy’, where the state govt. has failed to control the various terrorist groups who exercise complete hold on the crucial National Highways 39 and 53 for extortion. If J&K Govt withdraws the DAA and thereby AFSPA, Pakistan army and its pet terrorist outfits will fill swiftly the space vacated by Indian Army and central police organizations (CPOs), which need to be covered by AFSPA.
Hasty decisions to withdraw DAA and set up a ‘Peace and Reconciliation Commission’ without waiting for Pakistan’s machinery supporting proxy war in J&K to be dismantled and a resolution to the conflict in the State smacks of political expediency. One can only hope that better wisdom will prevail on the issue of withdrawal of DAA from J&K in the months to come.
Insistence by the Army and Defence Ministry for continuance of the Act in its present form is viewed with cynicism and criticized as an attempt by the army to perpetuate subjugation of the locals and promote a system of earning awards and faster promotions by personnel deployed in counter-terrorism operations. However, considering national security imperatives and taking a holistic view of the situation in J&K, the Army has the following reasons to support continuance of the AFSPA in its present form:-
(a) While there may be a comparative decline in terrorist violence, the number of terrorists killed and reduction in number of successful infiltration by terrorists during the current year, there is no change in the Pak army’s ideology and will to support proxy war in J&K while showing it as an ‘indigenous’ struggle. The infrastructure to support such a proxy war in terms of terrorist training camps, supply of weapons and ammunition, hi-tech signal communication to continuously guide, monitor and motivate terrorists operating on Indian soil, inducting fake currency, overt and covert support to terrorists and separatists groups operating in J&K are all intact and being regularly upgraded.
(b) Reduced violence and declining infiltration is due to proactive operations by Army closely coordinated with police and SFs and not because of any change of heart by Pakistan or complete elimination of terrorist groups. One outwardly peaceful summer does not spell a return of peace to the “Paradise on earth”. In fact, a number of desperate attempts are currently being made by Pak army to push in terrorists across the Line of Control (LoC) before the mountain-passes get blocked by snow as seen in recent operations in Gurez and Kupwara sectors. Calls for complete bandh by S.A.S. Geelani’s Hurriyat party and sporadic protests accompanied by stone pelting immediately after Ramzan also bode ill for peace and stability in the Valley.
(c) Counter terrorist operations by the army are not restricted to the LoC but cover the entire area from the LoC where a terrorist initially crosses over to India, the sparsely populated areas adjoining the LoC, where terrorists initially establish their reception areas and the hinterland with populated areas, from where the terrorists finally operate and draw their support. Administrative support including convoys carrying Army personnel and stores moving to the LC pass through urban areas in the hinterland and are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Hence AFSPA cannot be applied in pockets of J&K along the LC while withdrawing it from the remaining areas.
(d) Lifting of AFSPA from urban areas / large towns in J&K will result in terrorists seeking shelter in such areas and rebuilding their bases. Eviction of terrorists from such built up areas painstakingly sanitized after sacrifices by army and police forces is likely to result in civilian causalities, damage to civilian property and a renewed cycle of violence.
(e) In the past few years, with the violence levels in the State showing a declining trend, the Army has been ensuring zero tolerance for HR violations, quite evident from the sharp decline in the number of HR cases leveled against the Army in the recent years. In fact the army has made serious efforts to reduce its presence in major towns and cities as also along the National highway by gradually handing over responsibility of such areas to the police and CRPF.
(f) The AFSPA is used as a convenient tool by HR activists, separatists and political parties to vilify the army and blame it for all the ills that affect the Valley. For example, AFSPA is blamed for death of 109 civilians in violence that rocked the Valley in the summer of 2010, whereas the fact is that the Army was not involved in directly quelling mob violence throughout that period. Similarly, all cases of civilian deaths / injuries and damage to public property in the State are attributed to the “draconian powers” of AFSPA irrespective of whether such loss has been caused by police or SFs who are not covered under the Act.
(g) The mere fact that AFSPA gives powers to search and arrest without warrant and use force to the extent of causing death certainly does not imply that the Army has been on the rampage in the Valley arresting and killing innocent civilians. Shorn of the politics and ideological hype surrounding AFSPA, any impartial inquiry will show that there have been almost no cases of illegal arrest or wanton killing by the Army in the Valley during the last few years.
While Pak has enacted a new law to deal with terrorism on its western borders, repeal of AFSPA from J&K at this juncture will in one stroke wash away the relative peace attained in the Valley after years of strife and sacrifice. It is ironical that a country which has enacted a law with such sweeping powers to deal with home grown terrorism is instigating its henchmen in India to agitate for repeal of a law enacted to fight a proxy was against terrorists trained and supported by a foreign country.
The primary task of the Army is to guard India’s borders against external aggression. The Army did not got involved in counter-terrorism operations in either Manipur or J&K’s hinterland of its own volition but was ordered to do so because of the deteriorating internal security situation in the State and incapability of the police and CPOs to deal with the situation. With changing internal dynamics, there has already been a gradual shift in focus of the Army from counter terrorist operations in the hinterland to counter infiltration on the LoC. The overall security situation is being closely monitored by the army and support for withdrawal/ dilution of AFSPA will be considered once the infrastructure to support proxy war in J&K is completely dismantled in Pakistan.
The Govt of J&K is surprisingly silent on the aspect of scrapping or amending the Public safety Act 1975 (PSA) under which hundreds of persons have been arrested and remain incarcerated in various prisons of the State. The scrapping / amending of the PSA, which is routinely used by the Govt to keep separatist and political activists “out of circulation” for long periods of time, is well within the powers of the state Govt with little or no implications on the integrity of the nation as a whole. J&K Govt also needs to urgently establish juvenile prisons for the increasing number of youth arrested while indulging in Pakistan sponsored mob violence. There is also demand for treating youth below 18 years as juveniles as prevalent in the rest of India. The J&K Juvenile Justice Act 1997 treats youth above 16 years as adults. Amending these laws, which fall under the purview of good governance, will earn immense goodwill for the J&K State govt.
This newspaper, which has dwelt frequently on national security concerns related to the North Eastern states and J&K, has also analysed and elaborated on the sections of the AFSPA, which are necessary to cover the Army and CPOs deployed to counter insurgency / terrorism and who still do not have the same powers that police has under the Criminal Procedure Code.
If police reforms are implemented to give state police forces a very long overdue makeover to include greatly improved training, weaponry, communications, forensics and also importantly, good leadership motivation and increase in strength for adequate policeman to population ratio, then perhaps the Army may not be required for dealing with internal situations. Till that is not done and Army needs to be used, then it must be with the existing provisions of AFSPA.