There is a way out of the two fiercely contested narratives about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu and Kashmir. The need of the hour is a fair and transparent assessment of the situation in which the ground realities and a sense of mutual trust should matter the most, rather than a perennial war scenario contrasted with the hate-mongering triggered by vested interests.
More importantly, a strong will to find a way forward should be on the agenda of both the sides. Unfortunately, the two sides in this sensitive terrain are identified as the people of Kashmir versus the Indian Army. The very purpose of the definition and objective of having the Army to protect the people is increasingly under threat. The twin narratives are massive misinformation about special powers of the armed forces under AFSPA which is opposed to the well-entrenched belief that no operation in Kashmir is possible without the shield of AFSPA since it would undermine anti-militancy operations.
These two narratives are eroding the very idea with which the Act was invoked in Jammu and Kashmir in two phases — July 1990 and August 2001 — to protect the lives and properties of the people against the onslaught of terrorism sponsored from across the border.
After almost 26 years of its existence, the Disturbed Area Act and AFSPA do not have the relevance as when they were introduced to combat militancy in July 1990. The people of the Valley spent sleepless nights as peace was shattered by the 24x7 gunfire and grenade explosions.
There is a reasonable validity in the Army's argument — though it should have been articulated by the state and the Central government and not by the generals — that this immunity is needed in some parts of the state. The Army did not come on its own, the governments asked for them and their special powers in Jammu and Kashmir. In July 1990, the Centre did it when the state was under Governor's rule and the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the Union Home Minister.
In the second phase, August 2001, it was enforced on the recommendations of the Farooq Abdullah government, which was under perceptible pressure from the then NDA government at the Centre. The entire Jammu region was notified as “Disturbed Area” and armed forces were conferred with special powers. Earlier, only the Valley and 20-km radius from the Line of Control in the twin border districts of Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu region were covered under these provisions.
Now for more than a decade the debate has been raging whether the AFSPA should stay or go. The narrative is based mostly on the political, ideological and religious leanings, rather than on a fair assessment of what is happening on the ground and what needs to be done. The situation has changed, but contrasting perceptions have not. It seems that the clock is either frozen for some or it is moving ahead of the times.
The perception of the Kashmir-centric political groups of the the situation (partly correct too), is that it is much better than what it was in 1990 when AFSPA was invoked. Today, 20 out of 22 districts of the state are notified as Disturbed Areas and the armed forces enjoy immunity in these parts of the state. It covers more than 95 per cent of the 12-million population of the state. A question was raised in November 2011, what if the militants cover all the swathes once the Army is devoid of the special powers and finds it difficult to operate against them effectively given the legal complexities in conducting anti-terror operations. The answer was typically political: “The special powers can be restored to the Army once such an exigency arises.”
Will any Kashmir-centric party ever allow that to happen even if the militants happen to operate from their own neighbhourhood? Never. Even if they do it, the inevitable question is, why was the experiment undertaken in the first place? Although the street protests in 2016 have a disturbingly familiar resonance of the past, this time the Army is the prime target. To counter such protests with guns backfires. This strengthens the anti-AFSPA narrative. A dispassionate look at the prevailing situation in Jammu and Kashmir is a must before this debate to find a way forward is carried further. The narrative based on the political, ideological and religious leanings has to be shunned.
Need of the times — a way forward
The threat perception should be taken into account by reflecting on the past, present and the future moves of the forces which are active from across the border. It should not be contrived but based purely on the strategic need. Involving elected representatives of all the parties, the independent-minded village elders on a village-to-village basis and the men from the Army in determining the threat and the remedy would offer a roadmap which is acceptable to all barring those who have a permanent anti-India and anti-Army agenda.
The causes of the radicalisation of the youth in Kashmir should be analysed. It would make an interesting study, whether the Army presence and special powers are being used as a tool to further the agenda of the radicalisation. If that is so, the psychological aspect should be given more weightage than any other option.
Alongside, a strategic endeavour would be to involve more and more people and the local religious leaders — there are many from outside the state who have taken on themselves the task of hardening the attitude of the younger generation with hate-filled syllabi — to curb radicalisation.
The Jammu and Kashmir police should be given a role. Its recruitment should be based on the professional considerations and neither the political influence nor the religious leanings of the recruiting officials. Technology should be used extensively to eliminate the subjective human element in the recruitment process.
The Army should think of going back to the barracks with dignity. It must strengthen its anti-infiltration grid beriending the villagers on the border. The AFSPA was a need of the times goneby, it should be retained in the areas close to the borders and in militancy-infested villages.
The rest of the population and places should be allowed to live in the forces-free areas. Eventualities of the Army firing in retaliation to any attack anywhere in the state should be considered because the soldiers should never be allowed to be sitting ducks. All those demanding the recall of the AFSPA should ensure that the Army operations against terrorists are not interrupted by the vicious propaganda that instigates protest against the soldiers and provides escape routes to militants.
Mutual trust should be at the core in each aspect of the assessment and the future security needs. The Army too should understand that no extraordinary law required for emergency situations can be kept alive perpetually.
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