Long time ago, I made peace with something very basic about Kashmir. One could say the simplest and most obvious thing about Kashmir, yet it will invite multiple dissenting voices not based on logic but based on rhetoric. The noise gets so loud that it is hard to know truth from fiction. Tempers flare, emotions rise, and soon enough, everyone hits a wall and that is the end of all meaningful discourse. This has been a bane of ‘Kashmir discussion’ forever. I call it the ‘Kashmir curse’.  To give you a recent example, few months ago a seemingly inconspicuous literature festival called ‘Harud’ attracted so much discussion, so much mudslinging and so much drama that it had to be cancelled. Never before in any part of the world, has so much of print space been given to a literature festival that never happened.

Similarly now AFSPA or Armed forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act has become a raging topic of discussion around the country. AFSPA was introduced in Kashmir in 1990, during the darkest days of armed insurgency. Under a well organized program, thousands of Kashmiri Muslim boys who had crossed ‘border’ earlier had now returned with guns and ammunition. Well trained in training camps run by ISI and funded by them, these boys turned militants wreaked havoc on the streets of Kashmir. With ample support from local people in the valley, dance of death and destruction on the streets became a regular phenomenon. Our borders were being heavily infiltrated, and with duly elected state government unable to control the situation,Kashmir seemed a losing battle. Our territorial integrity and sovereignty was under grave threat.

It was at this time President’s rule was imposed and the state was declared a ‘disturbed area’. Given the sensitive nature of state which shares its border withPakistan, Army was swiftly called in and AFSPA was imposed. Under AFSPA  army is  broadly given  special powers like  ‘destroying  arms dump and shelters that might be used as terrorist hideout, arrest without warrant any person who has committed a cognizable offence or  against whom reasonable suspicion exists, enter and  search  any property  without  warrant’ and last but not the least “Protection of persons acting in good faith”  which means that no ‘prosecution, suit or legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this act’. These powers are deemed important, if armed insurgency is to be contained swiftly and effectively.

Now after 21 years, there have been demands asking for removal or partial removal of AFSPA. Everyone agrees that AFSPA is certainly not a permanent solution and it indeed must be lifted. The controversy is about how and when to remove AFSPA.

Both sides have strong points. Those for removal or partial removal of AFSPA say that Kashmir has had a reasonably long  period  of  peace; the number of active militants is down from thousands to just about 200, tourists are flocking to the valley, recently concluded successful Panchayat elections, and over all everything seems peaceful  and under control. They go a step ahead and say that this is the best time in recent history to get rid of AFSPA and win hearts and minds of ordinary kashmiris living in valley.

And then there are those who oppose it by saying that we have only seen one peaceful summer yet. Last summer the entire valley was burning with ‘stone rage’ and lot of civilian casualties and deaths were reported. Number of active militants might have reduced, but infiltration on our borders continues unabated. There are sleeper militant cells that could become active again.  Partial removal of AFSPA could be a disaster with militants committing crime in areas under AFSPA and hiding in Non AFSPA areas. If history is anything to go by, peace is very fragile in Kashmir. All it takes is a small catalyst to blow up in a major conflict. Peace has come at a huge cost therefore caution should be exercised and we should wait a little more for peace to be established.

While it is normal and acceptable for journalists, defense experts and TV debate pundits to weigh in on either side of the debate, I have been deeply concerned with the lack of consensus in the political circles.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced last week that he was proposing partial removal of AFSPA in certain parts of the state although he did not mention which parts he had in mind. No sooner had he announced this, there was a flutter of activity.  There was conspicuous silence from Home Ministry and soon it was evident that Ministry of Defense had been taken by surprise with his announcement. It was also reported that Army generals also had not been consulted and they were not particularly happy with the announcement either.  The J&K state congress also complained that they had not been consulted.  This was quite an unusual scenario.  On something as crucial as AFSPA which is directly related to the internal security and territorial integrity, why were all concerned parties not taken on board? But wait a minute, it gets even more interesting. Chief Minister, Mr. Abdullah announced two days ago that his main point of contact in Government of India was Home Minister and he had been in loop all along. If that was indeed the case then why did Home Minister not take Defense minister into confidence? Why did he not reach out to the army? Later it was leaked that Home Minister was acting on the advice of J&K interlocutors who had recommended removal of AFSPA. So J&K CM opened a public debate on AFSPA based on interlocutors’ report, which till date has not been made public. If the matter was indeed to be decided in people’s courts then the interlocutors report should also have been made public.

Once the debate entered the public domain, there was mayhem. Everyone had a different opinion, television studios held debates and discussions which only led to the increased decibel noise and as I mentioned in the beginning, rhetoric took over facts and then there was no going back.  To make matters worse there were five grenade attacks in one day in Srinagarand Mustafa Kamal, the CM’s uncle and member of ruling party National Conference blamed Army for it. Thankfully a militant outfit took responsibility and Mr. Kamal retracted his statement, but the damage had been done. Soon AFSPA debate which should have been settled by Chief Minister, Home Minister, Defense Minister and Army chiefs behind the closed doors became a hotly contested debate everywhere.  While I believe that everything in a democracy should be made public, certain issues related to national security cannot be settled in public domain because none of us have access to a lot of classified information that should become the basis for removal of this act.  By throwing this debate out in open prematurely without taking concerned parties on board, Mr. Abdullah let the genie out of the bottle. When the ruling party talks in multiple voices to its people, it loses its credibility and that is what exactly happened in the AFSPA debate. Now the ‘Kashmircurse’ has taken over and there seems no platform available for meaningful discourse. What should have been a bipartisan initiative is now embroiled in controversy and politics.

It is important to note that the biggest beneficiary in removal of AFSPA will be theIndianState.  It will go a long way in proving to the world that normalcy has indeed returned to the state. Army too has no interest in staying on inKashmirwith or without AFSPA. But a premature withdrawal will undo all the good work that has been done so far. The statistics indeed favor removal of AFSPA but we have seen that numbers can often be deceptive. Terrorist groups have regrouped several times under different names in seemingly lull or ‘peaceful’ periods. Dormant cells have become active and across the border activity has intensified. To say that we could remove AFSPA now and then impose it again if anything goes wrong would be a terrible move. It will put the government on back foot and provide moral boost to militants.  Either we remove AFSPA from all areas except LOC or we wait till it can be removed from all areas. Partial removal might win some politicians brownie points with their constituency but might prove disastrous in long run. I don’t see how AFSPA is an impediment in providing basic civic facilities, good roads, and employment opportunities to the people of Kashmir. AFSPA must and will go eventually, but ruling party in Kashmir must pay some attention to some of these aspects as well to indeed gain some long term political brownie points.

Image from here.

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Sunanda Vashisht

Sunanda Vashisht

Avid Reader, news junkie, always on the move, mother of two little hyper-active kids and member of the CRI editorial team.
Sunanda Vashisht

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