NOT EVEN 1988!

With voices for freedom getting louder in the streets of Srinagar, proposals of Autonomy and Self Rule are doing rounds among pro-India politicians. But the hullabaloo over the AFSPA in New Delhi indicates it is not even ready for a pre-1989 status. A Kashmir Life Report.

A few days prior to the visit of Indian legislators to Jammu and Kashmir, India saw its leaders discussing, with eagerness, a proposal to either withdraw partially or amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for Jammu and Kashmir. The media circus and the theatrics surrounding it gave an impression to people in India that perhaps what was at stake was either the Indian Army or the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

On the ground in Kashmir, for where the discussions were supposedly aimed at, it did not take long for people to realize that New Delhi is not even ready to take any baby steps towards resolving the problem leave alone any concrete steps for resolution of the dispute.

With the onset of armed militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, the government of India put together a vast security grid and gave it sweeping powers to quell the uprising. The security establishment, mainly comprising of the Army and the paramilitary Border Security Force then, took over public and civilian properties besides vast swathes of land in Kashmir, where they put up camps. In a matter of months the state was heavily militarized, with estimates (the government never gives the number of forces in Kashmir) putting the number of troopers deployed in the state at more than seven lakh or three quarters of a million. Besides arming these troops with all modern weaponry, mine proof vehicles, the bullet proof body gear and other equipment’s, the government armed the forces with laws that gave them immunity from whatever actions they took in the name of fighting the armed insurgency, without any accountability.

The state declared the whole of Kashmir Valley as disturbed area by promulgating the Disturbed Areas Act (In later years the districts of Jammu were also declared Disturbed, and sparsely populated Ladakh remained the only exception). With it was paved the way for the application of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to the state. The law gives the Armed forces the authority to detain any person, search any house or building and shoot any person on the suspicion that he or she might be a threat. The law also covers all the actions of the troopers from the scrutiny of the court of law.

During the last 21 years, the security grid became powerful and all pervasive. The army, for example, raised a sister force, Rashtriya Rifles, dedicated to crush internal insurgencies. The other counter-insurgency forces included legal ones and also the extra constitutional. Many surrendered militants (locally called renegades) were recruited into the dreaded pro-government force Ikhwan,  provided arms, protection and immunity to commit atrocities on people with views different from the government’s and army’s views. The security establishment armed unemployed locals, mostly in Jammu division under the garb of Village Defence Committees (VDC). The VDC members proved to be a more effective control with communal overtones over the society, than some sort of defence against armed militants. Joint Interrogation Centers, which in essence are believed to be torture centres, sprung up in almost all district headquarters besides every security camp was used as a detention centre.

During the course of time the armed militancy levels came down substantially. 2010 became a far cry from the daily gun and grenade attacks that the valley witnessed upto late 1990’s. The number of militants, as per government claims, also dwindled from more than ten thousand to less than three hundred. A natural course, experts say, should have been to restore civil liberties, whatever were there before the onset of armed militancy, and curtail army’s powers besides demilitarization of civilian areas.

The revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act is not a new demand. Nor has it come up for discussion for the first time. Most of the political parties based in Kashmir Valley favour its revocation. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has repeatedly made statements about its revocation, ever since he assumed office in January 2009.

Abdullah had reasons to be optimistic about it. The graph of militancy has, according to security establishment, come down drastically. The state, they said, was almost “enjoying” normalcy.

And on the top of it the Working Groups set up by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have recommended its revocation, which was accepted by the prime minister himself. But it is one thing to set up a committee that recommends confidence building measures, and another to get these implemented. Given New Delhi’s track record on its promises and assurances, most of it seem a time gaining exercise.

The latest discussions over AFSPA undermines the recommendations of the prime minister’s Working Groups of which all the mainstream parties including the BJP were a part.

Even though the chief minister is strongly seeking amendments to the act or at least revoking it from Srinagar and Jammu, the defence ministry is strongly opposed to its dilution.

More so, the issue has seen a diversion from the trend in India, as armed forces’ chiefs and officers have publicly opposed any proposed amendments. This is a rare thing in India, which like to believe that unlike its neighbours, the army is wholly subservient to political order.

Now if withdrawing a law from a district where the army does not have any operations is so difficult for New Delhi, where does it leave Omar, who recently said, “Status quo is the only option not available to us.”

But political analysts here says Omar may not have a choice.

“They (New Delhi) are buying time and they have always been doing so,” says Prof Sheikh Showkat, of the University of Kashmir.

He adds the New Delhi is emphasizing on procedures rather than a solution.

Ten years back, the BJP-led NDA government at centre dumped the Autonomy resolution passed by the state legislature during National Conference rule. The state legislature had passed the autonomy resolution with consensus.

“The democratic demand of a so-called democratically elected representatives made from the temple of democracy for restoration of autonomy, which was taken away by maneuvering, arm-twisting and deceit, was thrown in the dustbin,” says Shafat Ahmad, a student at the university of Kashmir.

The message that came out was, India was not willing to restore any ground or status granted in the Indian constitution, which the state lost after its accession with lndia in 1947.

For now the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a dialogue with “groups” in Jammu and Kashmir “who shun violence and are willing to talk”. There are no takers. The way it has also backtracked on limited withdrawal of amendments to AFSPA has sent out one message, No relief for Kashmir.

Why is it so difficult for the government in New Delhi to even revoke a law giving army the immunity from prosecution in the court of law from a district where army does not carry out any operations?

Prof Showkat says New Delhi is just adamant and unwilling to do anything.

“They are just waiting for things to die (calm) down, so they can say that Kashmiris are happy with status quo,” said Showkat.

Some observers however say that there are two major hurdles or reasons responsible for New Delhi’s reluctance. One that Kashmir has turned into an issue of power politics in India, with political parties arousing passions over the issue to garner votes and appeal to the nationalistic feelings of the Indian electorate. And second, the highly biased picture of Kashmir presented by the national media especially the electronic media.

In the past three months the government has only responded to the protests by using force and initiating a crackdown on youth who it sees as a stone-pelting trouble makers. Most of the around 900 youth arrested by the police have been incarcerated under Public Safety Act (PSA). A very draconian law, which allows the government to jail any person for upto two years without any charges or trial. The government, in lay terms, has to just say that the person is or may be a threat to public order.

With the government applying such a policy on ground on the one hand and on the other both CM and prime minister acknowledging the anger on the streets to be genuine and the protests spontaneous, there is a strange sustained contradiction in the words and deeds of the government especially, New Delhi.

When the Government of India was announcing to send an all party delegation to Kashmir to have a firsthand account of the situation and get an understanding which, “will be the major input in the policy, New Delhi will be drafting for Kashmir”, a security grid meeting in Srinagar decided to impose the curfews more strictly. When the separatist in their calendar allowed the people to carry activities like buying of essentials during dusk to next morning, the security establishment disallowed any movement during those hours by enforcing the curfew strictly during nights also. Usually, deployment after the evening would be thinned from interior localities.

Moreover, the state also added a new tactic to what it calls counter Geelani’s calendar. It started clamping curfews also on the days when Geelani calls for normal businesses.

The All Party Delegation visited the state, and returned apparently with much more than anyone could have guessed. There was no headway in crisis resolution, and how things will turn out in coming days is still unclear, but the group of legislators meeting key separatists, including Syed Ali Geelani, was a good beginning. Even though the meetings were made a bit controversial by the infighting in delegation, the message sent out by the on-camera discussion could not be wholly overshadowed.

Millions of viewers saw the hardline separatist, Geelani, reiterating his stand and the five demands for dialogue to the parliament members.

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj later told media persons that the legislators had gone to meet separatists in their private capacity and not on behalf of the delegation, a claim contradicted by the CPI leader Sitaram Yechury who lead the delegation to Geelani’s house.

Whether the meeting turns out to be an isolated exception or a big breakthrough depends, as chief minister Abdullah said, on New Delhi.

As the widespread unorganized protests in the last three months have been mostly driven by youth, Geelani, for various reasons, seemed to be the only leader who they would listen to.

After the government released Geelani, he set the government five conditions for starting a “meaningful” engagement. Geelani set the same condition for entering into any dialogue with New Delhi, again on Monday, when the legislators asked him to help bring peace in the state.

The points include, accepting J&K as a dispute, revoking AFSPA and other draconian laws, demilitarization, release of political prisoners.

But New Delhi which is jittering even on the question of amendments in AFSPA is unlikely to think of other demands, even though none of these would take J&K anywhere close to its political autonomy.

J&K enjoyed full-fledged autonomy until 1953, after which it was eroded gradually over time. Indian government institutions like the Supreme Court and election commission had no jurisdiction over J&K, which used to have its own prime minister and Sadr-e-Riyasat. At least that is what they were called.

Besides any non-state subject entering the state required a permit to do so. It is a different question, however, how autonomous the “prime minister” would   have been, as in 1953 New Delhi managed to arrest J&K’s most powerful and popular prime minister.

J&K no longer has a prime minister or Sadr-e-Riyasat. They were replaced by chief minister and governor.  But, on books, J&K still has is the most autonomous state in India.

Ironically, it is the only state which has had least autonomy in its governance. New Delhi has chosen and dumped premiers at will, be it Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah, the so called Lion of Kashmir who was humbled into submission after a long stint in jail, Or Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad who was used to oust Abdullah and then Kamraj-ed out.

However, the restoration of “autonomy” is the political bible of National Conference.

As it existed before 1953, the Autonomy, definitely comes under the purview of Indian constitution, a precondition that New Delhi puts to talks with separatist groups. But by dumping the autonomy proposal in 2000 New Delhi sent out a clear message, that is not going to even discuss autonomy leave alone Azadi, or things that go beyond  autonomy.

The hullabaloo over the AFSPA an act which not only authorizes armed forces in Kashmir to shoot at mere suspicion, but gives impunity to troops for grave human rights violations, now sends another message – that New Delhi is not even ready to concede pre 1990’s position.

After all revoking AFSPA, or sending army to barracks, would only take Kashmir to its pre 1990 position. It would not restore its autonomy, or give it an iota of sovereignty.

Humane Face For The Monster

Amendments to AFSPA proposed by MHA

1. Dropping the phrase “even to causing of death” as a permissible consequence of firing, or use of force by the armed forces,

2. Providing for a grievance redressal mechanism to address complaints regarding Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) abuse.

3. Section 4 gives the Army powers to search premises and make arrests without warrants, to use force even to the extent of causing death, destroy arms/ammunition dumps, fortifications/shelters/hideouts and to stop, search and seize any vehicles. The amendment stipulates that such operations be undertaken in presence of a civilian magistrate.

4. Section 6 stipulates that arrested persons and seized property is to be made over to the police with least possible delay. An amendment to this clause requires splitting search and seize operations. The seizure operations be vested with the civilian administration.

5. Section 7 offers protection of personnel acting in good faith in their official capacity. While upholding the clause, the proposed amendment stipulates to set up a redressal mechanism under both civilian and armed forces administration to probe genuine complaints.

6. Prosecution is permitted only after sanction of the Central government. This section of  is similar to the Criminal Procedure Code’s (CrPC) Section 45, which disallows arrest of public servants and Section 197 provides impunity against prosecution. While the Supreme Court has mandated a government sanction prior to initiating prosecution against police personnel for excesses or killings committed during the maintenance of law and order, the applicability of Section 45 of the CrPC is not allowed in J&K, where the Ranbir Penal Code is applicable and ipso facto the personnel of the armed forces can be arrested for any perceived excesses.

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