Kashmir &The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act: A peoples’ perspective

By Adfar Shah

Compliments to the Army for quickly accepting the recent blunder of killing two innocent Kashmiri boys and brutally injuring the other two in yet another case of mistaken identity at Chattergam village of Budgam District in Kashmir Valley on November 3,2014. Though Army later indicted nine soldiers including an officer of 53 Rashtriya Rifles for the killings but not before harming their own good will in the valley. While the People called the killings deliberate, the army called it a mistake and surprisingly apologized too. One can see for the first time that the army has reacted well in time and taken due responsibility besides announcing the compensation of ten lac each to the kin of the slain youth and five lac each for the  two other injured youth.

However, with no takers so far, as the victims’ families have out rightly rejected the approved compensation and demanded trial of the culprits in a civil court. Although the Army’s decision of taking the responsibility sounds mature before the issue could have escalated into yet another uprising but even before that it has affected the peace building process and added to the already prevailing trust deficit of the people against the forces. Besides, yet another positive development was the delivery of justice in Machil fake encounter case (April 30, 2010) which was closed by army’s by granting life sentence to five army men including a Colonel. One more recent civilian killing by Army in Kulgam (Chattergam tragedy) has again bring AFSPA in Focus and led to mass protests. However it cannot be concluded that it is going to seriously affect the entire scene of the upcoming elections, especially the prospects of the BJP or NC, as Kashmir politics is far too personalized and leaders won because people are personally connected to them; but surely it has affected the Army’s fund of goodwill and its future prospects in this domain as they have once again proved themselves to be insensitive and designed to kill. It has definitely affected adversely the hard earned peace prospects, especially in the valley.

One can assess that the RR mentality still has not really improved  from merely the ‘designed to kill ideology’ and this is what the army again has vividly displayed at Chattergam, thereby reducing  the praiseworthy flood rescue hard work by the same RR to zero and raising the otherwise diminishing graph of enemy perception in the valley. It is worthwhile mentioning that it was the RR only in Kulgam (9RR) that saved hundreds of families in the worst flood affected villages like Kellam Gund, Arigutan, etc, but the recent killings have slowly but surely nullified  such a humanitarian rapport built with the people. When I personally went to Kellam Gund village to meet the flood affected people, I was literally taken aback when people in bulk raised slogans in favour of the RR Commanding Officer (Col Jamwal) for his major rescue operation during floods and humanitarian concern for suffering masses. I was surprised to see such a good will created by the same RR army there but again confused enough as the same RR more often proves insensitive and unprofessional leading to crisis mishandling. Famous women studies expert at SNCWS, Delhi Aparna Dixit calls such humanitarian concern by forces as merely the ‘militarization of humanity’ wherein even humanity is a training subject and later applied in the conflict societies but without any true empathy. Such a professional humanity displayed by Forces can be questioned on many grounds and army if really concerned for masses needs to employ true empathy not just professional humanity.

With this horrible incident, AFSPA as a draconian law has reappeared in the collective psyche and in public debates with much anger and discontent over public security. It is believed by some segments of society here that the Prime Minister  will definitely take a call on such a law under the garb of which innocents get killed in a an unaccounted manner. I have been maintaining that AFSPA, while frustrating masses mentally and physically, also has not helped or empowered the soldiers either but led to their unprofessional operations and diminished in them the significance of adhering strictly to standard operating procedures besides increasing their vulnerability. Enforcement of AFSPA has generated a public hatred and thanklessness in the hearts of the people for the army, even for their good works as it is the law that virtually is the reason of unending dichotomy between the people and the army (Fauj and Awaam) as believed by the public.

While the continuing debates and the hue and cry raised over the revocation of the AFSPA (in place since 1990) in Jammu & Kashmir appears to have no end, the general public has been pointlessly confused by the numerous versions and perceptions of the law among various stake holders be it armed forces, defense ministry, state government, opposition brigade, regional political parties, Centre, civil society et al. Especially in valley Article 370 and AFSPA have been highly politicized for vote bank. There are different perspectives even among the coalition partners, i.e. State Congress and the National Conference. There seems to prevail a covert tussle between people, civil society, media, government and the armed forces on the question of AFSPA.

The pity is that there is a galaxy of opinions pouring from every stakeholder and in the worst case scenario; there seems little probability of a middle ground on the issue of AFSPA revocation-a middle path or a negotiation that is yet to be conceptualized. Rather today we see there is not just and genuine discourse about the AFSPA per se but largely the AFSPA politics where political parties are ruling the roost. After having watched scores of  panel discussions on AFSPA revocation and hearing army generals, Congress politicians, NC representatives, human rights activists, lawyers, students, etc, one gets an impression that everyone is trying to grind his own axe and wants his perception to prevail but the middle path is still missing and not advocated by anyone. While the situation in the valley definitely warrants a change in the law, in terms of the amendment or partial revocation, the media to its detriment, has created more of a mix-up by sensational headlines thereby promoting mass fear. As a result of this sensationalism, so many stereotypes have been created, like army branded as saying ‘AFSPA a holy book’, Congress is backing the status quo or NC committed staunchly to its revocation, AFSPA serves as a tool of impunity to the forces, doing nothing but adding fuel to the fire and aiding the public confusion.

AFSPA is neither a holy book nor an instrument of impunity for the armed forces, which needs to be reiterated by the army now in its inquiry on the Chattergam killings. It should demonstrate to the Kashmiri people that how culprits like Major Rehman were court-martialed over the charge of raping a mother and daughter in Kupwara in 2004. Rehman was dismissed from service in 2005 once the he was proved guilty. Incidents like these prove that impunity is merely again proved by Machil case verdict, AFSPA is a killer law not a holy book at all -everyone believes this today at least in Kashmir, which needs a serious discourse to deal with this serious problem. Myopic vision and political immaturity has endangered the common man and there are just slogans of autonomy, platitudes regarding the healing touch or AFSPA revocation today. Once again such an incident reflects that the army’s vision, discipline and professionalism need a great deal of further improvement and sensitization when it comes to operating in vulnerable fields like Kashmir. Is the defence ministry or army leadership doing anything for it, remains a curious question.

After hearing the army one gets an impression that the forces apprehend that once the act is revoked, the vulnerable border districts may turn safe heavens for insurgents besides the vulnerable geo-strategic atmosphere especially in terms of hostile Pakistan, exit of NATO forces and opening ways of Afghan militants. But then we ignore the fact that to deal with any external threat state cannot compromise for the same at the cost of safety and feel secure psyche of the people. Such a possibility is purely a security maintenance issue and forces, especially BSF have to look into that. Even without the act, the security forces can conduct operations. We must realize that even before the onset of AFSPA in Kashmir, the army has been operating in many parts of the state.

I believe that while the Army has already achieved zero collateral damage status along with a much regulated insurgency even in the presence of the very act, so the partial revocation must not be a severe issue to the Army at least. The army by such acts proves that it has forgotten the “Peoples General” i.e. Much respected and famous Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain’s  umbrella example on AFSPA. He was by then quoted by Tehelka Magazine (Army Ties AFSPA With AfPak Riddle, Vol 8, Issue 51, Dated 24 Dec 2011) saying, We use the umbrella (AFSPA) only when there is rain. In case of sunshine, there is no use for it”. But the RR soldiers once again at Chattergam proved that with the delusion of an umbrella over their head, they can always dance in the bloody rain and play killing their games. The Kulgam where army opened fire on protesters proved it again when an 18 year old boy Tariq Ahmad got killed on November 14, 2014 at Chinigam village of Frisal village of Kulgam District. Such incidents clearly reflect the need for serious regulations while crisis handling by forces and calls for a serious rethink on AFSPA.

At least in the valley today it is the AFSPA and other such instances of mishandling of situations by the army, which further demonize them like anything, justify people’s accusing them of massacres and brute violations, forgetting that the military is an important institution in law and order maintenance in conflict zones or a rescue agency in acute calamities like the recent floods. We must realize that the issues in conflict zones are mostly political, like Kashmir issue is, and therefore redressal should be purely political and not represent merely anti-military or purely military measures. I feel there is need for a holistic view on AFSPA, whether it is a justified shield to Jawans in operations in the conflict zones, or a real obstacle to their actual success that is WHAM (winning hearts and minds) or a big factor of never declining enemy perception. People remember the army’s shocking Pathribal closure case that completely shattered the people’s faith in the army’s justice system.

But this time, when everything is clear about exactly what happened, the army should come clean on the culprits and deliver the justice as promised to the people as it was delivered in Machil case recently. The amendment or partial revocation of the controversial law has to be defined and revisited in a functional manner keeping both the Awam and Jawan (people and soldier) in perspective as both are important and should feel secure in a conflict-hit situation. The other aspect is that when there is so much of goodwill prevailing and the armed forces, particularly the army, have started so many public friendly programmes, I don’t think that the army needs the Act for any brute hostilities or justifying such human rights violations, as already they are bridging the gap between Awam and Jawan and have succeeded considerably.

At such a critical juncture, the partial revocation or amendment can act as a step forward in the peace building process in the valley. The common man’s view is too diverse on this issue; one section says that the revocation issue is a mere drama enacted by the NC and Congress for vote bank politics. Another section of people argues that if the Centre revokes this Act, it will give the impression of normalcy to the outside world and will defeat the actual goal of accomplishing complete freedom, which most of the Kashmiris aspire for. Yet another aspect is that revocation will mean more accountability even to the local police, which has been involved in so many HR violations especially in the last so many uprisings. One more aspect is that the AFSPA’s revocation will lower the violence graph and hence give more space to fruitful dialogue on the Kashmir dispute, which can force its main stakeholders to come to some serious decision. Another section feels that it can liberate people from mental chaos and return the lost feel of a secure psyche in this troubled land. Yet another chunk of common people argue about its relevance in contemporary times, arguing that when the government itself claims that hardly a few militants are operating in the valley and insurgency is zero, the Army, Government, Centre – everybody in effect, is trying their best to deliver the goods and build peace, AFSPA is like a phobia, a disappointment, an impediment against experiencing goodwill and peace in the state. At the moment it has virtually become a serious matter of the blame game between the state government and the Army.

The Last Word

Amendment or replacement is acceptable to all and given the fact that the Modi Government is annulling certain old laws and Acts, it should include this one too. Politics and rhetoric apart, branding apart, there has to be a middle ground and a basic consensus to tackle this contentious issue. At least the Kashmiris are hopeful about redressal from the Modi government regarding this controversial law so that some sense of a ‘feel secure psyche’ is engendered among the unfairly treated people of Kashmir besides Northeast India. Definitely partial revocation or amendment in AFSPA can bring good will in both Kashmir and Northeast India.

* The article first appeared in Rising Kashmir

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Adfar Shah

Adfar Shah is a Scholar of Sociology at India’s Central University Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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