Revoking AFSPA in J&K -A ‘Jumla’ or something beyond that?

B L Saraf
Thanks to the Home Minister, the debate on revoking Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir has resurfaced. Some days back Home Minister, Amit Shah, told a local TV Channel that Central Government will consider revoking AFSPA in J&K and also mentioned that Government was planning to pull back Army from the plains of the UT from discharging law and order duties and leave it to the police to do the job.
In the beginning of the running century many people in the state -particularly in Kashmir – vociferously argued for revoking AFSPA , to the extent that whole politics ( especially in the Valley ) revolved round the issue . At that time Farooq Abdullah, the then Union Minister of Renewable Energy told media that the Army was not the ‘master’ of the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Army was only to protect the people and the interests of the nation. It should concentrate on stopping the infiltration of the terrorists .He went on to say that the people of the state felt that Armed Forces Special Powers Act should go. Farooq Abdullah had supported the demand raised by the then Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, that AFSPA should be revoked from certain areas of the State, which, according to him “were peaceful now.” Omar Abdullah has reacted to the Home Minister’s statement. While reiterating his demand to withdraw this law from J&K , he told party workers in Sopore that he had been fighting for the revocation of AFSPA since 2011 when he was the Chief Minister , but his efforts were opposed by the then Chief of the Army Staff. Omar Abdullah dismissed HM’s statement as one “befooling the people.”
The Armed Forces (Jammu & Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990, was extended to the State in July 1990. The legislation is primarily intended to protect the strategic interests of the nation and quell the secessionist activities. The Act is an extraordinary piece of legislation to meet the extraordinary situation. Whenever there is a threat to the security and integrity of the nation a state can invoke Sec 3 of this Act and declare whole or any part as disturbed, so that it can requisition the armed forces to come to the aid of the civil power. Section 4 empowers certain officers of the armed forces to open fire and cause death of any person who is acting in contravention of law if, in their opinion, it is necessary to do. They can destroy a premises also if they find it being used as an illegal ammunition dump or for sheltering the terrorists. Section 6 of this law grants immunity from legal actions to the officers who have acted in good faith to exercise powers under the Act.
Omar Abdullah then looked serious about revoking AFSPA from the state, for that he tried to find ways and means. Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPc) and RPC (now repealed) as an alternative, were implored in this regard.
AFSPA has proved its worth in the insurgency infested North – East, Punjab and J&K and has been quite effective in protecting the territorial integrity of the country. After all it is not for the fun that armed forces are required to lend support to the local police in maintaining the law and order. They are called in an extreme situation to curb the armed militancy and make life easy for a law abiding citizen. The matter is of utmost sensitivity. AFSPA is not the problem. It does not offer a permanent solution, either.
It is a fact that the security environment in the Valley has improved, though it has not reached an ideal level. The frequency in terror attacks has significantly gone down. Streets in the Valley are visibly calm. True, one can’t feel sure that the situation will hold for longer period. Nevertheless, the unfolding situation does give a hope and opens a window of possibility to see if the applicability of AFSPA and other stringent laws could be limited to a narrow area and that there can be a reduction in number of soldier boots. There is a scope for an honest debate regarding the continued deployment of the Army in the civilian areas and application of the extraordinary laws. The appreciation of the law should transcend political and the regional considerations.
Relook at the continued application of AFSPA and presence of armed forces in the civilian areas of J&K becomes necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people. More so, at the time when they are gasping for a breath of democracy. Along with such a relook, the Government will be well advised to set in motion other such measures as are necessary to usher in a democratic form of governance. What Supreme Court has said in this regard, while upholding legality of the abrogation of Art 370, should be followed.
Withdrawal of AFSPA could be a confidence building measure; other being the dignified and irreversible return of a Kashmiri Pandit to his home in the Valley. So would be a statutory protocol put in place to protect, preserve and mange temples and shrines of Hindus in Kashmir. Make no mistake, no argument that Kashmir has become peaceful would hold good untill it sees an original and integral component of Kashmir’s society – the Kashmiri Pandit – home living in peace with dignity.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that it is an election time when all kinds of luring statements fly thick and fast in the political horizon across the country – the statements made only to draw attention and garner votes with very little sincerity writ in them . We have HM Amit Shah himself admitting that certain statements are only ‘Jumlas ‘ bald statements – which every practicing politician worth his salt makes when he is in an election mode . They carry no sincerity and many of them are not intentioned to put in practice once the dust and din of election campaign settles down.
True, in the democratic set up of the governance India has, the Army is not the’ master’ of the masses. But the masses should not be ungrateful not to appreciate that Army has assured people role as self ‘masters ‘and not rendered them slaves to others. It is the assurance of the capability of the local police, to keep the militants at bay that must matter while revocation or the continued application of the law is considered. Jammu and Kashmir is still not out of woods so far as curse of terrorism is concerned.
(The author is former Principal District & Sessions Judge)