The Valley of Kashmir continues to moan and groan on account of the recent carnage and sufferings with there being no solace in sight. Street-level militancy and social media keep afloat the battle cry of Azadi. Rights groups from all over India have protested against the high-handed treatment of the Indian state machinery. India’s government and a section of the media miss no opportunity to blame Pakistan for stoking the inflamed situation. This stance refuses to acknowledge the changing dynamics of the homespun movement, which is amorphous and spontaneous, with instant and visible fallout for India. The role of the formal and traditional leadership has become irrelevant, as street power has gained prominence. Instead of engaging with the Kashmiris, New Delhi prefers to tackle them through militaristic power. This cycle only enables the situation to remain at boiling point.
Blaming Pakistan for interference in India’s domestic affairs amounts to deflecting the issue. Pakistan’s concern emanates from a deep sense of empathy, which requires a dispassionate understanding. Not many people in India will know that a swathe of people in Pakistan’s Punjab has an interminable lineal and kinship bond with the people of Kashmir. There is a sizeable population of people of Kashmiri descent concentrated in the urban areas of Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Gujrat, Gujranwala and Sialkot right up to Lahore. Appellations of Butts, Mirs, Lones, Dars, Rathores and Wanis are not unknown on this side of the divide. This segment of the population is fairly active in politics, business and the civil service, and cannot remain oblivious to the plight of the Kashmiris in Indian-held territory.
A section of the Indian media continues to question the rising tide of militancy in Kashmir, asking whether violence could justify any cause, even a legitimate one. This is the same argument, which stretched further, has helped India use the typology of ‘terrorism’ to quell indigenous, localised resistance movements. This platform has further helped it to legitimise its militaristic stranglehold in Kashmir through excessive deployment of armed personnel, giving them unbridled powers to shoot at sight, and on warning, which is seldom given. New Delhi has exercised this power for nearly three decades now without any qualms. The nature of the current militancy is making an innate difference and the world is in a far better position to understand the driving force behind the homespun movement, which is spontaneous and has maximum outreach.
The Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) of 1990 has been at the centre of all the controversies raging in Kashmir. The law was promulgated to notify disturbed areas and deploy paramilitary forces controlled by the central government to quell disturbances and normalise the situation. The law gives unbridled powers to the security forces to deal with situations in any manner they deem appropriate without any accountability mechanism whatsoever. Under the law, the central government, over and above the state government, has the power to declare an area disturbed and move in its forces, which have the power to shoot any person they feel is a threat to peace. The paramilitary force can also detain and confine a person on suspicion as well as break into houses. Urban Kashmiris are now sick of untimely knocks and breaking in of their doors in the middle of the night. Under the law, members of the security forces have complete immunity from prosecution in ordinary courts. To hold the forces accountable, an aggrieved person is required to move the central government and there is no timeline given to decide such grievances. The central government hardly ever takes any step that it feels might lower the morale of its forces. As a result, incidents of custodial killings, torture, gang rapes and forced disappearances have a well-documented history. It is time now for New Delhi to seriously consider how far this law has been successful in securing peace and laying the foundations of tranquillity. It may also reflect on how far it has led to widening the alienation of the Kashmiri youth, which are the victims of its draconian measures.
Governments, the world over, resort to special legislations to meet exceptional situations. All such laws have a sunset clause and a provision for judicial review. AFSPA fails on these counts. Indian security analysts admit that incursions along the LoC have appreciably declined. As a corollary, there should have been a corresponding decrease and pulling out of paramilitary troops from civilian areas, but there has been no such movement. The civil society and rights groups have been airing their concerns against gross violations of human rights in Kashmir. In this regard, hosts of commissions, including the Jeevan Reddy Commission, the Santosh Hedge commission and the Justice Verma committee, had called for the discontinuance of the law. While acknowledging acts of gross violations including reported gang rapes, these commissions were of the view that there was no effective mechanism to hand down justice to a culprit in uniform. There was a recommendation to try sexual offences in ordinary criminal courts but the suggestion was thrown into cold storage.
New Delhi seems to be hostage to the deep state, which is in no mood to see the annulment of this draconian law. Two former Indian army chiefs have opposed such a move while those who have spent their lifetimes in the intelligence network and the civil service are of the view that the law has now become counter-productive and is alienating Kashmiris, especially the youth. As long as the law is in place, long-term peace in Kashmir and an improvement in the security situation will remain illusive dreams. It is the same deep state that earlier on scuttled an accord between Pakistan and India on Siachen. It is quite a task for the Indian civilian set-up to square with the veto power of the deep state on measures to improve the situation in Kashmir.
There is a thinking within India to engage with the Kashmiri leadership. The question arises as to which leadership it should engage with. It is time now to act unilaterally to win back the Kashmiris and pull them from the precipice. India needs to come up with a plan to demilitarise the civilian areas and ensure far less visibility of the paramilitary forces. It seems to be making the same blunders as were committed by Pakistan in 1971, where a strategy of holding on to the land while alienating the Bengali population was adopted. In the age of information technology and social media, New Delhi should realise that it is losing ‘internal’ space in Kashmir in the cyber war by over-militarising the state’s physical spaces.
Pakistan also needs to revisit its posturing. Rhetoric of Kashmir banay gaa Pakistan is in no way going to help the cause of those on the streets of Srinagar who are battling for Azadi. We need to rein in the Tahaffuz-e-Pakistan marchers. Some of them are under UN sanctions and possess a penchant for jumping onto moving trucks at public places all for the sake of a photo-op. This is not going to help the current relentless struggle, which must remain indigenous.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2016.