Much ado about AFSPA

By K.N. Pandita

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah asserted in a public meeting that AFSPA would be revoked in areas that are cleared of militancy. Did people believe him? Keen observers chuckled. Was he confident of what he was saying? Perhaps yes perhaps no.

With surprising self-assurance – something very rare with politicians in power-, the Chief Minister spoke of withdrawing AFSPA “within a couple of days”.  But he put a rider that revocation would be effective only in those areas where militancy had considerably come down. 

The demand for revocation of AFSPA came first from the separatist leadership and, later on, it found graduated reverberations in opposition circles and dissidents, secessionists not excluded.

Revocation of AFSPA is not the core issue with the secessionists in Kashmir valley; their demand is for “azaadi”, which is the smokescreen for Pakistan, something known to all yet never stated openly. Therefore political opposition, that tactically makes common cause with the secessionists, would clinch any issue that has the dual potential of mollifying militants as well as putting the government in an embarrassing situation.

The question is if the Chief Minister knew there were divergent views at various levels about revocation of AFSPA, why he took the risk of making a public statement. Analysts believe that he had held serious consultations with the Home Minister and convinced him that the law could be lifted from some of the areas. Did he broach the matter with his cabinet colleagues before he tangoed with the Home Minister? Perhaps not.

But that is only one side of the story. The Chief Minister was cognizant of army commanders having other viewpoint. They have their own sources to make input.

The Chief Minster has been speaking repeatedly of political solution of Kashmir issue. He stuck to it even when the team interlocutors was at work in the valley. He did not spell out the parameters of any formula for solution of the issue. All that he said in diabolical terms was that India should talk to Pakistan. This is something vague and can be interpreted in more than one way. India has been talking to Pakistan while Pakistan has been carrying forward its proxy war in Kashmir.

The Chief Minster does occasionally stir the hornet’s nest. A number of instances can be cited. Essentially, he is also under compulsion and would not lose any opportunity, or at lest allow a viable opportunity to slip out of his hands so as to be grabbed by the opposition. The opportunity is of throwing bait for public consumption. Nevertheless, his assertion did create rumblings in some quarters, particularly the PCC, which raised the eyebrow. Apart from the basics of the issue, the PCC leadership touched on procedural aspects and interpreted it as an assertion not having democratic legitimacy.

Omar Abdullah is not unaware of serious divergence of opinion between the Home and Defence Ministry about the question of revocation of DAA/AFSPA. In a bid to steal the march, the Home Minister would not wait for consensus of opinion, and, in all probability, goaded the State Chief Minister in proceeding with his agenda on the subject.

But keeping in mind the entire spectrum of the nature and tactics of Kashmir militancy, a logjam at ministerial level was inevitable because the Defence Ministry is the primary stakeholder in anyway. The criterion that law and order fall within the jurisdiction of Home Ministry cannot be taken up in isolation. The report of the Army and the perception of the Defence Ministry carry their weight. Complexity of the situation made the Prime Minster call a meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) where the matter was discussed at full length. Nobody knows what actually transpired in that meeting. But at the same time, Omar Abdullah tried to do some damage controlling exercise when PCC chief insisted that the coalition had not been taken into confidence before a public assertion was made. The CM called a cabinet meeting, broached the matter and came out with another statement that the cabinet had been taken on board. This belated action, however, could not be effective in controlling the damage. Nevertheless the PCC, too, is not a really united house as far as the issue of revocation is concerned.

It has to be noted that the PMO sent two high powered teams to Srinagar to interact with the State seniors, the CM and the Governor with the basic objective of assessing the ground situation. The second team was headed by the Cabinet Secretary and senior bureaucrats. This team had a long meeting with the Governor and the Chief Minister and understandably, it gathered more facts about the divergent views on the revocation of DAA.

The fact that the Central Government or the PMO have not reacted on the matter in any way, nor has the Home Ministry reiterated its known stand, explains that there is cognizance of the views and perceptions of the Defence Ministry and the Army at highest levels.

Incidentally, it is not the Chief Minister who gave expression to disappointment on PMO’s assessment of the situation in Kashmir; it is his uncle, the newly inducted Additional General Secretary and spokesman of National Conference who poured out anger in crude and dismally undiplomatic idiom against the army. Mustafa Kamal is known for his anti-India obsession, and even his elder brother, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of the State did say a couple of times that he had been advising Kamal to be considerate in his statements about India. Who takes Kamal seriously, not the CM or anybody in the party nor even anybody in PDP and rightly so.

On his part, Dr. Farooq Abdullah tried to defuse the situation by making his brother recant before the electronic media. But is that going to make amends or not is anybody’s guess. Farooq even went to the extent of saying that revocation of AFSPA was a very important and sensitive issue and could not be handled cursorily or out of any sentiment.

The fact of the matter is that according to intelligence reports with the Army there are about 2400 well armed terrorists in terrorist training camps in PoK with designs of subversion in Kashmir. Out of this number, 700 armed terrorist are posited at various places close to the LoC waiting for opportunity to sneak into India side. Pakistan army has been shelling Indian outposts intermittently in order to provide cover to the intruding terrorist.

This scenario is not one that will be resolved by political maneuvering as is desired by the J&K Chief Minister. This live and highly potent threat has to be met with stronger muscle power and redoubtable determination. It does not broach the factor of political expediency which the Chief Minister wants to hold by his teeth. No defaming effort of the army will make any impact as long as the army performs its constitutional obligation of protecting civilian population and ensuring law and order in the State. These are also the primary duties of an elected government. And with all said and done, when the time for consensus of opinion comes, it will be the man at the helm of affairs with whom the ultimate word will rest.  And that man is the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian studies, Kashmir University).

Link: Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 AFSPA, on wikipedia.

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