Appealing to the people in Kashmir to help restore normalcy, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Sunday said the Centre wants an emotional bond with the state and not a relationship of necessity. In his bid to help forge this bond, he asked the youth of Kashmir not to pelt stones and urged security forces to avoid using pellet guns on protesters. New Delhi’s policy on the current crisis in Kashmir seems two-fold. In a definite change of tone, the political class has sought to address the concerns of the Valley with a degree empathy. But this language of empathy is intertwined with a hardline approach against Pakistan. Attacking Pakistan on its role in Kashmir, Singh said: “Its role has not been paak (pure) on Kashmir. Pakistan should change its attitude and approach towards Kashmir.”
Asking people to give their “constructive suggestions” to bring peace in the state, he said, “there is no need of any third force to improve the situation in Kashmir”. It is true that Pakistan seeks to foment trouble in the region. But it is also true that Pakistan only exploits the discontentment that already exists in the Valley. In his address on Sunday, the Home Minister made no reference to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s suggestion that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act be withdrawn from certain areas of the Valley on an experimental basis. Singh’s comments follow External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s assertions to Pakistan that Kashmir belongs to India. During a speech in the Lok Sabha last week, MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs, had described the current dispute over Kashmir as an “existential fight”, where the strength of the secular “one nation principle” would be tested. However, without real actionable change on the ground, there are serious limitations to this policy.
Amidst all the posturing against Pakistan, New Delhi has done little to listen to the voices in the Valley. Governments, both at the State and Centre, have literally choked off all space for political expression. The communication blockade enforced by the State government has created serious hardships with thousands, both within and outside the Valley, unable to contact their near and dear ones amid the ongoing unrest. Following Burhan Wani’s death, the authorities first suspended cellular and internet services in four districts across South Kashmir and later extended it to all 10 districts.
There was even a gag on print media outlets for a couple of days after the protests erupted before the state government withdrew the order. There has been little communication from the state government on lifting the suspension. During the unrest in 2008 and 2010, the gag on communication services was only confined to SMS. At a certain level, one can understand why the authorities may seek to enforce such a gag. They fear that mobile internet access facilitates the mobilisation of protesters through social media. But on the flip side, such a ban on communication services jeopardises a range of human rights, including the right to information and the right to life. In fact, such a suspension only presents greater scope for rumour-mongering and misinformation at a time when the situation is so tense.
Another issue that must be addressed is the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from certain areas of the Valley. “After revoking AFSPA in a few areas, we can assess the situation there,” Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said. “If successful, we can revoke it in entirety.” She made the statement after meeting Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to review the situation in the state. As discussed in these columns yesterday, AFSPA contains provisions that violate Constitutionally conferred fundamental rights. It is important to spell out the reasons for its amendment, if not complete withdrawal, as articulated in yesterday’s column: Key provisions of the act allow security forces to shoot on sight, arrest anybody without a warrant, and carry out searches without consent.
Members of the various security forces, primarily the army, undertake these acts with the knowledge that they will not face any legal action for operations conducted under the act. Legal experts and human rights organisations have demanded a comprehensive review of the act on a repeated basis. The act falls short of the established norms of natural justice, such as equality before the law, the right of the accused of appearance before a Magistrate within 24 hours of arrest, a fair trial in a public court and access to competent legal counsel, among others. It is imperative to remember that the Indian state’s claim on its constituent territories is underwritten by consent. New Delhi must create the requisite conditions to retrieve that consent. The withdrawal of AFSPA is one such step.
Without taking these requisite steps, governance in the state shades into occupation. To give our fellow brothers and sisters a sense of belonging to the Indian Union as citizens, Parliament must initiate steps to either amend or completely withdraw AFSPA from various districts in the state.
In a recent column, a former Union Minister from the Congress, P Chidambaram, listed a series of steps the Modi government could take to improve India’s standing in the Valley. One suggestion is to withdraw as many troops as possible from civilian areas and redeploy them closer to the border. This will be an important step in fostering a sense among those in the Valley that they are not under siege from New Delhi. In an impassioned speech to Parliament on the Kashmir unrest, Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy said: “What does the (Kashmiri) youth see outside? They see armed to the teeth Indian CRPF or BSF or Army jawans. That is all. That is India – and that is the beginning of the day for that youth.” To prevent further incitement of violence in the state, the Indian State cannot and must not merely depend on the brute force of its armed forces.
The state does not need one soldier for 15 civilians. Chidambaram goes on to suggest that after the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas, the primary responsibility of maintaining law and order should be handed over to the state government and the J&K Police. Singh went on to assert that once normalcy and peace is restored, there will be further engagement with all while moving forward in resolving issues.
This is a reasonable position to take. But the problem is of past precedence. Despite a prolonged period of relative peace and calm between 2002 and 2008, little or no steps were taken to demilitarise or withdraw AFSPA from certain districts in the state. There was little dialogue with the key stakeholders in the region. Allied with the chronic state of poor governance in the state, Kashmir is tinder box always waiting to explode. Of course, one is under no illusion that the challenge of maintaining peace in the region is immense. But once peace is restored, New Delhi must take these necessary steps to reclaim the hearts and minds of those in the Valley.