Though the apex court referred specifically to the killings in the north-eastern state of Manipur, its observation also reflected the old grievance of people of Jammu and Kashmir regarding the human rights violations involving the armed forces in the state.
Though India does not make public its force-levels in J&K, former Northern Army commander, Lt Gen H.S. Panag is on record of saying in 2007 that a total of 3,37,000 troops were present in the State. This is excluding paramilitary forces. According to some unofficial accounts, there are an estimated seven lakh troops in J&K. Whatever the real number be, the sheer concentration of army and paramilitary forces, in terms of trooper-civilian ratio, is overwhelming. It has infact earned J&K a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as a region with the world’s largest military concentration. It has also earned the valley sobriquets like “world’s most beautiful prison” from a European Parliament delegation report in 2004.
No need to mention that Kashmiris won’t like their ‘lost paradise’ to be subject of such unfortunate comparisons and distinctions. Kashmiris have been demanding withdrawal of armed forces from the region for a long time citing the multi-faceted impact of military presence on the civilian life. It is not a mere rhetoric; it stems from people’s experience and is universal in nature. No civilian population anywhere in the world would like to have a prolonged military presence around.
International bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch besides the local rights groups have documented the human rights violations in Kashmir involving the armed forces, agents of the State and various non-state actors (local and foreign). The rights violations include extrajudicial killings, fake encounters, torture, custodial deaths, harassment, disappearances, rape, arson and extortion.
Over the years, the demand for total withdrawal of troops has gradually been rephrased by local mainstream politicians as ‘reduction in number of troops’ and ‘revocation of laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)’. Infact, Government of India has also been talking about the need for reducing the footprints of forces.
In its story ‘Figures back case for Army rollback in Kashmir’ dated 28th October 2011, leading Indian daily ‘The Hindu’ suggested that the situation in J&K no longer warranted large-scale troop commitments for counter-insurgency operations. The report cited union government data to state that the ‘insurgency-hit’ J&K was safer than many ‘peaceful’ counterparts and hence lend weight to an incremental movement towards reducing the Army’s footprint.
Citing the Home Ministry’s annual report and the 2011 census figures, ‘The Hindu’ reported that militancy-related fatalities, including those of combatants, stood at 2.77 per 100,000 population. A befitting case indeed for troops reduction in J&K. Besides, we have often been hearing that J&K police is capable enough to deal with the current militancy levels in the state. Infact, the state police should have been handed over the charge of security by now since it has been actively engaged in anti-militant operations besides the normal policing role.
The massive presence of armed forces looks grossly disproportionate vis-à-vis the number of militants which by army’s own account is around 300. “280-300 militants are active in Kashmir," 15 Corps General Officer Commanding Lt General Om Prakash told reporters at Srinagar in July last year.
What makes the human rights scenario of J&K more worrisome is the lack of action against the perpetrators. Laws like AFSPA which provides impunity to armed forces is a significant factor in this regard. The state government recently revealed that at least 10 Commissions of Inquires (CoI) were constituted and 99 magisterial probes ordered to investigate different cases including human rights violations in J&K since 1990. Given their past experience, people don’t attach much importance to such official probes.
In the recently concluded Assembly session, the state government also revealed that there are nearly 1,300 kanals of land under the occupation of paramilitary forces in J&K, with the land owners not paid any rent. It’s not a small area by any stretch of imagination. The presence of troops is accentuated by the elaborate paraphernalia like barricades and barbed wires around the pickets blocking good part of pavements and roads at some places.
The union government cannot evade the demand for reducing the footprints of forces forever. As of now, New Delhi is still waiting for that “opportune time” to take a call on the matter. But as they say, there is never a wrong time to take the right step.