Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s enviable faith in his desire to get rid of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) lends itself to diverse interpretation: His admirers must be tempted to see him as an incorrigible optimist. His followers must be yearning to detect his commitment behind his relentless refrain. And the vast majority of ordinary mortals must be struggling to detect seriousness of purpose behind his posturing. Given the known parameters of the issue, prospect of the AFSPA being lifted partially or wholly in the near future is almost non-existent. The chief minister, of all the people, must be as conscious of these impediments and yet when he chooses to cling to his theme his stated position on the issue calls for some introspection.
As far as the Government of India, in general, and the military establishment, in particular, are concerned they are today exactly where they stood in the 1990s when the AFSPA was brought in for the first time. The grounds and reasons being advanced for its unspecified continuation are exactly the same as those cited to justify its application at the peak of armed insurgency. Even while acknowledging substantial improvement in the ground situation and claiming due credit for sharp decline in the level of violence, the central government as well as the military refuse to concede justification for any reciprocal response vis-a-vis the AFSPA. Even its partial de-application is being frowned upon. In a way, that argument refuses to acknowledge or recognise any change whatsoever on the ground from what it was way back in the 1990s. This position is untenable as well as irrational. Yet, as the veto lies with the mightier the AFSPA continues to be defended as a sacred cow, against all logic and reason.
The chief minister could not be ignorant of these facts. Also, he had to face embarrassing moments over this issue after he made that ‘within the next few days’ public announcement. Even so, he continues to fondly talk about the issue as if nothing had happened. This trait has been a favourite weapon in the political armoury of the National Conference leadership. It was tested for over two decades in the name of the ‘plebiscite’ (rai shumari karao) till it was finally dumped in exchange for power.
As political fortunes again took a bad turn out came the ‘autonomy’ (khudmukhtari) slogan with renewed fanfare. This time the fight was dragged right up to the floor of the ‘sovereign’ legislature with the state assembly adopting that ill-fated resolution in 2000. How it was mauled by those to whom the resolution had been addressed and how easily the insult was digested by its sponsors is now a part of the history. One still hears an occasional cry from here or there but with a politically more ‘prudent’ note than is actually warranted by the circumstances. With the passage of time, the AFSPA issue seems to have entered that lexicon and become a new slogan to chase. The NC leadership has considerable experience from one generation to another in manipulating such slogans for momentary gains and then dumping them conveniently. Those acquainted with the recent history of Kashmir would vouchsafe how, from time to time, the issues like ‘plebiscite’ and ‘autonomy’ were propelled to sustain public impression of consistent commitment until dumped at the first available opportunity.
New Delhi’s hard stand on the AFSPA issue is unreasonable but, unfortunately, that is also a hard reality. Omar, of all the people, should be aware of the inevitable outcome of this unequal combat. If still he likes to harp on the worn out theme he has his own credibility (or whatever may be left of it) to lose.