Under Siege: 20 yrs of AFSPA in J&K

Under Siege: 20 yrs of AFSPA in J&K
Rajat Pandit, TNN, Jun 13, 2010, 04.34am IST

No Army likes to wage war against its own people. Worse, if the fight drags on 20 years. The 1.13-million strong Indian Army is no exception. It would jump at the chance to leave the Valley and return to barracks, but only if policy-makers delivered their end of the bargain. Is the time right for this? Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir is at its lowest ebb since it erupted in 1989-1990. But there are two hurdles. First, will Pakistan’s real power centre, its army, turn off the terror tap? Second, can the paramilitary forces and J&K police take over from the Army? On both counts, the answer seems to be ‘no’.

“We are trapped in the ‘hold’ part of the ‘shape, clear, hold and build’ strategy,” says a lieutenant-general, with extensive experience in J&K, speaking on condition of anonymity. He adds gloomily, “We will be stuck there for the foreseeable future. With so much money being pumped in, vested interests have developed all around. A political solution, with economic development, is needed.”

It has been an arduous task for the Army to ‘shape, clear and hold’ the internal security environment in J&K. Protracted counter-insurgency operations in J&K and the North-East have blunted its operational readiness for external enemies” and corroded its discipline and moral fabric. Last week’s suspension of a major and the removal of a colonel from command for an alleged fake encounter on April 30 is just the latest example of this. The Army has slowly moved away from using “kills” as the benchmark for evaluating a battalion’s performance for awards and citations, but the pressure to deliver results remains.

Consider cold statistics. More than 1,500 cases of human rights violations have been filed against the Army in the last two decades. Granted that a majority of them — the Army puts the figure at 97% — were found to be “fake or motivated” but what of the rest? The Army takes recourse to the iron-fisted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to refuse to hand the accused to civilian authorities. It says it has its own “internal mechanisms” to deal with “aberrations” under the Army Act, 1950.

“We have punished 104 personnel, including 40 officers, in the cases found true. We have made human rights a top-priority in last five-six years. But we cannot allow soldiers battling terrorists, which cannot be equated with normal law and order duties, to get no legal protection and be left to civilian courts in the event of something going wrong. It will hit troop morale,” says a senior officer.

General V K Singh, who took over as Army chief in April, has declared that “any dilution” in AFSPA will “impinge adversely on the manner in which armed forces operate” in counter-insurgency duties. Consequently, the Centre consistently refuses to give permission to the J&K government to prosecute soldiers accused of human rights violations. During 2007-2009, there were 23 such requests but the ministry of defence did not permit any one of them to go ahead.

This does not, of course, detract from the Army’s success in controlling militancy in J&K. Militancy is not quite dead. Pakistan may be acting against the Taliban on account of US pressure but it has let the anti-India terror factory remain active. There are at least 32 terrorist training camps, with an estimated 2,200 militants, operational in Pakistan and PoK. Unsurprisingly, the Army contends no one should rush to assume all is well in J&K.

According to estimates, there are just about 500-600 hardcore terrorists — half of them of “foreign origin” — in J&K at present. They still pose a threat, but it is marked reduction on the numbers — more than 2,500 — bandied about in the 1990s.

“With the CRPF (which has around 70,000 troops in J&K) and police forces still not really trained or equipped for the swift operations required, coupled with their poor leadership, any large-scale de-induction of Army troops will only weaken the counter-insurgency grid,” says a Rashtriya Rifles officer. “Whenever the Army has been removed from an area the militants and their over-ground workers begin to dominate there.”

Defence minister A K Antony also believes that the terrorist threat remains very real. “The quantum of troops deployed in J&K is continuously assessed and reviewed by the Army based on the changing threat perception,” he says. The Army has moved two mountain divisions of around 35,000 men from the state in the last few years but further reduction can only happen when conflict management turns to conflict resolution.