What after apology?

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has quite rightly compelled the military authorities to apologise to him for the umpteenth-time disrespect shown to the legitimate political authority of the state over an issue of considerable public importance. Not that the contention voiced in the controversial comment has not been uttered before. But that its context and timing in the present case made it an unacceptable proposition for the civilian government supposed to be the master of its own constitutional domain. Sharp differences between state civil authorities and the military establishment over continuation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and scale of troop deployment in Kashmir are too well known by now. Qamarwari incident took place at a time when the chief minister was trying to impress his people in the state about genuineness of recent dismantling of a few bunkers in Srinagar city and purported reduction of troops on deployment. By attributing the incident to these very factors, albeit in the negative sense, the defence spokesperson of the Northern Army Command virtually questioned the validity of the chief minister’s position. Given the background of related developments, Omar had no choice but to protest; and protest strongly enough. The Army Commander lost no time in making public his apology to the chief minister and expressing regret over indiscretion of his subordinate. Perhaps if the matter had rested at that it would have been seen as a good ending to a bad story.

But that was not to be. Minister of state for defence Pallam Raju hastened to come to the defence of the military establishment. Once again he harped on the worn out theme that AFSPA and ‘adequate’ deployment were necessary to contain the threat of resurgence of militancy in the state. This theme has been heard time and again even though there are more convincing arguments to the contrary. Unfortunately, Jammu and Kashmir continues to be an undesirable exception to the golden rule that in a democratic system it is the civil authority and not the military establishment whose will should prevail at the end of the day. There are various forums for the military authorities to put across their points of view for or against an issue but once that is done the role of the military establishment should end. Whether it is over the question of pulling back troops from Siachen glacier or resolving the issues of AFSPA or scale of troop deployment in civilian areas now free from armed militancy, the known will of the civil authorities has literally been vetoed by the military. Only a few weeks ago, no less than the chiefs of army staff and the air staff chose to go on record for voicing their total opposition to any ‘dilution’ of the AFSPA. They were countering the rising demand from the state government for relaxation in this case. The assessment of the state authorities does not seem to have impressed their military counterparts. In fact, their judgement in this case is diametrically opposed to each other’s contention.

The apology tendered by the northern army command chief, however, does not help in any way to sort out the basic differences. So long these differences remain and military authorities stand convinced about justification of their position there is no hope of any immediate relief as far as the people are concerned. This was clear even earlier also. The union government, instead of helping the state government, simply decided to pass the buck. The chief minister was advised to sit together with local military and intelligence authorities and work a way out. After their very first meeting last month, it was given out as if a via media had after all been found. It was hinted that the initiative would be taken by the state by rescinding its notification declaring as ‘disturbed areas’ the districts affected by armed insurgency. AFSPA is applied only after the state declares a particular district as being ‘disturbed area’ for this purpose. If and when the state rescinds its own notification technically AFSPA would cease to be operative. But even that is not happening for unexplained reasons. It was in that twilight sort of situation that Omar Abdullah was trying to reassure his people that he was determined to honour his commitment. Occurrence of Qamarwari incident followed by the faux pas committed by the defence spokesperson suddenly derailed the initiative. Only the time can tell if at the end of the day it is really the authority of the civilian establishment headed by Omar Abdullah that would prevail or it would be back to square one with military establishment exercising its veto.