Srinagar/New Delhi : Caught in the crossfire between security forces and separatist militants for over two decades, Kashmiris say the government must revoke the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) because the law gives sweeping powers to security personnel in the state that is inching towards peace.
The Kashmiri on the street feels the act, in place since 1990, has given Jammu and Kashmir a terror tag, even as peace is seemingly settling down and tourists are returning to the valley.
People feel the circumstances that forced the implementation of the law no longer exist.
“Even Western countries have started lifting travel advisories against Kashmir. When the government itself boasts of peace, why do we need the AFSPA?” Abdur Rehman, who runs a tourist houseboat in Srinagar, asked this correspondent.
Rehman and many others think the army does not have a strong ground to continue with the AFSPA in the Muslim dominated state of over 10.2 million people. The act was implemented in July 1990 when the armed insurgency backed by Pakistan was at its peak. Gun-toting men, sporting handgrenades, would fire and bomb at will wherever they wanted.
The Indian Army’s help was taken after the state police and paramilitary forces failed to curb the reign of terror unleashed by militants, who were growing in number and strength. They were also joined by dreaded foreign mercenaries, mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
More than two decades since, the situation has visibly improved. Violence and militancy have steeply gone down over the years. The number of terror strikes in urban areas has been brought down to almost zero now.
The number of militants present in the entire state, according to official figures, is less than 500, with all top commanders either killed or forced to run away to Pakistan.
Citing these reasons, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has also been strongly demanding partial withdrawal of the law that has come under widespread criticism for alleged violation of human rights by the armed forces.
In its war against cross-border terrorism, the army has been criticised for alleged human rights violations by misusing the law that allows any junior officer to use force, even to kill, on a mere suspicion.
An officer accused of rights violations can be prosecuted only after a nod from the central government and the defence ministry.
Over 1,500 cases of human rights violations have been filed against the army in the last two decades, according to official data.
The army, according to its own investigation, claims that a majority of them – 97 percent – have been found to be “fake or motivated”.
It also refuses to hand over the accused officers to civilian authorities because it says it has its own internal mechanism to deal with the “aberrations” of rights violation under the Army Act, 1950.
There are many cases in which the army takes recourse to the iron-fisted AFSPA to contest the prosecution of accused personnel.
Common Kashmiris feel the law should be repealed because the objective to eliminate terror has largely been achieved. They also feel it was hampering justice for the families of victims.
“In how many cases of rights violations have you prosecuted accused officers?” asks human rights lawyer Rubbayya Yasmin. “None,” she adds, because the central government hasn’t accorded sanction.
“The act should go and it is time to give justice now,” Yasmin said.
The army argues that withdrawing the law, even partially, would have “serious operational implications” as militancy would raise its head again. It also argues that partial withdrawal of AFSPA from selected districts would “only create sanctuaries, which the terrorists would exploit to rest, regroup and strike again.”
But the reason to continue with the act is not taken well by political and social activists.
Communist Party of India’s A.B. Bardhan, a strong advocate of repealing the law, says the army’s reason was tantamount to holding Kashmir at “gunpoint”.
“It means Kashmir can be kept as part of India with the army of occupation,” Bardhan said , adding the time was ripe to withdraw the act at least from the areas where army is not operating.
“Kashmiris have grievances and repealing the law will give them a sense of justice, though there is a long way to go,” he added.