The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was more the symbol of a problem than its cause, say Interlocutors

The Ministry of Defence needs to consider how to respond positively, “rather than negatively,” to proposals for repeal of and amendments to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Group of Interlocutors on Jammu and Kashmir has said in their final report.

While stating that the group's impression was that the AFSPA was more the symbol of a problem than its cause, the report went on to add: “But symbols are important for peace processes, and thus the Ministry of Defence needs to consider how to respond positively to this issue rather than negatively.”

The Prime Minister's Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures had also recommended reviewing the Disturbed Areas Act and AFSPA, “and if possible lifting the former and revoking the latter.”

The Jeevan Reddy Commission had proposed the repeal of the AFSPA and the incorporation of some of its provisions into a new national law, to be called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Ministry of Home Affairs had also recommended several amendments to the AFSPA, which will bring it in line with the Criminal Procedure Code while allowing for the protections for the armed forces that exist in every democratic country. “These proposals should be reviewed by the Ministry of Defence, and a decision taken at the earliest.”

According to the group, the goal was to arrive at a situation in which troops will be deployed only at the borders. “A step-by-step process would begin with the Army remaining in barracks and transferring any civilian policing duties to the paramilitary, with their onward transfer to the Jammu and Kashmir police. This step has already been taken in most urban areas but could be consolidated in rural areas.”

The group noted that one problem that arose in 2010 was that the J&K police were not trained or equipped to handle the transfer of duties. “Current initiatives at retraining, especially in community policing, as well as the revised Operating Manual, should help bridge the gap, but police-community relations remain volatile, especially in the urban areas, and appear to depend on the individuals in charge of district police stations. In the rural areas, there is a problem of shortage of police but fresh recruitments should fill the gap. In this context, it should be noted that in the mountainous districts of Jammu, which border the LoC, the felt need was for the Village Defense Committees to be incorporated into the police, and to be made multi-ethnic.”

The next step, the report added, was to review military deployments to see whether security installations can be rationalised through reducing their spread to a few strategic locations and creating mobile units for rapid response. “The desire for redeployment of military and/or security forces and installations [created as part of counter-insurgency operations, and not prior cantonments] from the rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir is a heartfelt desire that unites the regional political parties and dissident groups.” Given the large reduction in militancy-related violence, some thinning or strategic concentration of installations was worth considering, the report said. “It is difficult, for example, to see a present rationale for maintaining three camps, belonging to different regiments, cheek-by-jowl with each other, as is the case in Shopian.”

Dialogue with armed groups

Pointing to the absence of a formal commitment to ceasefire or disbandment as one of the obstacles to redeployment, the report said such a commitment would have made security reforms much easier to implement. The Prime Minister's Working Group on CBMs had suggested that an “unconditional dialogue” with armed groups be initiated, and some steps were taken during the “Quiet Diplomacy” of 2008-09. “Since then, however, the issue has not come up again, and it needs to be put back on the agenda.”

Even in the absence of commitments from armed groups to ceasefire, disarm and demobilise, such reforms as are possible still need to be considered, the group suggested. Current numbers for armed militants present in the State were around 350, with bases in districts such as Sopore. Infiltration attempts have risen this year. A significant finding was that all the delegations met by the group were explicit in their view that troops should be concentrated on the borders and LoC to prevent infiltration, and the focus was on internal redeployment alone: a phased withdrawal of troops from residential and agricultural areas.

On the military-to-military CBMs agreed between the governments of India and Pakistan, such as hotlines between commanders of border security forces, the report said their implementation needed to be reviewed and any remaining gaps filled.

Human rights violations

The report referred to the large number of gross human rights violations by a variety of groups, including murder and torture. The issue gained salience with the investigation into unmarked graves, many of which contain bodies of militants killed in counter-insurgency and some of which are alleged to be of missing persons. The group recommended the setting up of a Judicial Commission to establish the best procedures for identification of the bodies in the unmarked graves. The commission would see whether any of the bodies match the DNA of the families of the disappeared persons. The final step would be to try to identify all the bodies in the unmarked graves, and this would depend on cooperation from Pakistan. “The exercise will be a massive and time-consuming one, and all concerned should be prepared to face the fact that they might not, in the end, have the full closure that they need.”

Referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proposed by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the report said even if justice cannot be provided for all victims of violence, if some of those guilty of human rights abuses, including militants, were to ask forgiveness from the families of their victims, it would provide closure for many. A TRC, it said, would also have a large impact in Pakistan, altering the “Kashmir narrative” in fundamental ways.

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