More than 23 years after the bombing that signalled the beginning of the murderous insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, India's strategic establishment is demonstrating a curious unwillingness to grasp the fact that the war to restore peace has been won. Ever since 2009, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has been advocating the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act from parts of the State, as a first step towards an incremental rollback of the Army's presence in civilian-inhabited areas — a source of everyday friction with civilians. Even though Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has backed the idea, and a report by three government interlocutors has endorsed it, New Delhi has proved unwilling to act, in part because of bitter resistance by the Indian Army. Based on an analysis of central government data, this newspaper reported on Friday that J&K was more peaceful than many ‘perfectly peaceful' States — among them, economically vibrant Haryana. In population-adjusted terms, violent deaths in J&K — those of terrorists and security force personnel, as well as murders of civilians, whether terrorism-related or otherwise — were at the same level as in Bihar, and not significantly higher than in Delhi. No one in New Delhi, though, wishes to be charged with overruling an assessment by the armed forces — an assessment which, regrettably, is driven more by fear than hard-headed strategic sense.
Three spurious arguments are being used to justify the status quo. First, the Army contends that the situation across the Line of Control needs a robust military presence. But Mr. Abdullah isn't proposing removing a single soldier. His proposals would only lift AFSPA from two areas where the Army in any case has no security responsibilities. If things went well, troops would be freed up for deployment along the LoC, leaving the State and central police forces to deal with the degraded insurgency. Secondly, it is claimed that without AFSPA, the Army will not be able to stage counter-terrorism operations in an emergency. Proponents of this argument forget that AFSPA did not have to be imposed to allow the Army to assist in the defence of Parliament House when it came under terrorist attack in 2001 — and that the Army staged many successful counter-terrorism operations in Jammu province before AFSPA was imposed there in 2001. Finally, some argue that the AFSPA-free enclaves will be magnets for terrorists. This, too, makes little sense, since the Army is not present in the enclaves anyway — and it is improbable that terrorists have not established themselves there for fear of a mere law. Chief Minister Abdullah's proposals do entail risks. Yet not taking those risks involves heavy costs — key among them, creating a reservoir of frustration and anger that will undermine the hard-won peace that so many Indian soldiers gave their lives for.