While the people of Jammu & Kashmir have a deep-rooted mistrust of state institutions, there are also substantive and unacceptable provisions in the proposed legislation
While much of the country is focused on the budget and its implications for the economy and individual pocketbooks, Kashmir is focused, with much trepidation, on a draft police reform bill. This in itself gives one a sense of the disconnect that exists between Kashmir and the rest of the country. Why a proposed reform measure causes anger in Kashmir while the rest of the country thirsts for reforms is an interesting question. Digging deeper into this episode will, I hope, promote greater understanding of the difficulties facing Kashmiris. It may also help provide a partial explanation of why Kashmir and its restless youth remain in a state of hopelessness while the rest of the country is dreaming of an impending demographic dividend.
Let’s get to the controversy. The proposed Jammu and Kashmir Police Reform Bill, 2013 has its origins in the Supreme Court’s 2006 verdict on a PIL filed by two former Directors-General of Police. To comply with the Supreme Court’s order, States have prepared new legislation. A template provided by the Model Police Act of 2006, drafted by a panel led by Soli Sorabjee, forms the basis of police reforms in States. The drafting of the Model Act was partly prompted by the Prime Minister’s concern expressed at the conference of District Superintendents of Police in early 2005 that “we need to ensure that police forces at all levels, and even more so at the grassroots, change from a feudal force to a democratic service.”
A careful review of the proposed Jammu and Kashmir bill reveals that those in charge of drafting it have largely followed the Model Police Act as well as the Kerala Police Act (2011). In fact, some of the bill’s provisions that have been ridiculed in the local media (e.g., imprisonment or fine for cleaning furniture in public) are there in both the Model Act and the Kerala bill. Also, some objectionable aspects related to internal security included in the J&K bill are also present in the Model and Kerala Acts.
Given this background, reasonable questions arise: If the J&K government is replicating the process followed in the rest of the country, including a relatively progressive State such as Kerala, why the howls of protest in Kashmir? If after more than two decades of turmoil, during which police and paramilitary forces gained unprecedented powers, why would Kashmiris baulk at proposed police reforms? Why the “manufactured outrage,” as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah put it?
There are two key reasons for this latest angst in Kashmir. First, some provisions of the J&K bill as well as the Model Act (and the Kerala Bill) are indeed incompatible with the Prime Minister’s ideal of a “democratic service” and Kashmiris believe such provisions may be disproportionately applied to them. Second, in a few key areas, the J&K bill either includes unacceptable provisions or omits reasonable safeguards compared to what is going on in the rest of the country. I will address these two issues in turn.
To an observer outside Jammu and Kashmir, all this outrage may seem like a lot of drama. After all, even if the proposed bill falls short of the Prime Minister’s ideals, it does so for the entire country because the Model Act is the guide for police reforms. So what is special about Kashmir? There is something special about it, and not in a good way. For more than 20 years, Kashmir and parts of Jammu have suffered from enormous hardship. Democratic service yielded to a security imperative. Military and paramilitary forces and the police became instruments of controlling a restive population. An environment of deep mistrust developed and people generally became wary of state authority. The police became the most visible organ of the state. In Kashmir, the use of force to contain the population became a natural option whereas in much of the country a lathi-charge could provoke accusations of police brutality. Therefore, from a Kashmiri perspective, Keralites can safely ignore some uncivilised elements of their police bill but Kashmiris cannot afford to do that. This conditioning is by no means manufactured. It is what it is — a raw mistrust of authority and a deep sense of self preservation.
Areas of concern
Beyond this deep-rooted mistrust of state institutions, there are substantive and, in my view, unacceptable provisions in the proposed bill. I will mention just two areas by way of illustrating how those in power are inclined to retain it in J&K.
Village Defence Committees (VDCs) and Special Police Officers (SPOs): As in the case of the Model Act, the J&K Bill proposes a role for VDCs and SPOs. However, these provisions are not benign in J&K. During the years of turmoil, the government established many VDCs and created a lot of SPO positions to counter the threat of militants. The VDCs and SPOs became much disliked, somewhat out-of-control instruments of counter-insurgency operations. This should have been expected since the type of training required for police work was never imparted to people selected for these positions. Furthermore, VDCs and SPOs became one more route by which arms have proliferated in the State. In my view, there is sufficient police to deal with law and order problems in the State. If more policemen are needed, the government must make adequate and institutional provisions for them and expand the police force. VDCs and SPOs are not an acceptable alternative in their current forms and run counter to the public interest.
Composition of the State Security Commission: Recommended under the Model Act, the State Security Commission would, among other things, frame guidelines for the functioning of the police service and monitor its performance. To ensure checks and balances in its functioning, the Model Act and the Kerala Act include the Leader of the Opposition as a member. The J&K Bill omits this reasonable provision. Furthermore, while the Model Act proposes that a State’s Home Minister lead the Commission, the J&K bill proposes not only that the CM act as Chairperson but also that the Home Minister or MoS Home be included as a member. This creates a serious imbalance in the composition of the Commission. Furthermore, the Model Act recommends that five independent members be included from different walks of life based on the recommendations of a selection panel that would include a retired Chief Justice of the High Court recommended by the current Chief Justice, chairperson of the State Human Rights Commission or their designee and chairperson of the State Public Service Commission or their designee. In the J&K bill, only three independent members are envisioned and the government nominates them on the recommendation of a government-appointed selection panel. Such a construct is nothing new in Kashmir. The government has found ways to dilute or neuter all sorts of worthy sounding institutions.
There are many other aspects of the bill that will exacerbate the mistrust that Kashmiris hold in their hearts for state institutions. Police reforms can go a long way in helping people recover their lost dignity and develop trust in our institutions. It is important that we get these reforms right, complementing our national experience with lessons from international attempts at police reforms in conflict-affected areas.
(The author is a former World Bank officer currently working as a social and political activist in Jammu and Kashmir)