He may have been the most low-key of the three Kashmir interlocutors, but MM Ansari has a valid point when he says that the army’s much-hyped Operation Sadbhavana is further undermining the civil administration in the state. This is not a popular point of view, but one which merits serious consideration. The army has become such an over-arching presence in the state that not many have noticed that it has encroached substantially into areas of administration and governance, which in the long-run will be counterproductive. The delivery of basic public services cannot be the army’s responsibility unless in the case of a natural disaster or other extreme circumstances.
There is no doubt that the civil administration in the state has to be strengthened. This cannot happen as long as the army takes over its functions. Faced with irrelevance, it will lose the motivation to work and at best become slothful, at worst, corrupt. The army, for its part, cannot be bogged down providing basic amenities, its job is to keep the peace which it must do unhindered. Today, there seems to be a greater willingness to return to normalcy in the state. This can only be bolstered if grassroots bodies like the panchayats are given more teeth. They must be given an incentive to function effectively, something that cannot happen as long as the army usurps their powers. The army, in a democracy like India, is to be used only in extenuating circumstances internally. But if the army is called upon to fix leaking taps and repair crumbling culverts, it loses even that authority which it is meant to exercise in conditions where the civil administration is unable to function effectively.
The friction between the army and the locals makes it all the more vital for the army to reduce its visibility, not increase it. To this end, chief minister Omar Abdullah is on the right track when he endorses the phased withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). There is no doubt that the army has done yeoman’s service in instilling confidence among young people, listening to and addressing their troubles. But it should serve as nothing more than a facilitator between the people and the civil administration now that a fragile peace prevails.
Once an accountable civil administration is in place, the army will quite naturally reduce its role and this will pay political and peace dividends. While it is too early to break out the champagne, the signals from Pakistan today suggest that the peace we are seeing may not be another false start. A reduction in the army’s role would only add to this sense of well-being in a state where an entire generation has grown up knowing little but violence. Mr Ansari has certainly made up for his taking a back seat over the last year by coming up with a formula which could well provide the foundations for a lasting peace.