On a two day trip to Jammu and Kashmir late last month, defence minister AK Antony politely disagreed with chief minister Omar Abdullah on his demand for selective withdrawal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Srinagar, Budgam, Jammu and Kathua districts of the politically sensitive state but agreed to keep the proposal on high table for continuous review.
Antony significantly, however, asked the Indian Army Commanders and the Central Para-Military Forces heads in the state to reduce troop visibility in the state. While Omar Abdullah went into a sulk after the Anthony snub on the Afspa withdrawal, the defence minister told him that the decision to withdraw the Act was not his alone but of the UPA leadership given its security and diplomatic ramifications on the country.
Even though reducing troop visibility is a forward movement in this security forces infested state, defence minister Antony or for that matter the UPA needs to do much more than this cosmetic measure.
In his farewell speech as Chinar Corps Commander Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain last June talked about declining cross border infiltration levels in the state and improving law and order situation. Despite the infiltration figures routinely bandied about by the government, the fact is that cross border terrorism is at an all-time low and violence levels far less than Naxalite affected states.
The credit for low level infiltration and violence is due to a series of factors within the state and across the Line of Control (LoC) and not only because of the security forces. The debate on Afspa withdrawal may go on but there is a strong need to withdraw security forces in support of maintaining law and order in the state that is again moving very slowly towards the paradise that it once was before the violent 1990s. With over five lakh security personnel deployed in the state, the time has come to dispel the notion of a state under Army occupation.
While the government did withdraw two divisions worth of forces from the state in 2008 and 2009 respectively, there is still far too much force for counter-insurgency duties. The unfortunate results are unfortunate killings like the one in Bandipora and Shopian in the past two months and even fragging within the Indian Army such as in Samba this month and Nyoma last May. Just as the Indian security forces need relief from counter insurgency duties, so do the people of the state from bunkers with machine guns staring at them.
With Pakistan imploding within, there is an opportunity for New Delhi to shrug off the status quo of managing Kashmir, take some fresh political initiatives and take the wind out of the Kashmiri separatists arguments. A valid point that all Kashmiris ask is why is Army deployed in the Valley every time an incident happens while troops are not sent to Dantewada even if 70 CRPF personnel are shot down by the Maoist rebels.
We need to revisit Kashmir again and relook at deployment of Indian forces in the state as tourism is on an all time high and the state economy is looking up despite poor quality of politicians in the Valley and across the Pir Panjal. There is no need for army to be deployed in the hinterland except for a designated reserve for emergency duties and the military should be handling the LoC to maintain tranquillity on the borders and prevent infiltration,. The CI grid should be handed over to the Central para military forces with local police taking over the law and order functions in cities, towns and villages.
The home ministry and the Intelligence Bureau need to be pinned down on their support for withdrawal of Afspa from the state and live up to expectations on count of counter insurgency and operational or active intelligence. While Kashmir expert Director, Intelligence Bureau Nehchal Sandhu has ensured that IB does not get involved in propping up politicians in the state, the Indian Army should reconsider its deployment in the state as there is a scope for vast improvement. People do not need Sadhbhavana from the Army, they want to be left alone to do their routine chores like cooking breakfast and sending children to school.
It is not that violent incidents will cease all together, but then one needs to distinguish between crime and criminals, terror and terrorists. After all, Delhi is the so called rape capital of India and serious violence is a routine in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. One should remember that the Indian Army was deployed in riot hit Kokrajahar only after home ministry asked for it in writing from the defence ministry on July 25, 2012. No army was called after Maharashtra police mishandled the August 11 riot or the Bareilly riots subsequently.
Jammu and Kashmir residents need to be treated with the same yardstick. Sixty six years after Indian independence, it is time for solution and not mere management of the Kashmir issue.