Thursday, September 09, 2010

Targeting the Armed Forces

Manmohan Singh is believed to be working on an ‘Eid Package’ to appease separatists in Kashmir Valley. Will AFSPA be diluted?
(Pakistani flag hoisted by separatists at Lal Chowk, Srinagar, on Eid-ul-Fitr, 2010.)

The Union Government, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is “groping for a solution” to the current unrest in the Kashmir Valley where separatists, with the help of their rage boys whom they pay to pelt the police and security forces with stones, have been virtually holding the administration to ransom for the past couple of months. Just in case people expect the Government to act firmly and restore the authority of the state without allowing the situation to worsen any further, Mr Singh has let it be known that “we are not dealing with an easy problem… The country and the people must be patient”. After all, a problem that has been allowed to fester for 60 years cannot be solved in six years; that would be an unfair expectation.

Yet, the need to do something, or at least to be seen to be doing something, in response to the worsening law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley and arresting the slide into separatist violence and chaos reminiscent of the late-1980s and early-1990s, cannot be entirely wished away. The Prime Minister, therefore, has called a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare”. It’s amazing that he should have waited till now to do so. But, as the cliché goes, better late than never.

However, the manner in which the Prime Minister has phrased the agenda of the CCS meeting should cause disquiet and discomfort, at least among those Indians who still passionately believe that Jammu & Kashmir was, is and shall remain an integral part of the Union of India; that instead of conceding even an inch to the Pakistan-sponsored separatists, we should focus on governance and restoring law and order; and, that the best option at the moment is to ride out the storm while minimising collateral damage.

It is, in a sense, alarming that Mr Singh, given his penchant for ‘thinking out of the box’, should propose to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare” along with his colleagues in the CCS. That would imply discussing the entire range of issues raised by the separatists, including azadi, the demand for “autonomy” voiced by the National Conference (articulated in the voluminous report that was drafted and approved by the State Assembly when Mr Farooq Abdullah was Chief Minister) and the People’s Democratic Party’s insistence on “greater autonomy” (a delightfully undefined and vague concept which includes accepting Pakistani currency as legal tender in the State).

However, we can seek comfort in the fact that it is unlikely the CCS, after “discussing the Kashmir issue threadbare”, will come to any definitive conclusions. For instance, it is unimaginable that the Government would be authorised to use its executive powers to grant either ‘autonomy’ or ‘greater autonomy’. Apart from the fact that this cannot be done with a note being sent out by the PMO or a notification being issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the political backlash would be too strong for the Congress to risk, leave alone weather. India’s corrupt, cynical and self-seeking urban middle-class may have become indifferent to the nation’s unity and integrity, but the masses still carry the vote on polling day.

Any changes in the existing arrangement through amendments to the Constitution can similarly be ruled out. The BJP may not have sufficient votes in Parliament to force the deletion of Article 370, but it can block the strengthening of this debilitating Article through further amendments to the Constitution. The Government is presumably mindful of this simple arithmetical fact and will not make a promise that it will later regret having made to the separatists (and their masters in Pakistan).

But something is cooking, of that we can be sure. Or else Chief Minister Omar Abdullah would not have been summoned by Mr Singh for discussions, nor would a meeting have been convened to “discuss the Kashmir issue threadbare”. We are told that the Prime Minister is keen on announcing an ‘Eid Package’ to restore peace in the Kashmir Valley. If there is any truth in it, then we should expect a dramatic gesture of capitulation — nothing less than that would make the separatists feel they have won half the battle and ask their rage boys to take a break — amounting to appeasing those who repudiate India’s sovereignty.

And this is most likely to come in the form of the Government announcing its decision to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Separatists and their stooges among jholawallahs masquerading as human rights activists want the Act to be repealed. Since the Government wouldn’t dare do that, it will seek to dilute the law that makes life difficult for the lawless. While it is anybody’s guess as to what those amendments, which will probably be introduced through an Ordinance and then ratified by a Bill that will require a simple majority in Parliament (and hence cannot be blocked by the BJP), will be, but a fair guess can be attempted on the basis of the discussions that have taken place so far between the Government and the Armed Forces.

The amendments are likely to focus on three clauses in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. First, the right of Army personnel to search premises and arrest individuals believed to be guilty of terrorism and separatist violence without warrants will be sought to be curtailed. The Army has rightly asserted that without this power its counter-insurgency operations will be rendered futile.

For, it’s frightfully stupid to expect the Army to deliver results without the element of surprise that is necessary to raid a hideout or arrest a terrorist. In Jammu & Kashmir, where the civil administration has been infiltrated by the separatists and their sympathisers, information about the Army seeking and securing warrants to raid a particular house where terrorists may be hiding or arrest a suspect will not remain a secret. Indeed, it will be communicated within minutes and the Army will be left looking silly; its men will become objects of ridicule and worse.

The second amendment that is being proposed will make it mandatory for the Army to hand over those who have been arrested to the police or a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. Given the terrain of operations and the logistics involved, this will prove to be virtually impossible. If implemented, this amendment will force the Army to abandon mopping up operations; jawans will have to rush to the nearest police station or magistrate’s court instead of sanitising the area and ensuring there are no more militants hiding there. This is a patently absurd proposition and is designed to raise obstacles for the security forces rather than make their task easier.

The third amendment which the separatists and their jholawallah friends are pushing for is a sinister move to tarnish the reputation of the Indian Army and a devious ploy to prevent it from fearlessly performing its duties. The UPA Government, which has a pronounced bias towards jholawallahs, has apparently agreed to the demand for setting up ‘grievance cells’ in every sub-division.

This would be a perfect recipe for disaster. The right to file a complaint will be merrily misused and there will be a flood of allegations, dealing with which will become the main occupation of the Army instead of conducting counter-insurgency operations. Even without such a mechanism, the Army has been repeatedly accused of ‘violating’ human rights, more often than not with the sole purpose of tarring the dignity and honour of our men in uniform.

Along with financial sops at the tax-payers’ expense, these and other amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would make a perfect ‘Eid Package’ for the separatists: They can celebrate a big victory in the proxy war they have been waging against the nation with the help of its foes. But the ‘peace’ such abject surrender may bring will be a prelude to another offensive for azadi which will be timed to coincide with US President Barack Hussein Obama’s November visit. Make no mistake about that.

[This appeared as Edit Page leading article in The Pioneer.]

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