Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA is an emotive issue which polarises opinions. On one side of the debate are bleeding heart left-liberals -- supported by groups like Amnesty and HRW -- who allege that India uses the AFSPA to militarily 'occupy' Kashmir and northeastern states. Indian soldiers run rampant, raping and killing innocents there because they are shielded by AFSPA.
Those on the other side believe that no patriot can ever oppose AFSPA because any attempt to oppose the law amounts to sabotaging the army. Any tinkering with the law would inescapably result in the army losing to the terrorists. We must therefore overlook the army's few excesses as collateral damage.
Up in arms: Left-liberals claim that the AFSPA confers too much power on Indian soldiers
Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Soldiers do need legal cover to operate effectively. That is the norm the world over, and India can't be an exception. Enacted in 1958 to facilitate army's operations against Naga rebels, AFSPA was imposed in Kashmir in 1990 in response to a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war.
The local police was overwhelmed and army's intervention was necessary to take on the foreign mercenaries. AFSPA allows the army greater scope to operate in "disturbed areas" notified by the state government -- the power to shoot to kill in law enforcement situations, to arrest without warrant and to detain people without time limits. It forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted. This can occasionally undermine the authority of democratically elected state governments.
But AFSPA is not simply a legal or operational issue. Given the many allegations of its misuse, there is widespread revulsion against its provisions. In Manipur, Irom Sharmila has been fasting since 2000 seeking its revocation. Although the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the AFSPA, it wanted greater checks and balances in the act. Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee recommended its annulment. Following army's insistence that any amendments to the AFSPA will severely constrain its counterinsurgency operations, central government has maintained the status quo.
Recently, Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, mooted the idea of repealing AFSPA from selected districts of Kashmir -- presumably Srinagar, Badgam and Ganderbal. This move is welcome as both an acknowledgment of the improving situation in the state and a push toward complete normalcy.
2011 has gone well for Kashmir: 80 per cent voting in Panchayat polls, over a million tourists, revision of travel advisory by Germany, and no major street-protests. Barely 200 militants remain active compared to 7000 a decade ago, and only 32 civilians have died in terror incidents as against 1,067 in 2001. Hizbul Mujahideen is finished and the top leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir has been eliminated.
Sensibly, the proposal to remove AFSPA at this stage is limited to districts with insignificant terrorist activity. Because the army doesn't operate there, this denotification is unlikely to impact its plans. Moreover, terror incidents have been replaced in the last few years by street protests, where army is not involved. AFSPA was applied progressively and selectively in Kashmir and it should be rolled back in a similar manner.
To avert a relapse into violence, we must normalise the political situation in the same way the security situation has become better. Demonstrating good faith by easing AFSPA would assure Kashmiris that Delhi is serious about returning Kashmir to a peaceful normal.
This move will provide a peace dividend to the vast majority which has rejected terrorism, while incentivising the recalcitrant few to follow suit. By removing the separatists' strongest emotive weapon, it will allow mainstream leaders to seize the political space in separatist strongholds of urban Kashmir. Diplomatically, India will be able to robustly counter its international criticism over Kashmir. The time is right to make this move which can accelerate Kashmir's path towards complete normalcy and permanent peace.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review