AFSPA in J&K: Selective withdrawal may be harmful
Speaking to the Press on December 21, 2012, Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of J and K, once again demanded selective withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain districts in the state where insurgent activity is minuscule. He has been persistent in this demand because in his reckoning the situation in the state has vastly improved. Surely, the Chief Minister is well placed to assess the ground reality and the prevailing environment. If he feels confident that in areas from where the AFSPA is removed and military withdrawn, the situation can be handled by the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF,) then why not accept his demand!
Once the military moves out from an area and insurgents move in there, the first step they would take is to eliminate all the suspected sources of military intelligence.
However, both the military and the Central government have been opposing this demand, which, in the face of it, appears to be reasonable. There are a number of reasons for Delhi and the military to continue with the application of the AFSPA and deployment of military across the state. For one, Pakistan has not shut down terrorists’ training camps nor has it changed its stance towards the export of terrorist activity in J and K. The military authorities are of the view that the infiltration of terrorists into J and K has not substantially decreased. More importantly, selective lifting of the AFSPA and withdrawal of the military from areas where there is minimal terrorist activity will make the insurgents move into these very areas. After all, insurgents are not tethered to only specific areas of the state.
Once the military moves out from an area and insurgents move in there, the first step they would take is to eliminate all the suspected sources of military intelligence. Even those who were cooperating with the military or even sympathetic to it could be targeted. Insurgents, under normal circumstances, draw sympathy and support from the local population through coercion and terrorising people by resorting to selected killings. But in the case of J and K there exist elements within the state that are perennially in support of the insurgents. Some others work towards perpetuating the uncertainty of the future of the state.
The Indian Army has been engaged in counter-insurgency operations for over six decades. There is no other army in the world which has this range and depth of experience in this field. So, when the military opposes the withdrawal of the AFSPA from certain proposed areas in J and K, the stance rests on this vast experience, gained over a long period of time. On deployment in the insurgency environment, it takes the military considerable time and effort to establish what is called “counter-insurgency grid”: get to know the people, terrain and build intelligence sources. It is this grid and intelligence sources that insurgents invariably target: once the military moves out and they move in. Often, the period of truce or the withdrawal of the security forces is used to regroup themselves.
Counter-insurgency operations are both difficult and unsavory. They involve mid-night raids on insurgent hideouts, where the exchange of fire is a common feature.
The AFSPA itself has been under fire. The provocation for a move to abrogate the AFSPA is due to alleged serious violations of human rights by the security forces. Counter-insurgency operations are complex in nature and are carried out under difficult and trying circumstances. Often it is a situation where you kill or get killed. In many encounters, collateral damage in the form of casualties to innocent civilians takes place. During such encounters, invariably it is the insurgents who target innocent civilians knowing full well that it is the security forces who will be blamed. In a virulent insurgency, security forces just cannot operate without the cover of the AFSPA. Without it, there would be much hesitation and caution which would work to the advantage of insurgents.
There has also been a move to water down the contents of the AFSPA. Vested interests have indulged in sustained disinformation and have been demanding removal of certain provisions of the Act. It is not to contend that there are no instances of violation of human rights or highhandedness of security forces. Invariably, the military authorities, in the interest of discipline, etc, have initiated disciplinary action against the offenders.
It is essential to examine, in depth, the likely effect the abrogation of the Act or even diluting its contents will have on such operations. The fact that the Reddy Commission has found it necessary to incorporate provisions of the AFSPA into the Unlawful Activities Act only goes to show that these provisions are essential to combat violent insurgency. However, the fallout of these recommendations, if implemented, is that the Unlawful Activities Act itself will become more rigorous and its application in less hostile situations will invite severe criticism.
Selective withdrawal of the military and abrogation of the AFSPA from those areas have its own pitfalls.
Counter-insurgency operations are both difficult and unsavory. They involve mid-night raids on insurgent hideouts, where the exchange of fire is a common feature. Since the initiative is always with the insurgents and death could be lurking behind any corner, bush or house, the situation makes troops edgy and prone to over-reaction. Search operations cause annoyance and inconvenience to those being searched. Where intelligence is inadequate, wrong persons get harassed. Casualties among the security forces often invite over-reaction from them, which the military tries to minimise through training and effective leadership.
Delhi has simply failed in its policies in dealing with insurgencies, be these in the North-East, J and K or elsewhere in the hinterland. Insurgency-plagued states have been flooded with developmental funds with no monitoring system in place. Schemes were completed and hundreds of kilometres of roads built — all on paper — and the funds invariably came back to Delhi to line the coffers of contractors, politicians and bureaucrats. Those funds got deployed in building hotels and farmhouses around Delhi, etc. Disturbing Naga culture, the traditional way of life and exploiting tribal rivalries led to further suspicion and alienation. We have dealt with the people of J and K no differently. The script remains the same; only it is played out differently with certain elements of the state itself joining in this loot. There are others who continue to have a stake in the continuance of insurgency and sustaining an impression of uncertainty of the state’s future.
If Omar Abdullah is of the considered view that insurgency in the state is on the vane and he can clearly see its end soon enough, and his police along with Central police organisations can deal with the residual insurgent elements, then he must seek complete withdrawal of the military from this task from all over his state. Selective withdrawal of the military and abrogation of the AFSPA from those areas have its own pitfalls. The troops deployed on the Line of Control need focus only on preventing the infiltration of insurgents into J and K. Equally, the infiltrators who move into J and K, taking routes other than those across the Line of Control, too, need to be checked. Arrangements should be made to ensure safe and unhindered movement of the military’s convoys, etc.
The Chief Minister should also be made to realise that once the military is withdrawn from this task and insurgency picks up again, recalling the Army will make its job doubly difficult. It will take considerable time and result in setbacks and excessive military’s casualties in regaining control of the situation.