Lifting the AFSPA, by the numbers

The case for a step-by-step lifting of AFSPA from Jammu & Kashmir

(My op-ed in the Indian Express)

If war is politics by other means, counter-insurgency is even more so. Since the early 1990s, the national endeavour in Jammu & Kashmir has involved three battles: a military contest to crush jihadi militants by force, a political battle to defeat secessionism and a psychological one to ensure that it is India’s narrative that dominates the discourse.
Ending the insurgency requires us to win all three. One reason why the conflict has continued for so long is that we have not been able to simultaneously attain positions of military, political and psychological dominance. Now, after over two decades we have a chance to try and bring a painful, unfortunate chapter in our history to a close.

Consider. Militancy has dwindled. The Pakistani military-jihadi establishment is entangled in a face-off with the United States over Afghanistan and might not wish to scale up violence on its eastern borders. A few months ago, Jammu & Kashmir successfully conducted panchayat elections which saw record turnouts, putting curmudgeonly separatists to shame. In a year where even New York was not spared of public protests, Kashmir’s cities distinguished themselves by staying out of the news, not least due to Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain’s enlightened approach to security management. Tourists got wind of all this, and more of them turned up in the first three quarters of 2011 than in any year in the last twenty-five.

What has not reduced, however, is the affective divide between those Kashmiris hurt by the consequences of insurgency and the rest of the nation. It is important to start bridging that now. Continuing to neglect this psychological aspect of strategy risks undermining hard-won successes in the military and the political battles.

A careful, judicious and step-by-step revocation of the Armed Powers Special Powers Act (AFSPA) can set off a virtuous cycle that will send a positive signal to the people of the state, strengthen the desirable political forces, put separatists on the backfoot, and take New Delhi a few moral notches higher. Such a move is seen as necessary by Omar Abdullah’s government. It is viewed favourably by many in the UPA.

The defence ministry has opposed it on the grounds that we cannot expect our army to fight with its hands tied behind its back. Other thoughtful analysts have argued that it is better to err on the side of caution and wait a few more years before considering lifting AFSPA. What should we make of these serious objections?

First, it is important to recognise that while the defence ministry’s opinion must be considered with the greatest seriousness, the final decision vests with the Union cabinet. No ministry or arm of government ought to be entitled to a veto. We might already have arrived at the point where further application of military force in populated areas of Kashmir will yield negative returns. Sure, the army must remain deployed along the Line of Control to prevent infiltration and keep a watchful eye on Pakistan, but its visibility in towns and villages where there is no militancy will only deepen resentment.

Second, revoking AFSPA does not mean the army’s hands are tied in the whole state. Rather, the provision can be lifted prudently in surgically chosen geographical areas — which can be smaller than districts — with an explicit caveat that it will be reimposed if violence rises. If the situation holds, the revocation can be extended to the next set of locations. If it gets worse, the Central and state governments can declare the areas disturbed and employ security forces as they do now.

Third, a number of steps have to be taken in tandem to manage the risks of an escalation in violence. The army and the security forces must be employed in a manner such that militants and malefactors cannot treat areas where AFSPA has been lifted as safe havens. State police and intelligence agencies must gear up to contain militant mobilisation and activity in such areas. Politically, the UPA and the Omar Abdullah governments must engage their respective opposition parties meaningfully to achieve a measure of bipartisanship.

So there are risks to making a carefully calibrated move towards the endgame now, but these can be managed. Our policy discourse is ill-served by framing the issue as “AFSPA vs no-AFSPA” and rehashing standard arguments. We would be much better off asking what the Central government, the army and the state government ought to do to ensure that lifting the AFSPA leads to the desired results.

Why not wait and see? Waiting has risks too. If the current window of opportunity closes, the UPA government might find itself with its back to the wall, compelled to revoke the AFSPA as a concession to separatists. Surely Kashmir has taught us that yielding from a position of weakness is a very bad idea.

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