A Mess Compounded?
20 August 2001
Srinagar: For Jammu MP and Union minister of state Chaman Lal Gupta, it has been something of a pyrrhic victory. After two years of bombarding the home ministry with letters pleading that Jammu be declared a disturbed area, the Centre finally obliged. It imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, giving sweeping powers of arrest, search and seizure to security forces in the Jammu region, and also allowing them to resort to firing to maintain public order. "After the killing of 25 persons of a wedding party in Doda around two years ago, I had made this demand. Home minister L.K. Advani, who visited the area at the time, was inclined to accept it.
But j&k chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah didn't. Now, he has come around. I can only thank him," says Gupta.
The CM, in fact, became the moving spirit behind the extension of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to four more districts of Jammu, including Doda.
Immediately after militants struck at the Jammu railway station, claiming 13 lives, he declared that the entire state barring Leh and Kargil, would be brought under the Act.
Other measures include increasing the number of special police officers by a thousand, enhancing effectiveness of the Village Defence Committees by giving them communication equipment and setting up special shelters for shepherds—twice in the last month, villagers have been abducted while grazing their sheep and subsequently shot. Advani also suggested that the state government enact a stringent anti-terrorist law.
The joint decision on declaring Jammu a disturbed area taken at a meeting on August 8 has kicked off a storm of controversy, with human rights groups saying that by virtually "imposing army rule" in the terrorist-infested area, the Centre is trying to find a military solution to an essentially political problem.
The Congress, steering clear of the human rights issue, has focused its attack on home minister L. K. Advani, demanding his resignation for failing to check terrorist violence in Doda-Kishtwar. Even as Advani detailed anti-militancy measures in the Lok Sabha, the Opposition responded by staging a walkout.
The party targeted Advani to the exclusion of everyone else, including Dr Abdullah. While Gupta might be miffed with him for taking two years to accede to his demand, the Congress "did not find fault with him as he was cooperating with the Centre in tackling militancy". The situation in j&k being an extraordinary one, the buck has stopped with Advani. Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy also took a pot-shot at the pmo, saying it didn't seem to see eye-to-eye with the home ministry.
On declaring Jammu a disturbed area, the Congress was sceptical. Says Reddy: "The Act has not proved effective in the Kashmir valley. How can it prove effective in Jammu?" In Punjab, he pointed out, it was the state police which checked the problem of insurgency.
PUDR (Peoples Union for Democratic Rights) activist Gautam Navlakha says it'll make the civilian population even more insecure, caught between the devil of terrorist attacks and the deep sea of army excesses. While not holding a brief for terrorists, he says in the 11 years that the act has been in force in the Kashmir Valley, matters have scarcely improved. "Even army chief Gen S. Padmanabhan is on record as saying that no problem of insurgency anywhere in the world has ever been solved through the use of armed forces," he adds.
Says lawyer and pucl activist Prashant Bhushan: "A couple of terrorist strikes doesn't mean that an area is endemically terrorist-affected.If there are a few bomb blasts in Delhi next week, will you declare it a disturbed area? Should Mumbai have been brought under the act after the 1993 riots? The government's mindset seems to be that the whole country should be brought under the act." Adds Navalakha: "The unhcr had condemned the act as draconian." Activists feel that the act, every bit as draconian a piece of legislation as tada and a legacy of the British Raj—its previous avatar was the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942—will be counterproductive. It would lead to more excesses by the army on Doda's beleaguered denizens and thus a spurt in terrorism, engendering sympathy for militants in a population currently fed up with them.
Following the end of the ceasefire in June, security forces mounted intense pressure on the militants in the Kashmir Valley as well as in the Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu. The militants responded by moving into areas where the concentration of security forces was less. Three battalions had been moved out of Jammu during Kargil, leaving the population vulnerable. Last week, Advani told Parliament that security had been stepped up and was now higher than it was before the Kargil war.
In the space of a month, militants have claimed 68 lives, including the attack on Amarnath yatris in Sheshnag. This was followed by the killing of 16 villagers in Doda. Soon after, four residents of Chhatru village and 10 denizens of Chirji village in Kishtwar were killed on successive days. On August 4, 15 shepherds of Shrunti Dhar in Doda were massacred. Separate units of the Lashkar-e-Toiba are believed to be behind the attacks. In the railway station attack, three militants on board the Indore-Malwa Express hopped out on to the crowded platform and opened fire. In Srinagar, militants of the lesser-known Lashkar-e-Jabbar threw acid on two government teachers for not wearing veils, and for wearing makeup.
Local residents aren't afraid of enhanced military presence, says Gupta. "There has never been a case of the army harassing civilians in this area. People are very cooperative with army personnel and, during operations, act as their guides," he adds. Dr Abdullah dismissed the apprehensions of human rights activists by saying that the rights of the terrorists' potential victims too had to be taken into account. Gupta sees the mere presence of security personnel as a deterrent: in their absence militants hit with impunity.
The armed forces are legally bound to follow a list of do's and don'ts under a Supreme Court directive of 1997. While refusing to strike down the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act as violative of fundamental rights, it said army personnel had to follow a specific set of rules. For instance they can't interrogate suspects but must hand them over to the civilian police. Whether that actually happens is a truth only the security personnel themselves know.