The Next Step For Peace In Kashmir20 October 2011
The Wall Street Journal
New Delhi: Remember Kashmir? Long the scene of India-Pakistan rivalry and suffering a chronic terrorism problem, the disputed region has been mercifully quiet in recent months. The summer of calm just concluded is a stark contrast to the summer of 2010, when street protests left more than 100 dead. Last year's violence notwithstanding, the broader trend over the past three years is one of restoration of law and order. Intelligence estimates place the number of militants in Kashmir at 200 today compared to 7,000 in 2001; the number of civilian deaths in terror incidents has fallen to 32 this year, against 1,067 in 2001. The local police say they have eliminated the top leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the most audacious of Pakistani terror outfits, in Kashmir. How did this happen? First, by fortifying its deployment on the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Indian army has successfully checked infiltration of jihadists. At the same time, targeted security operations in the hinterland of Kashmir have eliminated long-standing militant bases. Second, following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, international pressure has forced Pakistan to weaken its active support for jihad in Kashmir. Third, Kashmiris themselves have tired of a 20-year insurgency, fomented by separatists who want Kashmir to secede from the Indian union. The local population has embraced India's electoral democracy with over 60% participation in national and state elections in 2008 and 2009. Some separatists have had no choice but to shun violence in favor of more constitutional ways of making themselves heard. This trend continued this year. Elections to local bodies saw a voter turnout of nearly 80% despite a boycott call by separatists. Also this year, an all-time high of one million tourists have visited Kashmir (Germany even revised its travel advisory). But it is far too soon for anyone to rest on any laurels. Terror could strike again with vengeance and Jammu & Kashmir state's Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is himself unsure about extending the peace into 2012. To avert a relapse into violence, leaders need to normalize the political situation in the same way the security situation has become more normal. A key decision in this context will be the fate of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA. Enacted by India's parliament in 1958 to facilitate a counterinsurgency in northeastern India, the law allows the army greater scope to operate in those areas state governments declare to be 'disturbed.' It gives armed forces the power to shoot to kill in law-enforcement situations, to arrest without warrant and to detain people without time limits. The act also forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which in practice is rarely granted. It was extended to Kashmir in 1990, after the Pakistan-backed insurgency overwhelmed local police. Every national government needs legal cover to fight insurgencies, but the devil in AFSPA lies in its particular draconian details. Not surprisingly, the continued application of this law to Kashmir has been a massive political problem. Meant to protect soldiers who may kill a civilian by mistake during an operation, the act has ended up blocking all state-level attempts to prosecute soldiers for alleged charges of rape and murder. Separatists point to the law as an example of Delhi's 'imperialist designs' to occupy Kashmir. India's reputation abroad suffers for its use of a law which arguably violates its international human rights obligations. But for the army's insistence that it can't do counterinsurgency without AFSPA, the law would have certainly been repealed by now. Rather than wait endlessly for the law's repeal, Mr. Abdullah this month proposed removing several peaceful districts in the state from the list of disturbed areas, which takes them out of AFSPA's ambit. This move is welcome as both an acknowledgment of the improving situation in the state and a push toward complete normalcy. Scaling back AFSPA's application would bolster the standing of pro-India leaders in the state, allowing them to seize the political space in separatist strongholds. By taking away their strongest rallying cry, more separatists will be forced to seek negotiations with New Delhi, so that they can join the political mainstream. This political change could have security implications. Many Kashmiris, egged on by separatists, resent the army and New Delhi as 'occupying' forces. In the long term, insurgents can keep surviving in Kashmir only as long as some locals assist them. Here, a normal political situation can reassure locals and help the security forces. Encouraged by the security turnaround, New Delhi is already considering withdrawing 10,000 central security forces this year-that will reduce the sense of 'siege' some Kashmiris feel. More importantly, more normal politics mean the state government Mr. Abdullah leads will enjoy a significant level of authority. In years past, because of AFSPA's imposition, state governments found themselves shorn of credibility. Now Mr. Abdullah can serve his constituents better. This year, he has already turned his attention to economic growth and jobs. Withdrawing AFSPA from selected areas has the potential to dramatically transform the discourse over Kashmir. After decades of being spoken of in the same breath as, say, Palestine, Kashmir has the chance of being talked about as a normal place. Mr. Singh heads the national security program at the Takshashila Institution and is editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.