The murder in early June of two young girls, Nilofer and Asiya Jan, in Shopian in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has created waves of protest there. In the wake of their death, allegedly at the hands of security personnel, there have been demands for a “relook” into the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990 (Afspa). Afspa permits the Armed Forces a wide array of powers in a disturbed area.
There are two issues at hand, that of punishing those who committed the crime in Shopian, and the withdrawal of Afspa. The crime, it goes without saying, should not go unpunished. It is a test case for the credibility of the new government in J&K. If members of the Armed Forces or the paramilitary are involved, they should be given exemplary punishment, if only to underscore the point that they are not above the law.
The case linking the crime and the withdrawal of Afspa is, however, non-existent. The argument made by those who want the law to be removed is somewhat like this: The law gives overriding powers to the Armed Forces, and that leads to abuses such as those in Shopian. There is little evidence of that.
The army has been given these powers because terrorists don’t operate at the convenience of the law. A terrorist is unlikely to wait for a magistrate to give approval to policemen to engage in combat. Section 4(a) of the Act gives security personnel the power to engage and fire at terrorists in such situations.
If the law is withdrawn, it will only embolden terrorists. This would happen at a bad time. Pakistan is trying its best to tell the world that India cannot “control” Kashmir. Given renewed US attention on “solving” the Kashmir “problem”, any slack on India’s part, especially a decline in the security situation, is likely to add weight to US-Pak notions about the state. India should avoid falling into such a trap.
If the J&K police were capable of confronting terrorists, there would be no need for Afspa in the first place. But that capability has been non-existent, at least since the early 1990s. There are, of course, other factors at work in the situation, but the removal of Afspa will usher in conditions that will add to our problems in a difficult state.
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