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Kashmir: It's time for India take a risk

The removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which protects Indian troops from prosecution, would be a gesture of goodwill to Kashmir's population

Press conferences rarely throw up much wisdom.

But Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, made some good sense today when he suggested it was time for the central government in Delhi to take a risk when it came to one of the most controversial issues confronting his state.

The Essex-born politician, whose mother is British but whose father and grandfather were former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir and more, has been outspoken in his support of calls to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from at least parts of of Kashmir.

India’s armed forces say the act, which effectively protects troops from criminal prosecution, is essential if they are to act as security personnel in places such a Kashmir, where they might be required to shoot on sight or else break down the door of the house of a suspected militant. They say it also protects them from malicious prosecutions.

Campaigners, on the other hand, say the law allows troops to act with impunity and that they are seldom, if ever, charged over crimes such as rape or assault. They say it adds to the general sense of injustice felt by the overwhelmingly Muslim population of the Kashmir valley, which is now home to up to 600,000 soldiers, para-militaries and police.

Until now, the armed forces has had it's way, one of few instances of policy in India where the army has been the de facto decision maker, and individuals such as the chief minister repeatedly pushed back. 

On Monday, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Association of South Asia in Delhi, Abdullah again repeated his position that the act should be removed from some Kashmiri districts. “You cannot deny that the AFSPA has from time to time been misused,” he said.

He also drew a comparison between the approach of the central government to dealing with the AFSPA to its handling of the recent hanging of a Kashmiri man, Afzal Guru, who was convicted of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 but whose family insist was an innocent man.

In February, the Indian government drew international condemnation for the way Guru was hanged in secret, without his family being informed and before his lawyers had exhausted all his legal options. (The man’s family was officially told that a clemency plea to the president had been rejected and that he was to be hanged imminently in a letter that arrived two days after the execution.)

In the aftermath of the hanging, curfews were imposed across the Kashmir valley, newspapers were stopped from printing and security forces were put on alert amid fears there would be massive protests. As it was, the protests were limited.

The 43-year-old Abdullah was opposed to the hanging – indeed, on Monday he suggested he was not a fan of the death penalty whatsoever – and urged the central government not to proceed with its plan.

“My point to the government of India as to be that you cannot be selective in your to risk-taking,” Abdullah told journalists. “The removal of the AFSPA is a risk...But then when I say that hanging Afzal Guru is a risk and that you can’t know what will happen, it’s a risk you are willing to take. What is it?”

Disputed Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have twice gone to war, is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking of places. Yet it is also one of the darkest.

A separatist militancy that took hold in the early 1990s and the subsequent crackdown by the security forces has taken a minimum of 70,000 lives. In an often-overlooked footnote, the Hindu population of Kashmir either fled or was forced from the valley in fear for the their lives.

Today, unemployment and mental health problems are ubiquitous. And though the valley has enjoyed two peaceful summers, which has seen tourists return in record numbers, Kashmiris complain that the government in Delhi only listens to their concerns when the streets of Srinagar are full of stone-throwing teenagers and burning barricades. Justice is something the authorities have repeatedly failed to deliver.

Abdullah and others believe removing the AFSPA would be a hugely important signal that the central government was prepared to listen. They believe it is risk worth taking.