Is it the right time to withdraw AFSPA from J&K?

Ritesh K Srivastava

The brazen militant attack on a CRPF camp in the heart of Srinagar’s Bemina locality on March 13 in which five brave CRPF jawans were killed has reignited the debate over the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from the Kashmir Valley.

Since it is the first major fidayeen attack by the militants in the past three years it could well be an indication of return of militancy in Jammu & Kashmir - considered to be one of the most volatile areas of the region.

The attack also points to serious loopholes in the country’s security mechanism, especially in militancy-hit states like J&K and failure on part of the intelligence agencies to apprehend the militants before they succeed in executing their nefarious designs.

Had the local police and the armed forces worked seriously on the inputs gathered from the intelligence agencies, the deadly attack by militants in Srinagar could have been easily avoided and the militants disguised as cricket players, concealing arms in their cricket kits would not have been able to carry out the game of death.

With Home Secretary RK Singh suspecting Pakistan’s hand in the Srinagar’s fidayeen attack and the Centre ordering a thorough probe into the incident, there remains no doubt that it was a well-calibrated and meticulously planned attack.

What is further discerning is the fact that dreaded militant organizations like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizbul-Mujahideen and many others, funded and backed by Pakistan, are trying to regroup and disturb peace in J&K, which has by and large remained calm in the last couple of years.

The fidayeen attack in Srinagar is a warning for the Centre to reassess its policy of phased withdrawal of Army from parts of Jammu and Kashmir. This becomes even more important in view of increased demands from the National Conference government led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah regarding the withdrawal of AFSPA from his state.

Omar Abdullah, who has been making passionate appeals to revoke AFSPA, preferred to remain silent on the issue after the attacks. Interestingly his father Farooq Abdullah pressed for the withdrawal of AFSPA on the same day that militants carried out the fidayeen attack in rinagar.

But one thing is clear, in the light of Srinagar attack, it would now be difficult for Omar Abdullah to press for AFSPA’s removal on the ground of declining militancy in Kashmir.

Defence experts and former Army officers, who have served in J&K have strongly opposed the repeal of AFSPA from the Kashmir Valley on the grounds that it would pose serious security threat and allow the militants to regain foothold in the state.

Now that pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen has taken responsibility for the fidayeen attack, it becomes imperative for the security forces to remain more vigilant to be able to thwart further plans by the terror outfit to carry out more such attacks in the future.

Similarly, greater coordination among various intelligence agencies is also required to foil any attempt to create unrest in the country. The attack in Srinagar comes days after the twin blasts in Hyderabad and both could be part of pro-Pakistan terrorist outfits` agenda to unleash bloodbath across the nation to avenge the execution of Parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru recently.

Srinagar city, Budgam, Samba and Ganderbal are some of the important towns proposed by the state government for the repeal of AFSPA. Budgam, in Srinagar, has been the most peaceful in terms of militancy in the Kashmir Valley. As per official data, no single militancy related incident has been reported from the area since 2008 making it a perfect case for the J&K government to press for AFSPA’s removal.

Srinagar city too has witnessed a steep decline in militancy in the last five years. From year 2006 to 2010, the graph of militancy related incidents went down by at least 70%, according to official figures. Thanks to the improving situation, the Army did not take part in any major anti-insurgency operation in the city in the past seven years.

Considering that there are about 3.5 lakh Army personnel in J&K, including 70,000 men of Rashtriya Rifles at present, removing ASPSA will surely be a tricky matter for the Centre.

The ruling National Conference leadership perceives the Army`s opposition to the AFSPA act as a threat and something that undermines the elected leadership in the state.

However, the Army holds a different opinion and opposes the move on the grounds that those areas from where the law is lifted will become safe havens for militants.

Even as the bitter turf war between the two sides continues over the issue of partial and phased removal of AFSPA, which gives sweeping powers to security forces in counter-terror operations, the fact is that it needs to be looked at objectively, keeping the national interest in mind.

It would be better if the decision on withdrawing AFSPA is left to be taken by the unified command, headed by the Jammu and Kashmir CM and comprising top officials of Army, paramilitary forces and the state police.