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Following an unfortunate incident of firing at allegedly unarmed civilians in Sopore, the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah bowing to popular pressure demanded the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the state. Unsurprisingly, in subsequent news reports, anonymous army sources strongly defended AFSPA and argued that its withdrawal would weaken the fight against terrorism.
But why should an allegation of this nature against the army lead to calls for withdrawal of the AFSPA? The Indian Parliament passed the Act in 1958 to enable effective counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland. Essentially, it grants the armed forces the right to operate in "disturbed areas" in aid of civil power. Under Section 6 of the AFSPA, the initiation of legal proceedings against any member of the armed forces operating under its provisions requires the prior approval of the central government. Therefore, while a First Information Report was registered against the army men in the Sopore incident, the local administration was powerless to prosecute them. And that is the crux of the dispute: How meaningful, the separatists argue, is the talk of autonomy when a duly elected government has to seek New Delhi's approval in such cases?
Leaving aside the emotive debate and the separatists' Machiavellian tactics, has the time come to reconsider AFSPA in Jammu & Kashmir? It is a question which needs to be debated seriously and widely as it is one that will determine to a large degree the state's path towards complete normalcy. The AFSPA was extended to the valley in 1990 in response to a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war which had led to a gory spectacle of ethnic cleansing and killings of innocent civilians. The local police was overwhelmed and army intervention was necessary to take on heavily armed and indoctrinated terrorists. In recent years, however, the security situation has improved dramatically with violence down to pre-1990 years in 2008, only 69 civilians died due to terrorist violence. More importantly, the long-suffering people of the state are tired of the culture of the gun. Even separatists have been forced to eschew the path of violence.
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