MUMBAI // After three weeks of virulent anti-India protests that crippled normal life in the Kashmir valley, separatist leaders and human-rights groups have stepped up their long-standing demand that a controversial military law they blame for recurring human-rights abuses by the Indian army be revoked.
The recent violence, which claimed 11 lives, is believed to be the largest such incident of civilian unrest in the valley in two years. On Wednesday, the Indian government accused the Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, of stoking the civilian protests. Kashmiri separatists, however, warned against discounting public anger which has escalated due to incidents of civilian killings by Indian security forces.
"Killings are happening continuously," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a separatist leader who heads the moderate faction of Kashmir's Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of Kashmiri separatist political groups. "The government, police and armed forces are not held accountable. The government is not addressing these crimes." At the heart of the grievance is the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA), an emergency law imposed two decades ago that grants soldiers unrestricted powers to contain the insurgency in Indian-occupied Kashmir since 1990.
AFSPA empowers soldiers to arrest without a warrant, even on mere suspicion; search anybody or anyplace, also without warrant and fire upon or use force to the point of causing death. But far from containing the insurgency, AFSPA, which is also imposed in certain insurgency-affected states in India's north-east, has become a symbol of oppression, breeding anger and hate against the Indian state, observers say.
AFSPA, human-rights groups say, is grossly misused, and has introduced a culture of impunity among soldiers. More than 1,500 cases of human-rights abuses have been filed against the Indian army in the last decade, according to the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, a Srinagar-based rights group. More than 20 Kashmiris, said by the military to be militants, were gunned down in encounters with security personnel in April and May. All of the victims were found to be ordinary civilians.
Prosecutions of such killings have been rare. Between 2007 and 2009, the state government asked the country's ministry of defence for permission to prosecute 23 soldiers for human-rights violations, but it did not receive the required go-ahead. There is a culture in the army of evaluating the performance of security personnel on the basis of the number of kills, some observers say. "Kills equal rewards and promotions," said a Srinagar based commentator who has closely studied troop deployment in the valley and who spoke on condition of anonymity, "Kills are a benchmark for evaluating a battalion's performance. Also, there's constant pressure to deliver results," he said.
The army denies there is an official policy of rewarding "kills". Over the years, the number of Indian soldiers in Kashmir has swelled to 500,000 - that is one soldier for every 20 Kashmiris, the highest soldier-to-civilian ratio in the world. Analysts say the Indian army has enough reasons to cut down the number of troops. The insurgency is now simmering far less intensely. By the Indian government's own estimates, militancy had ebbed to an all-time low in recent years. Islamic militants operating in the valley are down from nearly 10,000 in the early 1990s to less than 500 at the moment, according to Kuldeep Khoda, Kashmir's police chief.
Militancy-related fatalities declined continuously since their peak of 4,507 in 2001 to well below 1,000 for the third consecutive year in 2008. But the army has not cut down its strength despite this progress. IPTK said in a recent statement: "Armed forces are present at educational institutions, hospitals, shopping complexes, cafes and hotels, sporting events, playgrounds, and bazaars. They monitor people as they enter mosques and shrines. Indian-administered Kashmir is not a 'problem' but a conflict zone."
The Indian army maintains it cannot slash its troop strength until Pakistan dismantles the terror infrastructure on its soil. The Indian army has said that nearly 2,500 militants trained in 34 camps in Pakistan are desperately trying to cross the "Line of Control" - the de-facto border separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir - via melting snowcaps. Mr Khoda recently told the Press Trust of India: "Going by the infiltration bids made, there is no change in attitude of handlers [of militants] across the border who want to push in infiltrators."
Gen VK Singh, India's army chief, said that in such a scenario, repealing or diluting AFSPA "will impinge adversely on the manner in which armed forces operate in counter-insurgency duties." Suhas Chakma, the director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights disagrees with this assessment."The strength of the army cannot come from a draconian law like AFSPA," he said. "It only alienates the local population."