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Of AFSPA and Women in Kashmir: A Perspective

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Armed forced Special powers Act (1958) is indeed a draconian law given its ramifications in any conflict zone of India. Manipur’s Irom Sharmila was on a hunger strike for 16 long years but the state never respected the protest by her and ultimately Irom called off her strike on August 9,2016 and is planning to join mainstream politics to change the system.

She is being advised not to give up her hunger strike and even threatened by extremists of dire consequences. AFSPA has literally became a state agency of exploitation right from Kashmir to Manipur putting women at extreme risk of rape, molestation and even murder.

Tripura’s Manik Sarkar government’s decision on revoking AFSPA recently was much hailed in public and intellectual circles however, the ripple effect as expected was the fresh revival of the incessant demand for revocation of AF(JK)SPA in Jammu and Kashmir. While it was argued that the much hyped, much maligned and controversial law in Tripura was revoked through a consistent effort by the State government on the basis of decrease in militancy (violence) related incidents, it is now expected by masses in Kashmir that such a positive development should pave way for Mehbooba Mufti led PDP-BJP coalition government to get the law repealed either fully or partially at least from the less or no vulnerable areas. For impact assessment the key questions that arise are how often AFSPA has been used by Armed Forces as a shield against violation of Human Rights and other aberrations, or is it the excessive politicization of the issue in the State by the mainstream as well as the separatist ideologies which keeps AFSPA tussle always fresh and benefits both and lastly why is it that people still view AFSPA through the prism of past and as a symbol of constant oppression? It will not be wrong to maintain that irrespective of the merits and demerits of AFSPA, the act has been highly politicized and therefore perceived as a draconian law. Perhaps the Centre and the Armed Forces have not done enough to explain the real essence of the act or the fact that despite the act in place, what measures have been adopted to ensure that there is no misuse of the act. Army time and again says that over 97% of the allegations made against them have turned out to be false and action has been taken against those who erred, however there has been no proactive effort to substantiate these claims and trust deficit and sustained enemy perception among masses have also played a disastrous role thereby sustaining confusion and distrust. Contrary to this, adding fuel to the fire, the Defence Ministry finds it proper to blatantly opine that the law is a must if army has to operate in the State. Partially due to the lack of communication and partially due to past acts of omission and commission or excessive politicization, tremendous trust deficit has been generated between the people and the security apparatus which should be addressed on priority. This perceptual difference particularly conflicting views on AFSPA negate all other people friendly efforts of the army undertaken to bridge the army civilian dichotomous. As peace permeates through the minds of the people, the demand for dividends of peace including scrapping of the law, even if partially, as yet another people friendly step, is increasing.

Mass Anger against AFSPA

People friendly voices also opine that AFSPA revocation should find space in Prime Minister’s promise of deliveringInsaniyat (humanity) and Jamhooriyat (democracy) in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. However, security experts maintain that before analyzing the arguments and counter arguments, it will be proper to take a look at the similar contemporary provisions existing in other countries besides ground realities where insurgency undoubtedly has come down and active militancy has declined considerably but the intensity of threats across the border and terror machine has remained constant. Having seen the provisions adopted by various countries for dealing with insurgency, it will be apt to analyze the views of Army on AFSPA and its repeal. Army somewhat seems to believe that AFSPA is neither as draconian as it has been made to look nor it has been used in the manner as it is projected. Any excesses that may have taken place in the past have been verified and actions against erring personnel have been taken as per the law of the land. However, for reasons of empowerment, morale and fear of excessive caution on part of the troops operating under life threatening conditions, such a provision is important. While forces believe that to check misuse of the powers bestowed on Armed Forces, there are do’s and don’ts, the Army Chief’s ten commandments and force ethos that various levels of headquarters have enforced and there is no question of any violations, however, in the chaos ridden valley violations have occurred in the past and innocents have suffered. Moreover, if army believes that it cannot and it should not operate without the enabling act, there would be a need to build a political consensus between the State and the Centre on the needs of today’s security situation. Two elements of the nation’s executive cannot have opposite views on such a crucial provision of the security domain. Even as Kashmir reaches the stage of conflict stabilization, fresh threats loom before it in the form of the effects of the turbulent situation in Afghanistan, the entry of the Islamic State and recruitment of local youth within Kashmir.

Therefore a general opinion is held that considering the magnitude of the perceived false allegations, it will be impossible to handle the cases without having serious implications on operational efficiency and morale. However, with the rising consciousness of human rights the very language of the law is considered offensive and treated by civilians as simply against human rights. Arguments about dwindling number of active militants and counter arguments about the uncertainty of turbulence continue to occupy the mind and media space of Kashmir, however without much clarity of thought and action but just a sea of perceptions.

AFSPA Tussle: Some Questions

Why was the law enacted is not difficult to answer. From 1989 onwards Kashmir witnessed law and order collapse and the circumstances in the State turned so grave that Army had to be called in which needed enabling legal provisions like AFSPA. The question of why is it considered draconian, simply citing certain acts of excesses and mishandlings by the Armed Forces justifies the label. The question of who does it suit to label it draconian, not only all those who like to whip up the emotions of the public for their vested interests, but those who suffered under its garb. Given the labels it clearly seems that AFSPA supporters have failed to portray the act correctly. The question also arises whether the Army and the Centre has lost the perception battle on AFSPA and If so, why? We know that the main protagonist in the perception battle is Army which is pitched against host of key players like mainstream political parties and the parallel ideologies but army should never take AFSPA revocation debate like an attack. The question also arises that can a fresh perception battle be undertaken on a different set of ideas? The supporters argue that it is rather an issue of information and awareness and not a perception battle but has become a perception battle today, rather a clash of egos. While sane minds understand excess of hue and cry on AFSPA as propaganda and politicization but they equally acknowledge the people’s suffering over past 26 years amid laws like AFSPA and PSA and therefore a fresh debate is needed on the subject. Also the pressing question arises that would a fresh legislation with less offensive language pass muster, along with a fresh label? I think Army must not be averse to any such move as it is true that AFSPA employs objectionable terminology. Also the question of the Supreme Court’s Do’s and Don’ts, the SOPs of the Army incorporated in 1994 and the Force Ethos of formations? Can they be used to dilute perceptions of the law being draconian? Possibly this is a direction that could lead to acceptance. The Do’s and Don’ts enunciated by the Army, the SOP’s for conduct of operations, the Rules of Engagement of the Army and various Force Ethos that are adopted need to be clearly explained to the people which is yet to be effectively done. The Army has been traditionally shy of media and therefore partially responsible for the lack of adequate knowledge of people about information which could be game changing.

The last question is how much has the situation changed from 1990 when it was first enacted? Is it sufficient to warrant removal of the law? The issues that need to be addressed at this juncture are not AFSPA but at societal level, radicalization especially of youth needs to be curbed. At political level, a lot including rehabilitation of ex/surrendered/released/retuned militants, development of opportunities, management of education, generation of more economic infrastructure, etc, must be addressed. At diplomatic level, India must use the diplomatic channels to force its hostile neighbor to shun terror as an instrument of foreign policy. Last but not the least, resolution of Kashmir issue as such is a must for lasting peace. The State Government needs to enhance the capabilities of the Police and allied security agencies to take on the Public Order challenges. The question remains that how many times has AFSPA issue been discussed in the Unified Headquarters Meetings or Corps Group Meetings?

On the legal front, it is believed that the law was enacted based on the definition of ‘disturbed’ , thus giving security forces a mandate and enabling powers to achieve the national security objectives. There is also a feeling that such an unneeded hue and cry is for political diatribes and such a message has gone across and needs to be corrected. However, given the fact that Kashmir has already suffered for decades together sustaining peace and public relief is far more vital than political rhetoric or AFSPA in itself. Therefore, the Centre and Army must adopt a pragmatic approach towards the necessity and possibility of revocation of AFSPA from the areas where it is no more needed. We must acknowledge that any Act of this nature cannot remain in force for ever and the fallouts of the prolonged continuation of the law on the society and even on the image of the Army. Constant army-civilian trust deficit in Kashmir needs to be abridged, and that will only happen if the concerns of the people are addressed and at the moment the AFSPA issue is perhaps the biggest. Simultaneously, the real concerns of the people relate to the PSA, due to which large number of youths has been subjected to arbitrary and prolonged detention, often without trial. The state government need to take a serious view of this and at the same time needs to pursue the issue of revocation of AFSPA seriously in collaboration with the army leadership and the Centre .Amnesty international recently recommended the scrapping of the law in its report titled, “Denied: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir” calling AFSPA as the primary facilitator of impunity and stated that it does not behove a democratic country like India to have such an act in any of its parts. The perception battle exists as AFSPA has not been portrayed correctly to the people perhaps not reflected well by the forces initially and with the result is has been assumed as draconian and needs a rethink. Notwithstanding the arguments and counter-arguments on revocation of AFSPA, there is surely a need to review the Act. Perhaps enacting a new law that takes into account the past experiences, mishandlings and issues of the Army as well as the Human Rights concerns of the people, is the need of the hour.

AFSPA AND Women in Kashmir

Women have been the victims of the draconian Act in the conflict ridden Kashmir valley. On February 23, 1991, many women were raped in Kunan-Poshpora, twin villages in Kupwara district of Kashmir by soldiers. There are scores of other instances where women in Kashmir or Manipur faced humiliation in the political conflict in terms of rape, sexual humiliation and sexual torture and even killing. From the rape and murder of Manipuri girl Thangjam Manorama to the double rape and murder of Asia-Neelofar in Shopian of Kashmir are testimony to the fact that AFSPA has affected women in the country. Such a law has added to the mass alienation to a greater extent as people feel it empowers the military who commit human rights abuse. AFSPA is the main reason of dichotomy between masses and military and has time and gain being questioned by people who think it is simply a license to kill, torture, arrest and rape.

Last Word

Keeping the fallouts of the prolonged continuation of the law in view, it has been time and again maintained that AFSPA in the state needs a rethink given its tenure, relevance, past human rights violations, mounting public anger, crisis mishandlings and aberrations and constant army-civilian trust deficit. Simultaneously it is being argued by masses and analysts that in case the uncertainty and chaos or violence returns, who can stop the Centre to reinstall the law again. While Home ministry seems considering reduction in possible deployment of central forces in North east states, it should not close its eyes on Kashmir and not just focus on development packages but be serious on the delivery of justice in the State.

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South Asia

Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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South Asia

Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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Pakistani Fanatics and their Foreign Policy Overtures

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A prudent leader ought to have regard not only for present troubles but also for future ones. They must prepare with every energy because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time. Through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy. These words are famously attributed to 16th-century Italian Philosopher Machiavelli, advising the ruler about statecraft, in his Magnus Opus, The Prince.

A similar kind of ignorance and obliviousness against which Machiavelli was warning to the ruler of the state was reflected by the government of Imran Khan when protests by a radical religious organization (TLP) shook the country from 11-20 April. Previous to this latest episode, TLP has also staged various sit-in and violent protests by which they effectively froze all life in twin cities as well as in various cities of Punjab.

2017 Faizabad interchange protest was the zenith of its anarchical behavior. In that protest, TLP demanded the resignation of the law minister altering the oath declaration in the election bill 2017. Preceding, the court heard a plea on the stated matter. Justice Qazi Faiz Essa while hearing a plea on the case, remarked; “The ambitious leadership of a fledgling political party [TLP] projected itself as the defender of the Muslim faith. They provoked religious sentiment, stoked the flames of hatred, abused, resorted to violence, and destroyed property worth Rs.163 million.”  Another takeaway from the ruling of the Supreme Court goes like, “Protestors who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against by the law and held accountable.”

Qazi Faiz Essa’s observation is enough to make a viewpoint on the organization. It is recommended that steps must be taken to curtail the reach of TLP. But allowing its leaders to further myth-spin bogus and inflammatory narratives, catch the attention of masses, effect normalcy in the country, and take hostage federal and provincial capitals many times after that shows sheer incapability on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the recent episode is also another criticism of religiosity interwoven within Pakistani society that has been exploited by opportunists to gain the support of the masses since its birth. TLP, an amalgamation of religio-political narrative, first appeared on the scene when it demanded the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the person who assassinated Governor Punjab Salman Taseer for criticizing blasphemy laws. After the execution of Qadri, Rizvi laid the foundation of Tehreek-E-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) for the purpose to protect the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan under the banner of protecting Honor for Prophet (PBUH). TLP is the political wing of TLYR which emerged as the 5th most popular political group in the electoral race of 2018. These numbers are a barometer to show that the party has gained considerable support among the masses for its narrative

Though the rise of TLP is attributed to fault lines within the domestic political culture of Pakistan and cultural cleavages that exist in the society. The recent protests were the result of its activeness in international affairs relevant to its narrative. The group tried to dictate the foreign relations of Pakistan. In the latest episode, TLP took on the streets again and demanded severing diplomatic ties with France. In the short aftermaths of TLP protests, European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling the review of the GSP+ status of Pakistan for abuse of blasphemy laws and expressed deep concerns over prevailing anti-French sentiments.

To add insult to injury, all of this is happening at a time when Pakistan is looking to create a soft image for herself, seeking an effective role in regional and international organizations for political and economic benefits, lobbying to move out of FATF grey list, and initiating an international campaign to unmask Indian state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, etcetera. Unfortunately, this has seriously jeopardized our pursuit of national interests and can nullify progress.

Disrespect for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is an issue sensitive to all Muslims but there is always a better way of doing things. The goal should be to stop disrespect and blasphemy and not forging further cause of hatred. On the other hand, the French president defended the acts as Freedom of Expression – a value so dear to the west – so even if Pakistan sends the French Ambassador back and suffers all the losses, is there any assurance for improvement in a situation regarding blasphemous content? What will be the next step of TLP if this continues? What will be the alternatives for Pakistan after that? Surely, this calls for some reflection on self-proclaimed defenders of religion. Government, on its part, must opt for softer and diplomatic ways in reaching out to France and making them realize the severity of the issue for Muslims.

To sum up, State ought not to be bogged down by religious pressure groups and fanatics like TLP for the reason being that they have not understood long-term national interests. Pledging to Khadim Rizvi on moving the parliament about French ambassador was never a wise act. One should have been vigilant enough to access the Omens. Furthermore, the government must impart this to such groups that they must not test the nerves of the state. It is in the interest of the state as well as government to not let things slip out of hand and go this further hereafter where one more episode similar to this makes international isolation inevitable.

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