Will New Delhi Allow its Troops in Kashmir to Face Prosecution?

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Chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah (C) addresses a press conference in the State Legislative Assembly in Srinagar on October 3, 2011. (Photo Rouf Bhat / AFP / Getty Images)

In August 2010, against the backdrop of last year’s fierce stone-pelting protests in Kashmir, I asked Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, about one of the protestors’ demands: the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a controversial law that gives Indian troops broad protection from prosecution for human rights abuses. (It is the same law applied in another state, Manipur, that the legendary activist Irom Sharmila has been fasting against for the past 11 years.) At the time of the interview, Abdullah was facing intense criticism for the brutal crackdown on protestors – more than 100 were killed last year – and he wanted to show that he was responsive to Kashmiris’ demands. Why retain AFSPA, they said, when the 20-year militancy had been all but defeated? The law had become a symbol of a generation’s worth of resentment against the presence of Indian troops in the Kashmir Valley. Abdullah issued a sweeping promise. If Srinagar, the capital, were quiet for at least a week, he said he would get the law revoked “in a matter of days.”

More than a year later, Abdullah is still trying to make good on that pledge. After months of calm in the Valley, on Oct. 21 he again promised to lift AFSPA from certain areas of the state — again in a matter of days. Instead Abdullah has watched as his promise withers on the political vine. The Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who also supports lifting AFSPA, has hedged his bets — backing Abdullah in principle but insisting that the Indian government should rightly take its time deliberating. Chidambaram’s position — “more consultations” — has the effect of burying the proposal in a committee for the foreseeable future.

That’s unfortunate. The summer of 2011 was the first in three years without protests, with checkpoints dismantled in Srinagar and tens of thousands of tourists revitalizing an economy that had been devastated by last year’s constant strikes, protests and curfews. But instead of recognizing the relative peace in Kashmir with a substantive policy change that would help bridge the gap between ordinary Kashmiris and the Indian state, New Delhi has fallen back into a very predictable kind of politics: the Congress Party vigorously defends the status quo; the opposition BJP, meanwhile, has seized on the opportunity to position itself as tough on separatist groups, warning that repealing AFSPA would make security forces vulnerable to “harassment in the name of protection of human rights,” according to the Times of India.

Neither of the two major political parties in India have been willing to embrace what the Indian government could claim as success in Kashmir — months of calm, the near-elimination of a 20-year-long insurgency and a deepening economic engagement that ties Kashmir to India as strongly as any military presence could. Instead, both parties cling to a law that belongs to another era. When the ghosts of the past re-emerge, as they constantly do in Kashmir — most recently with a state human rights agency’s report on nearly 2,000 unmarked graves along the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir — the Indian government’s unwillingness to move forward is a reminder for Kashmiris of everything they’ve lost.

For his part, Abdullah may not be the leader who can break this cycle. When he took office as chief minister in 2009, there were high hopes among Kashmiris that, as one of their own, he might usher in a new political detente with New Delhi. Instead, he has struggled to assert himself against his own allies in the Congress Party. His handling of last year’s protests was roundly criticized; he is now facing criticism of a much more sordid kind — he is separated from his wife and resorted to Twitter to address rumors about the split; then, he had to face down vehement calls to resign after one of his own party workers died in police custody. There has been speculation — denied by the Congress Party — that Abdullah would be replaced before his six-year term ends. But who sits in the chief minister’s chair may not be the real issue. It will take much more than that to turn a new chapter in this troubled region.