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Kashmir after Article 370: 'In my view, there should not be an AFSPA'

One year after Article 370 was effectively revoked, Radha Kumar, co-chair of The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, talks about their report on the impact of the decision

Paramilitary forces standing guard near a temporary checkpoint in Srinagar on 23 August 2019.
Paramilitary forces standing guard near a temporary checkpoint in Srinagar on 23 August 2019. (Photo: AP)

On the morning of 5 August 2019, Kashmiris found out on the news that the Union government had effectively revoked Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution and approved the decision to bifurcate the state into two Union territories—Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Even though the announcement was sudden and largely unexpected, premonitions of a major change had been palpable.

In the days leading up to it, there had been heavy deployment of troops in the valley. An additional 38,000 soldiers were flown in, the annual Amarnath Yatra was abruptly halted, and pilgrims were sent home. Rumours were flying about, including talk of a conflict with Pakistan, even as Satya Pal Malik, then governor of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, assured citizens that the government had no plans to alter the region’s special status.

On 5 August, the valley was plunged into a communication blackhole as phone lines and the internet were suspended. Politicians were detained, people arrested and curfew was imposed. Even today, only low-speed mobile data has been restored. In just a month, the devastation incurred by the loss and closure of businesses had totalled 1.4 billion, according to a BBC report. In the year since, there have been allegations of human rights violations. Covid-19 too has not spared Kashmir.

Radha Kumar, co-chair of The Forum For Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, tells Mint: “Habeas corpus cases are supposed to be dealt with immediately (charges under such draconian legislation as the PSA and UAPA too should be dealt with immediately). Our democracy is severely weakened by the failure to do so." UAPA is the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and PSA, Jammu and Kashmir’s Public Safety Act.

Taking a look at the impact on security (there were an estimated 135 incidents of militancy in 2019 and 80 in the first half of 2020), human rights, health, education, politics and other aspects of the revocation, effectively, of Article 370 and its aftermath, the forum has just released a report, Jammu and Kashmir: The Impact Of Lockdowns On Human Rights. The information has been compiled largely from questionnaires, government sources, media accounts, NGO fact-finding reports and information from public interest petitions. It also includes data from industry bodies such as the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I).

Members of the forum include Justice Ruma Pal, a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice A.P. Shah, a former Chief Justice of the Madras and Delhi high courts, Justice Hasnain Masoodi, a former judge of the Jammu and Kashmir high court, Moosa Raza, a former chief secretary, Jammu and Kashmir, former Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak (retired) and writer and historian Ramachandra Guha. It is co-chaired by Justice Madan B. Lokur, a former judge of the Supreme Court, and Radha Kumar, who was also a member of the group of interlocutors for the erstwhile state in 2010.

One of the key observations of the report is that while the clampdown resulted in a “decline in terrorist related incidents, overall fatalities and employment of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)", instances of attempted and net infiltration increased. Ceasefire violations rose from 449 in 2016 to 3,168 in 2019.

In all, 6,605 people were taken into preventive custody after 4 August 2019, according to Union home ministry data, and 444 of them were booked under Jammu and Kashmir’s Public Safety Act (PSA) of 1978.

“We limited our list to priority recommendations. Otherwise the list would have run into 50 or more recommendations," Kumar says. These include the demand for release of all political detainees; an appeal to repeal the PSA, along with other preventive detention legislation; the release of detained juveniles and withdrawal of charges against them; enquiries against the armed forces for violation of child rights; applying humanitarian guidelines during cordon and search operations; and the restoration of 4G internet and mobile services.

Mint spoke to Kumar about the report and her observations of the valley over the last year. Edited excerpts:

You have been studying human rights violations in Kashmir for a long time. How do you see the changes since 5 August 2019?

Earlier human rights violations were gross and to be condemned, but they were mostly in reaction to waves of militancy. The August actions, in contrast, were taken proactively, to impose policy choices that were known to be unpopular in the valley. They were not taken in response to militancy, which was relatively low going by the government’s own figures, but to prevent dissent against an unpopular policy and “stamp out" the remaining cadre of militant groups.

Given that the policy decisions have alienated almost the entire population of the valley, and Pakistan has ratcheted up its cross-border infiltration, the goal of stamping out appears unreachable. In any case, as we know from our own experience as well as from other similar conflicts worldwide, peace negotiations leading to DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) agreements are a far more lasting way of ending militancy.

What were your observations on the public health situation in Kashmir, particularly in dealing with covid-19?

As our report discovered, the situation of healthcare in the months after 4 August 2019 was dire. Hospitals closed most outpatient department (OPD) services and (stopped) even surgeries, clinics were shut, and since telephone and internet communications were also snapped, patients could not talk to doctors and pharmacies could not get vital medicines.

As far as the covid-19 situation is concerned, Jammu and Kashmir appears to suffer many of the same problems as the rest of the country, with one glaring exception—the ban on 4G services has made it far more difficult for doctors to treat their patients remotely or to keep up with best practices in medicine.

The report deals at length with the impact of the abrogation and resultant measures on children and the youth—ranging from behavioural patterns to education and mental health. The Union and Jammu and Kashmir administration detained 144 children in August-September 2019—the youngest was 9. What does this mean for the next generation of Kashmiris?

Tragically, I believe the policy decisions taken in August 2019 and their implementation over the past year have imposed such trauma on the valley that there is high likelihood that an entire generation, possibly two if we look at the age groups of 9-25, of young India-haters has been created.

Owing to the communication blockade, there has been a clash of narratives between the national media and reports from the ground. How do you think the communication blockade and new media policy have impacted the flow of information from the valley?

I believe that clash of narratives would have happened irrespective of the communications blockade. it has happened before and now is happening when some restricted communications have been allowed. During the months when there was absolutely no communication allowed, we had no news even of clashes. The new media policy is, quite simply, censorship of the kind we see in autocracies such as China. That it should have even been floated is outrageous. It is equally outrageous that journalists have been charged under UAPA. As you see from our report, we have sought that all charges be dropped and the new media policy be withdrawn.

The conversation about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) has come up several times since 5 August, but not really been foregrounded. Your thoughts?

In my view, there should not be an Afspa. Whatever protections are required for the security forces engaged in counter-insurgency should be incorporated into an amended army Act, bearing in mind that the army was not supposed to have to tackle internal insurgencies—that was a task for other security forces.

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