Confusing signals

Two important policy announcements on Kashmir, made by Union home secretary G K Pillai, show the confusion and lack of co-ordination within the government on important issues concerning the state.

Pillai announced that the troop strength in the state is proposed to be reduced by 25 per cent in the next 12 months and a new permit system may be designed to allow people of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir to visit Jammu and Kashmir crossing the Line of Control. Both proposals are controversial and evoked strong responses not only from those who are knowledgeable about the situation in the state but also from people and agencies involved in maintaining peace.

Home minister P Chidambaram had done some loud thinking about troop reduction over a year ago, but Pillai has now announced the decision in concrete terms. Chidambaram’s proposal was not acted upon because the situation in the state had deteriorated soon after that. Now there is a lull but it is a matter of debate whether it is time to start planning withdrawals.

Army chief General V K Singh has outright rejected the idea of troops reduction and said he is not aware of any government decision on it. He has also indicated that any reduction will put additional pressure on the forces deployed in the valley. That raises the question whether the proposal was discussed within the government and the army was consulted before it was announced.

The government’s Kashmir policy has suffered in the past because of internal differences. The role of the army, which has deployed over five lakh troops in the state, is important for maintenance of peace and it is very odd that an important decision was taken and announced without taking its views into consideration.

Reduction of troops, dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and liberalisation of travel norms for people may all be good confidence-building measures but it is important that they are timed well to produce the best results. More importantly, the decision should represent a consensus within the government, taken after considering different views and all pros and cons.

While it was improper for the army chief to make a public statement contradicting an announcement from  a top official on a decision purportedly taken by the government, it is for the political leadership to ensure that mixed messages are not sent out to the people on vital issues.

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