Kashmir takes a turn for the better

The exemplary punishment meted out by an army court to two officers and three soldiers for the illegal encounter of three civilians in the Macchil area of Kupwara district in Jammu and Kashmir has, for once, redeemed the Indian military’s oft-repeated promise not to take lightly any of its men found guilty of transgressing the law.

The life imprisonment handed out to the five is bound to have a salutary effect on the mood in the Valley which has over the years felt alienated. Coming as it is amidst a clamour for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the army court ruling may blunt the edge of such a demand but not quite. A few days ago, the army had admitted guilt and apologised for the killing of two civilians and injuring two more in the Chattergam area of Budgam district. The admission, at the least, indicated that the Indian army was willing to own up a mistake.  On the other hand, the Macchil encounter in 2010 saw no such response.

 As a result, it triggered massive protests across the Valley leading to the death of around 120 civilians in the police firing. The three victims of the encounter were lured by the promise of jobs by the five army personnel, taken to a remote spot in Macchil and shot in cold blood. The five culprits were aiming to get rewards meant for killing those suspected of indulging in terrorism in the valley.

Military personnel had routinely got away with murder and illegal actions in the past in the Kashmir Valley: the Pathribal encounter of 2000 in which five civilians were killed, the Kunan-Poshpora mass rape of 1991, the Bomai killings of 2009 and the Ganderbal encounter of 2006, among others.  None of these saw the security personnel involved paying the penalty. The Macchil verdict, therefore, is a huge step forward in sending a message to rogue sections of the military that they cannot get away any more if they break the law and target innocent civilians. 

But the larger point to ponder is whether the AFSPA is really needed. At the height of the separatist conflict after 1989, there probably was a justification for it but since the marked improvement post-2001, civilian laws seem adequate to deal with the occasional blips of violence. The positive response to elections and a stable state government are indicators that the situation has changed for the better.

 Making the valley AFSPA-free will also set in motion democratic processes that can guarantee lasting peace and let the military do what it is meant to: fight the external enemy.  

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