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New Delhi, July 5 (ANI): Today, July 5th is being marked as the 25th anniversary of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act or popularly known as AFSPA in the strife torn state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Over the past couple of years a public debate on the removal of the ‘disturbed area’ tag, and thus revocation of AFSPA from parts of J&K, has drifted in to what appears like a confrontation between the State political leadership and the Army.

The AFSPA was invoked on this very day in the year 1990. I recall it to be the most challenging times India has ever faced. At this time, around roughly four lakh Kashmiri pandits were displaced from the valley.

Beyond comparison this is the darkest chapter in India’s modern history. It was at this time when the helpless state witnessed ethnic cleansing masterminded from across the borders in Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The Pakistani supported secessionism had led to a communal divide severing the centuries old social contract between the Hindus and the Muslims of the Kashmir valley. Kashmiriyat was brutally murdered while India watched it bleed silently in despair.

On the eve of invoking AFSPA, the secessionist and militants’ activities perpetrating violence were at the peak. The law and order situation did not permit adequate governance, thus the area was declared a ‘Disturbed Area’ followed by application of the AFSPA. Needless to say it was a turning point and it enabled the Indian Army in making the environment conducive for the return of administration and resumption of constitutional processes.

The political, legal and the military aspects, both for and against can be debated at lengths running into time and space. However looking at it from the human aspects, I feel it is my duty to put the AFSPA in context with actuals after having served in those areas for over six years. I recall an incident that throw light on the ground realities and the impact of AFSPA on lives of soldiers and civilians alike.

This being an incident that occurred in a small hamlet between Taratpora and Vilgam roughly 3 km apart in Kupwara district in the winter of 1998 / 99. A NCO led patrol was on its way back to Taratpura from Vilgam after completing an operational task. It was around 10 at night when this party was fired from close quarters by the militants who melted away in the surroundings rather easily.

The weather conditions that night were blizzard like and thus the visibility restricted to a few feet. The patrol commander got injured and the comrades pulled him into safety inside a Kashmiri Pandit’s abandoned hut that lay partially burned.

I rushed with my QRT from Taratpora and cordoned off this village. While the injured soldier was being given medical attention, we started the search of this village. All the inhabitants were collected next to the mosque, old and the young, women and children. They were all left exposed to the blowing snow and bone biting cold. Determined to nab the culprits, we pressed on with our house to house search.

A shemozzle amongst the assembled villagers attracted my attention. Despite the risk of exposing self and the troops to the likely militants hiding, I turned on the flash light putting my troops under the spotlight who were managing the crowd. To my utter horror I caught a soldier in an act, he was groping a young woman.

The AFSPA had enabled us to react to the militant situation promptly, leading to a cordon followed by the search. Something that is a must in a developing counter insurgency situation. Waiting for the magistrate or a local police in-charge and initiation of operation subject to their permission would have been impractical and exercise in futility.

Unfortunately it was this AFSPA that was taken advantage off and a soldier dared to outrage the modesty of a woman. Having lost the moral high ground, I called off the operation and personally apologised to the village headman before pulling back to my company base. This soldier was summarily punished under the Army Act.

The chances of cornering the militants were bleak. Nevertheless there were those amongst us who criticised my decision to abandon search on pretext of this incident. In their view the villagers should have suffered for their act of harbouring militants who fired at our soldiers.

It is this attitude that has caused a greater harm than anything else. Revocation of AFSPA under circumstances akin to the nineties and the following decade would have been suicidal. However, the situation has largely turned in favour of peace and prosperity. It is high time we take cognisance of prevailing ground realities.

In the past 25 years, lot of excesses have been committed from all the sides involved in the Kashmir dispute. A complete generation has been lost in this turmoil. It is high time the statesmen take charge and bite the bullet. In a democratic country like ours, the Army has won in Kashmir but India has lost.

A de-novo look on AFSPA in Kashmir is the need of the hour. Who stops us from re-invoking AFSPA if the need arises again? Thus it is the right time; peace in the valley is given a chance.

(Col. (retd.) Danvir Singh is the associate editor of the Indian Defence Review). (ANI)

By Col. (retired) Danvir Singh

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