By Tom Wright March 21, 2011
Efforts to reform laws which give Indian security forces special powers in Kashmir have stalled despite promises from New Delhi to take a hard look following last summer’s violence.
A new report, released Monday by Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog, attempts to refocus attention on the issue.
The Amnesty report spotlights the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978, which allows authorities to detain people for up to two years without trial if they are suspected of acting “in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state.”
Amnesty says the law has been misused to keep separatists in detention without evidence of criminal activity. Some 8,000 to 20,000 people have been detained under the act in the past two decades, including over 300 in 2010, the report said.
It’s not the first time Amnesty has touched the issue. But opposition from India’s security forces, who say they need special powers to operate effectively in Kashmir, means little is likely to change in the near future.
The predominately-Muslim Kashmir Valley was in the 1990s the scene of a proxy war between Indian forces and Pakistan-backed militants.
The Public Safety Act, initially meant to deter timber smuggling, began to be widely used to arrest those suspected of helping militants. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a law from 1958 which shields Indian security personnel from prosecution for killing in “disturbed areas,” was extended to Kashmir in 1990 and remains in force.
Critics of these extraordinary powers, who include Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, believe time is ripe to narrow their scope.
Immunity for armed forces and detention without trial, coupled with the presence of more than half a million Indian security personnel in the state, has fostered separatist violence, Mr. Abdullah says.
Last summer, paramilitary police shot and killed more than 100 Kashmiri youths in massive street protests that lasted four months, giving some impetus to those who had been calling for reform.
India’s Home Ministry responded by saying it was mulling changing parts of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Mr. Abdullah has called for partial withdrawal of the act in areas of Kashmir which are relatively peaceful, such as Srinagar, the capital.
But the reform effort ran in to a brick wall: the armed forces.
Senior generals say it’s unfair to ask the military to operate in a domestic role without blanket immunity from prosecution.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony last month said the special laws were needed as long as infiltrations from Pakistan-based militants continued.
Instead, New Delhi has proposed more-modest actions. The Home Ministry says it plans to pull out 10,000 paramilitary forces later this year. Meanwhile, the central government appointed a three-person panel of experts to provide recommendations on how to solve the Kashmir issue. The panel is expected to submit its initial findings to the government this month.
Critics say New Delhi has room to make grander gestures given that infiltrations have fallen sharply and Kashmiri police estimate there are fewer than 500 militants, local and Pakistani, fighting in the state.
Violence is certainly down. The South Asia Terrorism Portal, a New Delhi-based think tank, says 13 militants have been killed so far this year compared to 270 last year and 2,850 in 2001 during the height of the violence.
Courtesy Wall Street Journal