SRINAGAR - As armed insurgency in India's northern Jammu and Kashmir ebbs, the
elected state government is keen to hasten a return to normalcy by easing
draconian security laws and re-opening cinemas and liquor stores banned by
fundamentalist militant groups.
Since 2003 when the security situation in the Kashmir Valley showed signs of
improvement, common people, civil society groups and political leaders have
been demanding revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that
allows spot arrests and indefinite detentions without trial.
"We have been living under the shadow of the gun for over two decades now.
Surely we deserve better treatment and a chance
to live normal lives," says Altaf Bhat, who has a postgraduate degree in
economics but is unemployed.
Young people like Bhat are whiling away their time in Internet cafes because of
a drastic drying up of opportunities that followed in the wake of militancy.
The AFSPA was enacted by Indian parliament in 1990 as a response to the
militancy in the Muslim-majority state, the ownership of which is claimed by
the neighboring Pakistan.
"The time has come for the revocation of laws [under the AFSPA], which were
invoked in the state after militancy, from some areas of the state," said Jammu
and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah late October, triggering a debate that
quickly found resonance across the country.
A New Delhi-appointed three-member team of peace interlocutors, which submitted
its report to the Indian government in October on how to address the concerns
of Kashmiris, has recommended a phased withdrawal of the AFSPA.
Politically, Abdullah's stance has been criticized by the Congress party, which
partners his National Conference (NC) party in the state government. The
Congress party also leads the centrally-ruling United Progressive Alliance
government in which the NC is a participant.
Objections have also come from the Indian army, which is deployed in strength
in the state, on the grounds that removal of the AFSPA, which provides legal
cover for its personnel, will hamper counter-insurgency operations.
The army, according to news reports published in Indian media, asserts that
some 2,500 militants believed to be based in the part of Kashmir that is
controlled by Pakistan could return to the Kashmir valley and disrupt the peace
if the AFSPA is withdrawn.
Abdullah finds that assertion unconvincing. "Our intention is to lift the AFSPA
from areas where army is not required," he says.
On December 7 he told a gathering of people: "If we compare the situation in
the state from 2002 to 2011, militancy has come down to 5% only. That is why I
say the time is ripe for revocation of AFSPA."
In meetings he held with India's Defense Minister A K Antony in November,
Abdullah pointed out that this year has seen a minor boom in tourism with 1.3
million arrivals recorded until October.
At home, the chief minister is under pressure from Kashmir's largest opposition
party, the People's Democratic Party, civil society and the common people who
are insistent that the AFSPA must be revoked without further delay.
"All the human-rights violations are taking place because the security
personnel know they are protected by this powerful law no matter how grave the
rights violations," Zameer Ahmed, a Kashmiri youth, told Inter Press Service
Sheikh Showkat, who teaches human rights in Kashmir University, told IPS: "For
the revocation of the law, the government has to show seriousness and convince
those who are against its revocation. But so far, there has only been
Said Nazeer Baba, an arts student at Srinagar's Amar Singh College: "We should
not be held hostage to a final solution to the Kashmir issue or the complete
cessation of militancy in the valley."
Meanwhile, as part of its drive to restore normalcy and boost the state's
tourism industry, the Kashmir government has announced plans to reopen movie
theaters and liquor shops which were banned by fundamentalist groups as the
armed conflict in Kashmir had started in 1989.
Abdullah says that when cinemas and liquor shops are freely doing business in
Islamic countries, "it is pointless to ban them in Kashmir Valley."
However, the Valley's six million people are predominantly Muslim and hardline
separatist leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani have criticized the plan.
"I am very interested to know how many OIC [Organization of Islamic Conference]
member countries - including Pakistan and Bangladesh - allow cinemas to
function in their countries," Abdullah said reacting to objections from Geelani
set out in a published statement.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, a cadre-based religio-political organization, declared
that, "Whether it is a liquor shop or the cinema hall; both are sources of
propagation of obscenity, immorality and imprudence".
It is not only the religious orthodoxy which has objections.
Noted columnist Aijaz-ul-Haq says local sensitivities are involved, especially
where the plan to reopen liquor shops is concerned. "The government should heed
the concerns of its own people first - tourists come later."
"Kashmir is not a theocratic state, but social sensitivities are not bound by
religious laws alone," Tanveer Tahir, a student, told IPS. "If the government
says liquor and cinema boosts tourism, does that mean it will also allow
prostitution to flourish in the state just to attract tourists?"