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INDIA: Kashmir Clamours for Normalcy

With opportunities limited in troubled Kashmir, youth mark time surfing the internet. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

With opportunities limited in troubled Kashmir, youth mark time surfing the internet. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

SRINAGAR, India, Dec 13 2011 (IPS) - 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 reopening movie theatres and liquor shops, 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) which 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 neighbouring 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 wsy to address the concerns of Kashmiris, has recommended a phased withdrawal of the AFSPA.

Politically, Abdullah’s stance has been criticised 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 Dec. 7 he told a gathering of people: “If we compare the situation in the state from 2002 to 2011, militancy has come down to five percent only. That is why I say the time is ripe for revocation of AFSPA.”

In meetings he held with India’s defence 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 go 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 they commit are,” Zameer Ahmed, a Kashmiri youth, told IPS.

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 rhetoric.”

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 theatres 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.”

The Kashmir valley’s six million people are predominantly Muslim and hard-line separatist leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani have criticised the plan to reopen cinema halls and liquor shops.

“I am very interested to know how many OIC (Organisation 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.

But, 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 case of 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?”

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