By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHI â€“ Amid the backdrop of hectic parleys and high level meetings held in the capital city for about a week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided on Friday (March 30) to set up an expert panel to review the application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
The decision was taken following the Peopleâ€™s Democratic Partyâ€™s (PDP) threat to pull out of the Congress-led coalition government in J&K if its demand for withdrawal of troops from several areas in the state was not met.
With 17 members in J&K 89-member assembly, PDPâ€™s withdrawal of support would amount to a collapse of the coalition, as Congress has only 20 members.
Rather than face this threat, senior Congress leaders–including party chief Sonia Gandhi–have sought to appease PDP by setting up a committee to look into its demand.
It may be noted that this decision was taken a few days after PDPâ€™s demand of troopsâ€™ withdrawal was rejected by the Prime Minister, Defense Minister A.K. Antony and J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Singh had rejected PDPâ€™s demand for troop reduction in a letter written on March 15.
As PDP displayed a tough stance on the issue by not attending the state cabinet meetings, Singh met PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed on March 22. Following this meeting, Mufti said: â€œI fully explained the view of the PDP on gradual withdrawal of forces and repeal of the Disturbed Areas Act to the Prime Minister and we will keep meeting again to take the discussion forward.â€
This was a major shift from the tough posture PDP had earlier displayed. Asserting that they could not wait any longer (for troop reduction), the PDP leaders had earlier said, â€œevery day counts.â€
During her meeting with Mufti (March 26), Sonia Gandhi assured him that her party would make all efforts possible to ensure the smooth running of the J&K coalition.
Among others who attended the meeting were Antony and Congress leader Ahmed Patel. Subsequently, Azad was called to Delhi, before formalizing the centerâ€™s stand on the issue. Azad arrived on Thursday morning (March 29) and apprised Home Minister Shivraj Patil of there being a threat of increased violence if troops are removed from civilian areas.
Chaired by the prime minister, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) held an informal meeting (March 29). This was followed the next day by a high level meeting during which it was formally decided to review the application of AFSPA in J&K. The center decided to set up a mechanism, comprising an expert panel, a review committee and a high power committee, according to a press statement from the Prime Ministerâ€™s Office (PMO).
The expert panel would be â€œan expert and professional body intended to carry out an in-depth assessment of the situation. It would determine whether there is a need to relocate and reconfigure Security Forces.â€
In conformity with legal requirements, the review committee would â€œundertake a review ofâ€ AFSPA to different areas of J&K. Headed by the defense minister, including representatives of central and J&K governments, the high-power committee â€œwould be empowered to take decisions on the recommendations made by the expert panel and review committee.â€
The statement also pointed to action having already initiated by state government to â€œreturn several of the properties, buildings and orchards occupied by security forces for logistic purposes.â€
A nodal officer would, according to the statement, â€œbe appointed to survey the remaining properties occupied by security forces and determine how many more of these could be restored to their owners.â€ In case this is not possible, â€œthe compensation to be paid would be determined in consultation with the state government,â€ the statement said. In addition, â€œin keeping with the humane approach of the union and the J&K governments, the existing guidelines regarding the functioning of the security forces would be reiterated and publicity given to these guidelines,â€ the statement said.
Reacting positively to the centerâ€™s decision, while addressing a press conference in Srinagar, Mufti said: â€œA mechanism is now in place to address the issues of reduction in the number of the deployed troops, review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the vacation of troops from agricultural, horticultural lands and government and private properties.â€
Hardly pleased with this development, accusing Mufti of having â€œsurrenderedâ€ before New Delhi, National Conference President Omar Abdullah said: â€œTell me what has Mufti got out of these three points. If he is happy with just committees people wonâ€™t stop him from doing so.â€
Regarding their relocation, he said: â€œWhat relocation? We were doing it ourselves. It was Unified Headquartersâ€™ job. Mufti has taken this to New Delhi. Now officers in New Delhi would decide which force to be placed where.â€
Emphasizing that committees would not solve the Kashmir-issue, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of Hurriyat conference said: â€œFor [the] past two months pro-Indian parties have been making lot of hue and cry about demilitarization, but the fact is that these parties for fulfilling their own political interests are trying to take credit for those efforts which they never putâ€¦ I want to tell these people that Kashmiris are no fools and they cannot be taken for a ride and demilitarization is just a step towards the Kashmir resolution and not the final solution.â€
Criticizing this move, Chairman Peoples Democratic Front (PDF) and Transport Minister Hakeem Muhammad Yasin said: â€œSince 1947, New Delhi has constituted scores of committees and core groups but none of these could deliverâ€¦ New Delhi has no Kashmir policy and by constituting three committees it has again resorted to cosmetic treatment.â€
With assembly elections in J&K just 18 months away, analysts view the entire exercise as a political strategy. Apart from being regarded as centerâ€™s tactic of buying time to keep the J&K coalition government running, it has also been labeled as a â€œface-savingâ€ formula to keep PDP satisfied that its demands are at least worked upon.
Not surprisingly, having stayed away from three cabinet meetings, PDP ministers attended the meeting chaired by Azad on Saturday (March 31).