With violence on the wane, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir says the mainly Muslim people of his state deserve to see a “peace dividend,” in the form of a limited withdrawal of the rules that grant soldiers the right to shoot to kill, with virtual immunity from prosecution.
The request covers two districts in Kashmir where the Indian army does not even conduct operations. Casualty rates from the militancy are half of what they were last year and less than 5 percent of what they were a decade ago, officials say.
But India’s leaders have rebuffed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s request, with the army and the Defense Ministry insisting on maintaining broad powers.
It has left the 41-year-old Abdullah wondering whether the Indian government has the political will to achieve a lasting peace in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have died since 1989, and ultimately with Pakistan. The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir lies at the heart of their long enmity and has fueled two of their three wars.
“At some point in time, we have to have the courage to take what appear to be risky decisions, with the belief that this is an important component of a peace process,” Abdullah said.
If New Delhi cannot agree even to this, “how are you going to resolve the overall Kashmir issue, that is going to require much tougher decisions?” he asked.
The controversial law, known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, gives the army widespread power to search houses, arrest people without warrants and detain suspects indefinitely. As a result of the impunity it grants, the armed forces routinely torture suspects, Human Rights Watch says, calling the law “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.”
Indian soldiers also have been accused of killing innocent civilians in Kashmir and passing them off as militants, sometimes just to claim the monetary rewards that come with successful operations.
Although the army says every allegation is properly investigated, human rights groups say the law is routinely used to block prosecutions.
Many Kashmiris have concluded that it is the Indian army, not their democratically elected leaders, that really runs Kashmir.
“All the time India says it wants to solve Kashmir politically, but in fact it wants to maintain the situation militarily,” said religious and separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
The long rivalry over Kashmir has become a cancer, spreading instability throughout the region. Pakistan uses allegations of human rights abuses by Indian troops in Kashmir to help justify its claim over the territory.