In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell writes: ‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’ He might as well have been talking about J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, so often has he spoken in recent years of his opposition to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) imposed on the Valley. In October 2011, he went ahead and announced that the Act would soon be revoked from certain areas. Shortly afterwards, he said he had announced just an intent, not a decision. He then went on to announce this ‘intent’ of his several times, but nothing was done. Now with the draft bill of the J&K Police Bill 2013, which has already created a controversy in Kashmir, it is clear that when it comes to matters of power, the CM’s mind is a bundle of contradictions.
The 76-page bill was put online on the State Home Department’s website on 15 February, seeking suggestions from people at large. Around that time, Kashmir was reeling under a strict curfew in the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s hanging, and internet services had been cut off. But one look at the bill, and it is clear that it is aimed at granting unbridled powers to the state police on lines similar to what the Army enjoys under AFSPA.
The most serious change that the bill seeks to effect is one that would bypass the role of a district magistrate in matters of law-and-order. In a deviation from the Police Act of 1860, the role of a magistrate in actions related to law-and-order will be re-assigned to local police officers. Section 82 of the draft bill gives the state government the right to declare a particular area a ‘Special Security Zone’, where a command, control and response system will be set up by the state on the advice of the police chief. In Section 14, the bill seeks to give a police officer the right to ‘demand (and accept) the services of any able-bodied adult person’ to ‘prevent and stop’ any ongoing offence, an order no one can disobey (though the next clause clarifies that no one who refuses his services shall be arrested).
Another dangerous part of the bill seeks to allow a police officer ‘not authorised by rank or jurisdiction’ to keep a person in custody for six hours before a competent police officer takes charge. The bill says nothing about whether the person has the right to inform his family of his arrest. The bill would also give the police force the right to create ‘village defence committees’ and appoint civilians as special police officers (SPOs). While these committees, many of them already in place, have proven to be a significant deterrent to militants in many parts of the Jammu division, there is a long history of SPOs indulging in serious violations of human rights. Recall that the Supreme Court, while banning the recruitment of SPOs in Chhattisgarh in July 2011, had made an exemption for J&K in its order.
Apart from these controversial changes, the bill also envisages significant measures that could help curb militant activity. The most important of these would bring the prosecution wing under the police force. In many cases, dreaded militants have been acquitted by courts after the prosecution failed to cooperate with the police (which had filed the charges). Prominent among them is Bitta Karate, a JKLF terrorist who had confessed to the killings of more than 20 Kashmiri Pandits in 1990. He was let off by a court in 2007. While acquitting him, the TADA designated judge, ND Wani, had observed: ‘The court is aware of the fact that the allegations levelled against the accused are of a serious nature and carry a punishment of death sentence or life imprisonment, but the fact is that the prosecution has shown total disinterest in arguing the case, which is in complete violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.’
On his part, Omar Abdullah has tried to clear the air by saying that the bill will only be passed after it is vetted by the state cabinet and both legislative houses. But considering that people in the Valley are already so bitter about his failure to relieve them of AFSPA, one would have expected the Chief Minister to have had the good sense to vet the draft before having it put up for public scrutiny. By failing to do so, the CM has only armed his opposition with extra firepower. And they are already taking shots at him.