Heavy-handed arm of the Law

The J&K Police Bill being called an extension of AFSPA evokes criticism from all quarters 

Fahad Shah Delhi/Srinagar 

The draft police Bill of the Jammu and Kashmir government has faced stiff criticism from several quarters in the region and across the country where it has been compared to draconian laws. The 76-page Jammu and Kashmir Police Bill, 2013, was posted on the home department’s website on February 15, 2013,  seeking “suggestions from cross-sections of society — the general public, social organizations, NGOs, academics and other stakeholders”.

The 13-chapter Bill has been called a new face of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been lending impunity to security agencies in the region. According to the new legislation, the police will be able to set up village defence committees — an army of civilians. Civil rights activists have compared this to the notorious Salwa Judum experiment in Chhattisgarh. Expanding the police force externally, it can recruit more special police officers too.

Under the current rules for the police in the state, there have been mass human rights violations and civilian killings. In 2008 and 2010, huge uprisings saw more than 200 civilians, many of them schoolchildren, being killed by the police and paramilitary forces. Hundreds of youths were imprisoned. Experts say that, with this new Bill, repressive measures will be strengthened and it will give rise to more brazenly human rights violations and killings.

Joining the outcry against the Bill by the opposition political parties in the state, civil society members issued a statement: “(We) condemn the attempt of the government to formally put in place powers and structures that the J&K police have for long enjoyed and employed to carry out systematic human rights violations… .”

It added that the Bill suggests that the government seeks to formalize previous draconian practices and activities of the police. “(It) essentially reads as a blueprint on how to exercise control on the entire populace.” An online petition was also filed on change.org, addressed to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Governor NN Vohra.

The ‘pro-freedom’ leadership described the Bill as anti-people, anti-social and as another conspiracy by the government to promote State terrorism. The Hurriyat Conference, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, said that the National Conference (NC), because of its nature of betrayal, is bent upon converting the Valley into “a hell”. “Whenever NC got power it promoted hooliganism. On one side this party is shedding crocodile tears on the issue of AFSPA to gain the sympathy of people and on the other it is hobnobbing with the so-called secular party and anti-Muslim Congress to create a black era of Ikhwanis again,” according to the Hurriyat statement.

The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) said that the proposed Bill has yet again proved that J&K is a police state where the law and its implementation are being done only according to the wishes of the police and security agencies.

The Bill proposes that the district Superintendent of Police (SP) or any police officer not below the rank of sub-inspector may stop any assembly or procession in order to prevent obstruction, inconvenience, annoyance, risk, danger, injury to passers-by or to residents in the vicinity. In such a case, such assembly or procession can be ordered to disperse. Any assembly or procession which defies or refuses to obey any order given shall be deemed to be an “unlawful assembly”.

The Bill also proposes that the government can declare any area a Special Security Zone (SSZ) “when such area is widely and intolerably beset with violence or insurgency or destruction of public property on account of communal or terrorist or anti-national activities”. The Bill says that the Director General of Police (DGP) or any police officer authorized by him may engage any able-bodied person as Special Police Officer (SPO) to assist the police on terms and conditions prescribed by the government.

Dr Sheikh Showkat, law professor at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar, says that the Bill intends to perpetuate several aspects of the Disturbed Areas Act and AFSPA. “It gives powers to the police to act on its own in so many situations when, at present, it is supposed to act on the orders of the magistrate. It empowers the police to declare certain areas as SSZ and treat them the same way as a disturbed area is treated by the state at present,” he said. 

The SPOs are civilians trained to fight anti-insurgency operations and provided with arms and ammunition. They are paid a monthly salary by the state government where they are deployed. In July 2011, the Supreme Court had directed the central government not to use SPOs. The government had approached the court, requesting it to change the order as it was using SPOs in several states and not using them would create problems. The court, in November, said the order applied to Chhattisgarh only, allowing Jammu and Kashmir and other states to use SPOs. 

A police structure and a suitable command, control and response system for each SSZ can be created. Such zones can ban or regulate the production, sale, storage, possession or entry of any devices, equipment or inflow of funds, if considered a threat to internal security or public order. The police can lay down a Standard Operating Procedure which will be followed by it in these zones.

According to another section of the Bill, any police officer shall lawfully interfere and stop any ongoing offence or an offence likely to take place in his presence or vicinity. “For this purpose, he may lawfully demand and accept the services of any able-bodied adult person in the place and no person shall disobey, without reasonable cause, the lawful and reasonable directions so given by the said officer present at
the place.”

Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the largest opposition party in J&K, the Peoples Democratic Party, said the Bill will revive a counter-insurgent State. “It is an attempt to institutionalize the dreaded Ikhwan culture in the state; the proposed Bill would actually convert it to a lawless state,” she said.

The chief minister reacted to the criticism on Twitter, saying, “Why this manufactured outrage regarding the draft police bill? It hasn’t passed public scrutiny, let alone been seen by me & the cabinet. Public feedback will be incorporated, Law dept will vet, I will clear it, cabinet will approve it, both legislative houses will vote on it. This is why I ordered the Home Dept to put this in the public domain in the 1st instance so that feedback would lead to better legislation.”

Civil Society activists, academics and several journalists in Delhi and across the country have branded this Bill as yet another manifestation of the repressive state apparatus. They seem more astounded because Abdullah has been shrill in his rhetoric against AFSPA, though nothing tangible has changed on the ground. “In a state which is already under siege by multiple forms of oppression and tragedies unleashed by a massive contingent of security forces, and where human rights violations and killings have become routine, this Bill is yet again a recipe for organized injustice and absolute lack of accountability of the State,” said an activist in Delhi. 

Civil Society activists, academics and journalists have branded this Bill as yet another manifestation of the repressive state apparatus. They seem more astounded because Omar Abdullah has been shrill in his rhetoric against AFSPA, though nothing tangible has changed on the ground

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2013