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Good riddance: no POTA, no SOG in J&K

But that is only the beginning. Far deeper changes are called for to normalise the state, writes Muzaffar Raina

Srinagar: On October 30, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad was given a rousing reception here at his arrival from New Delhi, after a breakthrough on government formation in Jammu & Kashmir was achieved. Azad addressed a largely attended public gathering drawing cheers from the people. He, however, concluded his speech without any mention of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Operations Group (SOG) of police.

The disgusted mob shouted at Azad and asked him to comment on these two issues. He came back and said : "In no Congress ruled state in the country is the POTA implemented.Take it for granted that it has been withdrawn in J&K as well". The people again responded with applause. As the Congress leader started moving off the stage the mob again became restless. "You did not mention anything about SOG?" the crowd asked. Azad again returned with an assurance that the particular force would be given a "new orientation".

Are these two issues, the withdrawal of the POTA and disbanding of SOG, so important that people find a public speech incomplete if it has no reference to them. How important were these two issues for the ruling Peoples Democratic Party-led coalition to climb up the ladder of power by defeating the National Conference which has throughout its rule defended their importance to "crush militancy". The answer lies in unending sufferings of common Kashmiris primarily due to these two. The SOG, a constituent of the state police, was carved out of the latter in 1994, specifically to deal with militancy. It was introduced first in Srinagar under the command of a Muslim officer, Farooq Ahmad Khan from Poonch district, and its area of operation was later extended to other militancy affected districts.

The counter-insurgency force has a long list of achievements to its credit. "It is fighting for the integrity of the state and most of over 600 cops killed by terrorists belonged to the SOG. It eliminated most of the top militant leaders who could be as important as 1000 militants each", says A K Suri, director general of the state police.

But what is the price that a common Kashmiri has paid for it. "More than 80 percent of the complaints lodged with the state Human Rights Commission are against SOG. The complaints pertain to every such crimes as custodial killings and disappearances, arrests, rapes, molestations, extortions and harassment and forcible occupation and destruction of the civilian property", says an official at the HRC. The commission was set-up in 1997, primarily to look into complaints of human rights violations by security forces. Due to its limited powers, the achievements of the commission are far below expectations. While in most of the cases, the incidents of human rights violations went unnoticed, some cases could not be "covered". Like the Panchalthan killings in Anantnag. Their killings followed the brutal massacre of 35 Sikhs by unidentified gunmen at Chattisinghpura, a day ahead of the visit of the then US President, Bill Clinton. Soon after that the SOG claimed a breakthrough. "Five Lashkar militants responsible for the killings of Sikhs were gunned down", an official spokesman said.

Later, it surfaced that those killed were actually five innocent civilians who were arrested by security forces and their faces were mutilated beyond recognition. Public uproar followed, and seven more were killed when a demonstration protesting these killings was taken out in Anantnag and it was fired upon by security forces. Another gory incident rocked the Srinagar city some three years back. Known as the triple murder case, an SOG officer, Abdul Rashid, allegedly killed three people, on the same day when their sister was getting married. One succumbed to torture in a cell and two others were allegedly killed to remove the witness in the first death. Following public demonstrations, an enquiry was ordered but nothing is known about the whereabouts of the police officer.

These incidents are just the "tip" of an iceberg. The atrocities have come with rewards and incentives for the people who perpetuated them. "Cash rewards are given to the SOG men participating in operations and for recoveries of arms or killing a militant. Then there are out-of-turn promotions and till last year over 1,000 such promotions were given. I can give you names of several officers who were my subordinates and they are now my officers. In many cases, the incentives were given for illegal action against innocents", confided a police officer.

The withdrawal of POTA is another issue that is so close to the hearts of people. The J&K was the first state in the country to implement the Act in November last year and more eager than anybody to implement it was the former chief minister Farooq Abdullah. In the last one year, the state police has registered around 389 cases in Jammu and 99 cases in Kashmir involving 190 persons and 174 persons respectively after it was implemented in the state. Those detained under POTA not only include militants but several women and some senior separatist leaders. Eight top Pakistani militants have also been booked under POTA.

Ghulam Mohommad Dar, a carpet weaver from old Srinagar city was the first man in the country to be booked under POTA. He was arrested on charges of providing shelter to militants and his wife, mother and two children were thrown out of their home which was sealed under POTA. The action evoked strong protests, forcing authorities to lift the siege of the home. Since then Dar is behind the bars, and with no earning male member, the family is on dire straits.

Dar's wife, Haseena, said she spins pashmina to earn a livelihood. Her two sons Fayaz 8, and Shahbaz, 4, were studying in English-medium schools but after their father’s arrest they were shifted to an ordinary school. At last she has seen light at the end of the tunnel. "If my husband is released, as has Mufti Saheb promised, I will forget the ordeal we have passed through", she says.

Feeling the public pulse, the PDP gave top priority to these two issues and pledged action against those who committed right violations. "Those who believe the SOG is essential to curb militancy should realise that it exists even in presence of army. What is the role of SOG other than committing atrocities on the people? Security forces are here and know their job to fight with militants", said Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, while releasing the election manifesto of his party. The PDP says that there are already so many laws to check militancy, like the Disturbed Areas Act, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and Public Safety Act, where the law enforcing agencies have wide-ranging powers of arrest and search.

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