A step forward in Kashmir also means two steps back. Following close on the heels of the Indian army’s decision in December 2013 to court-martial six of its men for the Machil encounter killings of 2010, the army’s verdict on the Pathribal killings reinforces this impression. Based on the same body of evidence that had led the Central Bureau of Investigation to chargesheet five army men in 2006, the military court has ruled that the evidence recorded is insufficient to start a prima facie case against any of the accused. For the people of Kashmir, who have been witness to the tortuous course of investigation of the case since 2000, the humongous delay in justice, and the dogged insistence of the army to shield its men from a trial in the civilian court, the verdict does not come as a surprise. It comes as a confirmation of the reasons for their mistrust of the army to which the Machil case now appears to be an aberration. The only way they could be convinced of the innocence of the five accused for the disappearance and murder of the five villagers of Pathribal, passed off as militants responsible for the Chattisinghpora massacre, is perhaps through a trial by a judicial body considered less partial than the army. Unfortunately, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act denies that opportunity by preserving the sanction for the trial of military personnel working in areas under the act for the army and the ministry of defence. Both authorities have made themselves suspect in the eyes of the public not merely by their zeal to preserve the sanctity of the AFSPA, which is seen as an alibi to protect the guilty, but also by advocating its continuance in Kashmir.
A debate on the AFSPA is as pertinent to peace in Kashmir as a political solution. Unfortunately, both are always kept in a limbo as a people-friendly movement on either issue is misconstrued as a betrayal of India’s national ideals.