The Truth Is Out There

Is Praveen Swami’s Hindu article casting unfair aspersions on the Indian Army? Or is he simply stating some unpleasant facts?

WrittenBy:Priya Kale
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Praveen Swami has done it again. If you thought his report on how a grandmother crossing the border led to a ‘savage (Indo-Pak) skirmish’, which included a sentence on how Indian soldiers too have beheaded their Pakistani counterparts, was explosive – wait till you read his latest. The front page of The Hindu on January 30, 2013 carried a story on how the two frenemies  have been locked in a vicious cycle of violence over the past 15 years. The clincher? That according to documents recently disclosed by the UNMOGIP (United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan), the Pakistani Army has lodged “secret” complaints with the UNMOGIP against the excesses of the Indian Army – the most egregious of which is the alleged massacre of 22 civilians.

It’s surprising that no news channel has bothered to pick up on this report. Apart from a little chatter on Twitter, which either commends or castigates Swami, there has been no attention given to The Hindu’s claims. B Raman, a respected ex-civil servant, thinks that Swami’s credibility is being used by the Pakistanis as the shoulder from which to fire at the Indian Army’s credibility. Raman, however, speaks from his experience spanning decades. While Raman’s assertions may not be improbable, for the rest of us, getting into a debate proving or disproving Swami’s sources is a dangerous trip down the conspiracy theory rabbit-hole*.

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The report has all of the hallmarks of a typical investigative piece by The Hindu; it is clear of any slant or bias, it clinically sequences the events chronologically and merely places before the reader the facts that the writer possesses. Remember Shalini Singh’s October 8 2012 report on Robert Vadra? It earned the paper a lot of praise for these exact same reasons. Well, the difference was that that report effectively lampooned everyone’s latest “I hate you (like I love you)” poster-boy. This time it’s different.

This time, the allegations are against an institution that for all its flaws commands a tremendous amount of public reverence and respect. It’s easy and comfortable and natural and understandable to squirm at the report while reading it, go into denial mode like a mother at a parent-teacher meeting who can’t believe that her child is capable of landing a good punch or two at the playground, and then finally retreating into the safety of questioning Swami’s allegiance. A calm reading of the findings though, throws up issues that need to be probed seriously:

1)    Why did the Pakistani Army complain to the UNMOGIP? India has maintained that it does not recognise the UNMOGIP anymore. India believes that the UN body lost its relevance after the Simla Agreement. However, since it can be dissolved only through a Security Council Resolution, India still hosts it but grants it only limited access to the disputed area. Given this state of affairs, what sort of redressal did Pakistan expect? It’s also important to note here, that in line with its non-cognisance of the UNMOGIP, India has not submitted a single complaint to it since 1972. Moreover, the body’s mandate does not seem to empower it to be an arbiter to disputes. It can, at best, report to the Secretary General. What did the Pakistani achieve by complaining to it over lodging a formal diplomatic protest with India or its army directly?

2)    Who are the irregulars backed by the Indian Army? The report states that “the Bandala massacre is alleged to have been carried out by irregulars backed by Indian special forces…” Who are these irregulars? Where have they been sourced from? What is their motivation? Are they mercenaries? And most importantly, what is the proof that the Pakistani Military has submitted against these irregulars?

3)    Is Pakistan’s rationale tenable? On the whole, it seems that Pakistan did not make a hue and cry over the killing of tens of its citizens because it didn’t want to escalate tensions. That’s like saying “my house is being burgled but I won’t scream and call for help because I don’t want to wake up the neighbourhood”. Specifically, it is alleged that in January 2000, Indian Forces killed and mutilated 7 Pakistani soldiers in the Nadala enclave to avenge Capt. Saurabh Kalia’s death. Pakistan underplayed the incident because Musharraf had just seized power and didn’t want to risk a public outcry which would have culminated in a crisis with India. Again, this is counter-intuitive. A military general who has overthrown a democratically elected government, would be desperate for legitimacy. Wouldn’t an incident like this be the perfect leveraging point to play on people’s emotions and say “this is why you need a strong military authority ruling the nation”?

4)    Was Capt. Kalia’s death “avenged”? If yes, why didn’t Pakistan counter his father? Kalia’s quest for justice for his son made headlines last year. One of the most nuanced debates that took place on it was on the The Buck Stops Here (November 27 2012, NDTV 24X7). Despite overwhelming evidence, the Pakistani representative flat out refused that Capt. Kalia had been mutilated and killed. If the Indian Military indeed carried out the raid, why wouldn’t they throw that in our faces now (The Hindu report states that its Indian Military sources said that the raid was in retaliation to Capt. Kalia’s killing. Assuming this is true, it’s logical to assume that it was “conveyed” as such to the Pakistanis)? Even if one were to accept for a moment that the Nadala incident was swept under the rug those many years ago in favour of Pakistan’s overall stability, what’s the excuse for not bringing it up in 2013?

It would be naive and ostrich-like to stick our heads into the sand and say that the Indian Army is incapable of “such acts”. The Hindu has been a paper with a scrupulous reputation and rabidly non-partisan news pages. On the one hand, as a reader, if you lash out at Swami without thinking about what his sources are implying, it’s more a reaction than a response. On the other, we’ve been taught to believe (and rightly so) that we’re protected by a force that’s not only selfless but also honourable. The image of Indian soldiers burying their Pakistani counterparts had been branded by the media in our minds as proof of this.

And yet, in ignoring Swami’s report, we’ve lost a golden opportunity to introspect as well as to counter the Pakistani Military (which isn’t always on the same page as the Pakistani government) through its own claims. Relaxed visa conditions and granting of the Most Favoured Nation status will ultimately yield little if these confidence-building measures are constantly threatened when either side flouts the LOC. If the Indian government had indeed received a receipt of complaints from the UNMOGIP, once The Hindu report was published, it should have confirmed it and acknowledged the need for a standardised diplomatic mechanism for the lodging of complaints by both countries.

The Indian Army issued a standard denial of course (what else could you have expected?), but this instance shows up how now, more than ever, it needs to shed its media weariness and engage better with the “civilians”. Never before has the institution been so vulnerable to defamation and open to scrutiny. A policy of healthy engagement with the media and countering/clarifying reports that question its actions will go a long way in ensuring the morale of the ordinary, individual soldier while reassuring the average newspaper reader that his/her sense of pride in the Army is not misplaced.

This brings me back to a point raised earlier: why didn’t any news-channel pick up on this report in any significant way? I guess we’ll never know. The disappointing part about the media not choosing to cover this is that when it wants to, it can facilitate a sensitive, healthy and nuanced debate on national interest.

It is safe to assume that we will never know the “truth” about what actually transpired. In the absence of a debate on the subject, where does this leave you, dear reader? Should you believe what you read? Or should you continue to place your unconditional, unwavering faith in the Indian Army and continue to believe that they have acted honourably? The good news is that for once, in this instance, the choice is not binary. Personally for me, it’s going to take a lot more than this to erode the respect I have garnered for the Indian forces over the past two and a half decades.

*There has been at least one report questioning the veracity of Praveen Swami’s work. However, this article has consciously decided to steer away from doing so.

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