When the Indian Army needs a (human) shield

No good can come from deifying the army – especially when it commits human rights violations .

ByLt Gen H S Panag
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When the Indian Army needs a (human) shield
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Two and a half years is a fairly long time in an insurgency. Elections were due to be held in Jammu and Kashmir in five phases from November 25 to December 20, 2014. There had been relative calm in J&K since the protests following the Machil fake encounter in 2010. Election campaigning was on in full swing.

On November 3, 2014, at a checkpoint in Budgam area, manned by a Junior Commissioned Officer and eight OR of 53 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), a car was fired upon when it failed to stop for checking (as per the version of the soldiers). Two school students were killed and two others were injured. Protests broke out in the area. The J&K Police commenced investigations, and leaks pointed towards a high-handed approach of the soldiers manning the check point. 53 RR stuck to its story that they were acting upon specific information on movement of terrorists and fired only when the car failed to stop at two previous checkpoints despite being signaled to do so, and had tried to barge through the checkpoint.

Considering the SOPs for manning checkpoints, it appeared to be a clear case of violation of rules of engagement. In such cases, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) protects the soldiers from being charged with murder or manslaughter. But, they were guilty of violating the standing orders laying down the rules of engagement and were liable to be punished after due investigation.

On November 7, the Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General D S Hooda gave a suo motto statement accepting that the killing of the two students was a mistake. The Army Commander said, “We take responsibility for the death of the two boys in Kashmir. We admit that a mistake was made and a transparent investigation will be taken up. We will ensure that such incidents never happen again. The army inquiry will be completed within 10 days.” The Army also announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for those killed and Rs 5 lakh for those wounded. In my view, this reflected the model approach of the Indian Army in upholding Human Rights.

Exactly a month later, on December 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed the same view during an election rally held in Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium. An excerpt of the original Hindi speech is reproduced below in Roman Hindi :

Bhaiyo aur behno, apni jaan ki bazi laga kar ke bhi, logon ki raksha karna, yeh hamara mantra raha hai.” (Referring to the sacrifice of soldiers during Kahmir floods). “Ussi mantra ko le kar ke aage badhte hain. Lekin koi galti kare, pehli baar, 30 saal mein pehli baar, yeh Modi Sarkar ki kamal dekhiye. Pehli baar sena ne, press conference kar ke kaha, ki jo do naujawan maare gaye the, woh sena ki galti thi. Aur sena ne apni galti mani. Inquiry commission baitha, aur jin logon ne goli chalai thi un par case darj kar diya gaya. Yeh mere nek iradon ka saboot hai. Bhaiyo aur behno, 30 sal mein nahin hua, 30 sal mein nahin hua. Aur isliye mere Kashmir ke bhaiyo aur behno, main aapko nyay dilane ke liye aaya hoon.”

(“For the first time in 30 years, it is the wonder of the Modi Government, that the army admitted at a press conference that the killing of the two youth was a mistake. An inquiry commission probed the matter and those who fired the bullets were charged. This is the proof of my good intentions.”)

Two months prior to the above incident, the court-martial in the Machil “fake encounter” case of April 2010 had concluded on September 7, 2014.  Five army personnel, including the Commanding Officer of the unit, were cashiered or dismissed from service and awarded life imprisonment.

The Machil encounter was an open-and-shut case of rogue behaviour. By the end of May 2010, investigations had prima facie established that it was a case of “fake encounter” wherein three civilians were lured with the promise of jobs and killed close to the Line of Control. The stand of the Unit was that they had killed Pakistani terrorists who had infiltrated the LoC. The incident led to violent protests, to which security forces had to respond, resulting in even more violent protests — 112 civilians died between June and September 2010. After initial denials, the army ordered a court of inquiry. The case got marred by jurisdiction issues and the army’s own avoidable procedural delays and the sentence was confirmed only in September 2014.

The media coverage at the time implied that the above two were benchmark cases, that most past instances of human rights violations had been brushed under the carpet by invoking the AFSPA. However, the fact was that over the years, more than 100 court-martial trials had been held by the army in cases of Human Right violations, with sentences ranging from dismissal to life imprisonment. The army’s track record in investigating and punishing Human Rights violations had been exemplary and the best in the world. The Indian Army conducts model people-friendly, counter-insurgency campaigns strictly adhering to the law of the land, Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law. This is the reason why we have successfully contained all insurgencies with effect from 1956.

Why have we laboured on these two cases of 2014 and the statement of the PM made on December 8, 2014? The Indian Army had once again reinforced its model moral code of conduct in insurgencies and the PM had assured the people of J&K that their Human Rights will be upheld. The media and public pressure had also contributed towards this end. This was certainly one of the key factors that led to a record voter turnout in the elections and the emergence of a pathbreaking coalition. There was optimism in the air and it was hoped that the J&K imbroglio would end soon.

Fast-forward to April 2017. The opposite has happened. We are drifting towards chaos at a very rapid rate. The coalition is falling apart. Political activity and governance are at a standstill. The writ of the state and its security forces is being challenged, not only by the terrorists who are now predominantly indigenous, but also by the unarmed stone throwing mobs, with both having a death wish. The two bypolls held on April 9 not only saw unprecedented violence but also one of the lowest voter turnouts ever, shattering the image that democracy prevailed in J&K. Rather than fatigue from the last 28 years of insurgency, there seems renewed vigour among the masses to confront the state through endless agitations. This has triggered a chain reaction of action-response-action, and the notions of Azadi or a merger with Pakistan have given way to the romantic idealism of Ummah/Pan Islamism!

An insurgency and a counter-insurgency campaign are both driven by political aims and a political strategy on which the military strategy of both the terrorists and the state is contingent. The political aim of both is to win the hearts and minds of the population. The irony of the current situation is that the terrorists have lost or are fast losing the military battle, but are winning the political battle – and the Indian State which has won the military battle is fast losing the political battle.

It is a sad commentary on our strategic thinking that no government has defined the political or the military end state. Yet, despite the political disconnect, the military strategy has been eminently successful. The Indian Army, through a model counter-insurgency campaign has brought the conflict (generally judged by the number of terrorists and scale of violence) to sub critical level. Unfortunately, rather than seizing the political initiative, the state – trapped by ideology and political rhetoric, an excited jingoist media and public emotions fed by orchestrated nationalism – is suffering from inertia and continues to ride on military strategy, which is useless against an alienated mass.

Political, media and public emotional rhetoric has blurred the distinction between terrorists and the masses. It is no longer the misguided few, but the majority of the  population of the Valley that is waging a war against India. The crudeness of our response in handling unarmed mass agitations, and flash mobs rushing to the aid of terrorists during anti-terrorist operations, has already placed J&K at the centerstage of international conscience.

Suddenly the Armed Forces, Central Armed Police Forces and the police who were questioned by the media and the public for inefficiency in conduct of operations and brushing human rights violations under the carpet, have been deified and can do no wrong. The Armed Forces, in particular, who had strived for government, media and public support on merit of their model counter-insurgency campaign, have achieved the same albeit by default for wrong reasons.

Nothing supports my analysis more than L’affaire Human Shield. I had to tweet in anguish on April 15:

“The image of an alleged ‘stone pelter’ tied in front of a vehicle as a ‘human shield’, will forever haunt the Indian Army and the nation!”

A video showing a man tied to the bumper of an army jeep, trailed by a Rakshak vehicle and a bus, being paraded through villages surfaced on social media on April 13, 2017. On April 14, at 10:24 AM this video was uploaded on Twitter by Omar Abdullah. The video went viral, shared and commented on copiously.

The man, allegedly “a stone pelter” appeared to be used as a “human shield” by a military convoy. The video was 16 seconds in duration and was apparently shot in Gondipora village. No crowds, except two to three bystanders watching the convoy could be seen in the video. No stone pelting was is visible in the video. A warning – “All stone pelters will meet this fate” or words to that effect can be heard being repeated in Hindi over a loudspeaker from one of the vehicles. A poster stuck on the chest of the “human shield” was later verified to read, “I am a stone pelter”.

After some time, a photo was also posted of a soldier in battle kit and rifle standing on the ground on the right front side of the static vehicle with the civilian still tied on the bumper. Within minutes, extreme positions were taken on both social and mainstream media with an overwhelming majority supporting the use of “a human shield”, and a lesser number of people questioning the violation of human rights including the Geneva Convention. Television news channels vied with each other in jingoistic frenzy, lauding the unique and novel tactics used to save casualties and “to teach the stone pelters a lesson”. A few sane voices were drowned in the din of the majority. Retired Armed Force’s senior officers, barring a few exceptions, justified the violation of Human Rights and the code of conduct citing the unique circumstances and the need to save casualties. A number of politicians and even the Attorney General of India justified the use of the “human shield” given the unique circumstances of the incident.

The Indian Army, Ministry of Defence and the Home Ministry have till date not made any official statement with respect to the incident and its circumstances. On directions of the J&K Government, the Jammu & Kashmir Police has registered a FIR on April 13 against unknown persons. No charges have been filed yet. The Indian Army has also ordered a Court of Inquiry on April 15 to inquire into the circumstances of the incident. In the “post truth”, the truth may never become public, but before public memory fades a postmortem is in order.

Over the next couple of days two distinct narratives emerged. One narrative was attributed to “reliable sources” supposedly from the army that shared a version of the events supposedly narrated by the Commander on the spot, Major Leetul Gogoi of 53 RR. The second narrative was the version of the local people and the “human shield”, Farooq Ahmad Dar of Chil Brass village who was interviewed live by the media.

According to the first narrative, on Election Day – April 9 – a party of the Election Commission comprising 10-12 civilian officials and personnel of JKP/Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) manning a polling booth at Ootligam village was surrounded by a violent crowd of stone-pelters numbering 500 to 900 strong. Fearing lynching by the mob, the polling booth-in-charge sent a SOS call to the army. The Company Base of 53 RR located at Raiyari (sic) responded with a Quick Reaction Team of 16 personnel.

Upon reaching the spot, Major Gogoi assessed the volatile situation and concluded that any action as per army tactics and SOPs would lead to unacceptable casualties to civilians. On the spur of the moment, based on the unique situation, the Commander of the QRT took hostage one of the “stone pelters” and tied him on top on the spare tyre mounted on the front bumper of the jeep. The mob, on seeing this, stopped the violent stone-pelting, moved aside and the QRT was able to safely rescue the polling booth party.

The second narrative was based on the version of events as narrated by the victim Farooq Ahmad Dar and other eye witnesses. As per this version, the victim is a poor shawl embroiderer, who claimed that he has never pelted stones and had in fact voted in the morning at Chil village. He was going on his motorcycle to Gampora village to condole the death of a relative.  He was intercepted by the QRT at Ootligam village, where he had halted to watch women protesting the elections. He was thrashed and tied to the jeep and paraded for four hours through nine villages over 26-28 kilometres.

The first narrative was accepted by mainstream media and the majority on social media. No one questioned the narrative or the sequence of events which would not withstand even cursory scrutiny.

How did the QRT pass through a violent crowd of 500-900 to reach the polling booth without firing a shot? Why did the violent crowd not resist the taking of a hostage and his tying up without the QRT not having to use any force? No one questioned the violation of human rights, Geneva Convention 4, customary international law, Supreme Court guidelines on AFSPA, the Indian Army’s own rules of engagement and the COAS’ Commandments. Why, instead of taking the polling party to the nearest police station for safety, was the “human shield” paraded for four hours, through nine villages covering 26-28 km?

The action was justified based on the unique situation and need to save lives and the dictum – all is fair in war. Another justification was that terrorists follow no rules of conflict and deserve this treatment, therefore making no distinction between the people and the terrorists. No one even thought of the dignity and rights of Farooq Ahmad Dar, the unfortunate victim. For all purposes, the approach was that he was a stone-pelter and therefore a terrorist. And if he was not a stone-pelter, “it was just too bad that he was a victim of circumstances, as lives had to be saved”. No one gave thought to the possibility of the terrorists shooting the “human shield” and blaming the QRT/Army. The atmosphere was such that one almost expected the highest decoration to be announced for the Commander of the QRT. Curiously, a post allegedly by one Major Gogoi mysteriously appeared on Indian Army WhatsApp Groups that began with, “I am Major Gogoi…” and went on to give his version of the events in tune with narrative discussed above. This post received wide circulation thanks to the emotionally charged retired fraternity.

According to the second narrative, impliedly, this was allegedly a stand-alone rogue action taken by the Commander of the QRT to teach a lesson to the people of the area. The story of the “novel tactics” to rescue the besieged Election Commission polling booth team was an afterthought to justify the action. The narrative was rubbished by the majority as the version of terrorists.

The silence of Headquarters Northern Command and its subordinate Headquarters was deafening. The former is fairly active on social media and shares real time information about encounters taking place. Information of such a unique event would have reached  all higher headquarters including Northern Command within one or two hours. Based on experience and circumstances of the case, the truth, whatever it be, would have been assessed. A suo motto statement from Northern Command was warranted on April 9 itself to clarify the situation. It should have been clarified that the “novel tactics” used, are not the approved tactics of the Indian Army. That they are in violation of Indian Army’s rules of engagement and SOPs, Geneva Conventions 4, customary international law and the COAS’ Commandments. That the circumstances of the event would be investigated and action will be taken as deemed necessary.

That no statement was issued on 09 April and none has been issued till date reflects poorly on the Army.

With the “reliable sources” narrative riddled with holes, the Indian Army has allowed the terrorists to run away with their propaganda of a brutalised army. It has also allowed the frenzied nationalistic public, media and politicians to defend the indefensible.

Violation of Human Rights is an offence under the law and cannot be justified. Unusual or unique circumstance can only mitigate the offence and not exonerate the offender. To be held guilty or not guilty is a matter of law, and military law in this case. Even at the cost of operational success, Human Rights cannot be violated. The Indian Army is trained to deal with adverse unique situations. No mob sustains its violent ways when minimum force is used for effect according to rules of engagement. In the future, are we going to march behind the families of terrorists, to eliminate them in order to save casualties of soldiers and the stone-pelters rushing to save them? If saving civilian casualties is the principle concern, are we going to deal with stone-pelting youth by using their parents as “human shields”? Are we going to allow terrorists to shoot at the “human shields” and put the blame on army?

Now, backtrack to end 2014. The Budgam “9” found guilty of violating rules of engagement leading to the death of two school children and wounding another two, are awaiting action/court-martial as promised by the PM himself? What injustice! After all, the soldiers acting in good faith only inadvertently killed future stone-pelters or terrorists. What wrong was done by the Machil “5” undergoing life imprisonment? How could we not believe their version and believe the version of the “terrorists”? Is there not a strong case for granting Presidential Pardon and restoring the honour of hundreds of Officers and Soldiers court-martialed for violation of Human Rights in J&K and the North East over the last 61 years? Going by the flavour of the day, there is a very strong case indeed.

What a decline in two and a half years.

Above notwithstanding, I have no doubts that the Indian Army will act as per its time-tested traditions, law and moral code of conduct and not let the “human shield” tactics define its image. In a diverse country like ours, the army can only get carried away by nationalistic fervour at its own peril.

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