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Monday, November 17, 2014

Is the army court’s verdict on the Machhil killings enough?

An army court in its judgment on the Machhil killings of three civilians has awarded life sentences to the army men involved, including the commanding officer of the unit. This is a praiseworthy verdict underscoring the army’s keenness in keeping itself free of such cases. This follows earlier army action against the likes of the infamous Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major who had faked military action to bid for medals. Since the Machhil killings were also similarly inspired, the recent action makes it clear that the army frowns upon such action.

... it is easy to explain away such cases as individuals taking short cuts. There is little reason consequently to pursue other more demeaning reasons that may, in the event, be more relevant. In fact the faking of encounters by the Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major are at best comical. The several hundreds of cases of unmarked graves in the Valley indicate that there is more to the permissive action regime prevalent in times of heightened counter insurgency than merely the pull of rewards. Even if some of those killed could be taken as victims of the dictum, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, at least a few of these killings can be attributed to psychopathic and others to ideological reasons.
The former may not be as troubling as the latter on account of the fewer numbers. The latter, killings done for ideological reasons, perhaps inspired by hyper-nationalism or misapplied religious zeal, are more dangerous since they paint a picture of an environment in which such ideology may have penetrated the service. It bears recall that the military intelligence officer Purohit, implicated in the Malegaon blasts, was posted in J&K, before he took his operation into central India. Even if he is dismissed as a lone wolf, these are dangers that the army needs to be cognizant of and warned against. With cultural nationalism now having gone mainstream, and if analysts are to be believed, the threat of resumption of insurgency in J&K not quite receded, there is scope for vigilance.
Secondly, military justice has been held in abeyance in graver cases. Three cases come readily to mind: the Malom killings of ten civilians being protested by Irom Sharmila over the past fifteen years; the possible rape and murder of Manorama Devi; and the infamous Pathribal killings in J&K.


While the army should not be held hostage in cases blown out of proportion as part of the propaganda war that is intrinsic to proxy war, where egregious violence is patent, it needs acting of its own accord and for reasons other than the internal good health of itself as an institution. Even in such cases the army’s reluctance to take action is sometimes evident, such as in the case of the boy burnt to death last month by unknown persons at the Hyderabad garrison of the army. It took the suicide of a soldier to put the needle of suspicion firmly on the army over its earlier premature and unnecessary denial.
Justice or politics?
Even in the Macchil case, unfortunately the credibility of military justice is such that the timing of the judgment in a four-year-old case suggests politics, given that J&K is set to go to the polls with both the parties in power in Srinagar and Delhi vying for the electorate. The former has already staked claim for the credit, the latter can be seen to be more subtle when this is taken in conjunction with the apology that the army has issued over the Chattargam killings.
Action does not get taken in the graver cases owing to ‘reasons of state’. 

While Nehru did call for self-restraint when he deployed the army in Nagaland in the mid-fifties, which is found reflected in the famous special order of the chief of army staff, there was no overseeing mechanism in place either then or later. An officer known for his integrity, Lt Gen Sardeshpande, recalls an army chief’s visit to his location while in command of a brigade in the north east. The visiting chief told him to keep a close eye on a village in his area of responsibility that the chief in his time in command over the area had had occasion to set fire to, twice over.
Structurally, the situation has not changed much since. The army answers to the defence ministry though internal security is a home ministry responsibility. For instance, in the case of the recent killings of two youth early this month in Chattargam, media informed us of the home ministry writing to the defence ministry, asking for details.

The cultural aspect is that those charged with ensuring a democratic regime is in place across India are let off for allowing a permissive regime on their watch. Those democratically accountable at best merely stand to lose their seats for unconnected reasons. By this yardstick, ‘we, the people’ are as much to blame.
Therefore, neither should the Machhil judgment blind one to the wider canvas in which justice is central to reconciliation, nor be allowed to paper over the other areas of justice denial that continues to place reconciliation out of reach.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chattargam incident in Kashmir

Hooda Walks The Talk

Kashmir Times, 10 November 14

Lt Gen Hooda as a colonel attending the higher command course for upwardly mobile officers won the best dissertation prize. His abridged thesis, published in the journal of the College of Combat in January 2001, was titled, 'Ethics and Morality in the Military'. That when it came to the crunch in his command tenure of all troops in J&K, he has measured up to what he wrote must be applauded. In his accepting the responsibility for the killings of two youngsters at a check point in Chattargam, Kashmir, he has set the bar higher for an army that prides itself for its professionalism and integrity. 

His elevation to high rank and his appointment as commander in chief in J&K bespeaks well of the army and its systems and processes. It is comforting to know that the army has within its ranks the likes of Hooda and also of the commanding general in the Valley, Saha, since it is no doubt that Hooda would be acting in consultation with the latter. These are not exceptions. They are among several thousand officers who over the years have rendered a signal contribution to Kashmir and Kashmiris, and at one remove to the nation. 

That said, there is also a subset of officers who are differently moulded. They are also in sufficient numbers to qualify as a subculture able on occasion to set the army's moral compass. The film Haider bears testimony on that count. That they are not absent in the Valley is clear from the Chattargam episode in which apparently the lower rungs of the hierarchy attempted to paper over the killings citing a pre-existing terror alert of terrorists in a 'white car'. The police acting courageously, has debunked that. This subculture was inclined to sweep the blatant killings under the carpet. In earlier periods in Kashmir, they might well have succeeded owing to the sway of the negative subculture in the conducive environment of insurgency and counter insurgency.

As for the soldiers on duty at the check point, it would be unfair to make them scapegoats, even if the preliminary inquiry that prompted Hooda to take a stand points out that they made a 'mistake'. They did indeed make a fatal mistake, but there are mitigating facts. A car screech at a check point can trigger unpremeditated action with unforeseen consequence. Had the check point not been there, the tragedy would not have happened. The check point is there owing to the protracted conflict situation, exemplified by the AFSPA. Therefore, while not ruling out individual culpability, those responsible for inability to shift the situation from one of conflict to one of post conflict must be held equally accountable. 

While fair to expect rules of engagement to hold since the situation is relatively stable and the army reportedly better trained, it also needs factoring in that the soldiers have no doubt been fed with the staple intelligence fare of dastardly terrorist actions imminent. ISIS related reports have surely permeated down the hierarchy and so has the need for greater alertness in light of upcoming elections. Also, they would likely have been told that the increased firing on the LC and rain wrought havoc on the LC fence has led to an increased induction of terrorists out to wreck the elections. Therefore, if the soldiers fired off their weapons in haste and fear, it is not quite a willful violation of rules of engagement, but due to a situation only 'waiting to happen'. 

The fact that it is not otherwise - a Kashmir without AFSPA - is to be blamed on those in power over the past decade, both in Delhi and Srinagar. So even if the soldiers fired off the shots and Hooda is taking responsibility for this, the Congress and the NC respectively are not above blame. The parameters for removal of AFSPA have been there for most part for about a decade. Mr. Manmohan Singh, and the powers behind the chair, the two Gandhis, proved unmindful owing to improved security indices making it politically unnecessary to go further. Mr. Omar Abdullah preferred making noises against it rather than offering his resignation. In so far as the army's input has been against its removal, decision on AFSPA is a political prerogative. Therefore, it would not do to blame the jawans on the check point alone, even if they end up serving as unfortunate 'fall guys'.

Admittedly, the UPA was disadvantaged by the BJP on its flanks ever ready to call any thought of AFSPA removal as anti-national and typically 'soft' national security thinking on the Congress' part. Mr. Abdullah would also be right in claiming in his defence that his resignation would not have made a difference. 

However, with the BJP in power in Delhi and set to take Srinagar in the reckoning of its chief Mr. Shah, is not impossible for AFSPA to get a relook. There are good political reasons for this. It can always be lifted over most places and can be reinstated when and where necessary. Internally, the BJP can profit by such a promise in the run up to elections as also from the fallout of lifting it if and when in power. It will mark out the BJP in Delhi, if not in Srinagar, as different from its predecessor. It will fulfill the promise embedded in Mr. Modi's Diwali foray into Kashmir. Externally, it will help prevent Kashmir serving as a continued attraction to jihadists from AfPak. It will set the stage for renewed engagement with Pakistan, one put off temporarily in August. 

The military's input would likely have had a strategic logic. With the US departing Afghanistan, it needed the AFSPA as cover while it 'waited and watched' the outcome. To its credit, it appears from the Chattargam episode that it put in place rules of engagement suited for a restrained military, even if one empowered with AFSPA. The episode proves that 'zero collateral damage' is a fallacy. Therefore, it too can reappraise AFSPA that makes such incidents inevitable. 

While strategic reasons determine the army's input, sociological considerations cannot be discounted altogether. The Chattargam episode makes it apparent that there are two subcultures within the army: one based on the professional military ethic and the other on a nationalist ethic. The latter could yet again dominate in case the Kashmir engagement continues under AFSPA and worsens among other reasons on that count. In such a case, Hooda's action could prove the last gasp of a rational military considering that a right wing dispensation is set for a long innings in Delhi.