Tomorrow, the use of human shields could become standard operating procedure. Instead of the difficult process of flushing out militants by armed assault, the army could line up civilians and use them to breach a position.
At first sight, army chief Bipin Rawat’s comment in an interview to PTI – “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do)” – makes it seems as if the general is eager to shoot protestors.
What he is actually saying, in a somewhat convoluted way, is that he would rather not shoot at unarmed people. But in seeking to give his reiteration of the army’s long-standing position a somewhat macho touch, he has ended up making a statement that can, at best, be called confused.
This confusion represents his frustration at dealing with the phenomenon of violent civil protest riding on the back of a violent separatist insurgency.
But instead of directing his ire at the protestors, the general should reflect a bit on his – and the Indian army’s – predicament. Military intervention, as Clausewitz pointed out a long time ago, is only a means to achieve a political end. “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means” implies that war or armed action cannot be divorced from the political context. The logical extension of this is that the government gives the direction as to the end state it desires, and the military provides the means of achieving that end.
The problem here is that the politicians, and this means the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party-coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Union government at the Centre, have created a situation and dumped the problem on the lap of the armed forces.
There is a PDP-BJP government running the state and presumably directing the security forces operations but we see no signs of any political direction. Defence minister Arun Jaitley has declared that there is a “warlike situation” prevailing, but the Union government has not yet imposed martial law and given the Army a free hand that Gen Rawat says he would like to have.
Rawat should be wary of a “free hand” because it will bring grief not just to the state but the army whose morale the general says he is worried about. The big problem actually lies with the army’s assessment of the J&K situation. The corporate view, bought by a large section of the government, is that there is a proxy war going on there. In other words, a conflict entirely directed, financed and armed by Pakistan. This is simply not true. The Kashmir situation is a mix of proxy war, indigenous separatism and Islamism layered by local grievances. This requires a sophisticated politico-military response, something that is absent and the army is, unfortunately, being forced to bear the brunt of this lack.
In themselves, Gen Rawat’s remarks are a classic Sunday-for-Monday news item. Editors know that if you want column space, the best day to push a story is on a Sunday. General Rawat wanted to make a point to the critics of his action in rewarding Major Gogoi, but he need not have worried: he made so many controversial remarks in that one interview to PTI that they have hit the headlines any way.
Take for example his belief that “your people must be afraid of you [the army].” This statement is completely over the top. First and foremost, the army must command the respect of the people; the word “fear” is inappropriate and ill-advised. This is why, when the army comes in aid of civil authority, the very first thing it does is to conduct a flag march – aimed at using its prestige to calm a situation.
The army chief has spoken of “innovative” means of dealing with the situation. He is probably right, since the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is itself quite complex and unique. But if the use of hostage taking is part of the innovation, then there is a problem.
His explanation for awarding Major Gogoi a commendation even while a court of inquiry into the legality of his action is on holds no water. As chief, he must uphold army procedure, which he clearly did not because he acknowledged that he had decided to award the major based on a general sense of the direction in which the inquiry is going. Given the way the army works, Gen Rawat virtually foreordained the outcome. There can be no excuse for what Major Gogoi did, and it would have been better if the chief had left the issue alone, instead of condoning what was an illegal act.
Tomorrow, the use of human shields could become the standard operating procedure (SOP). Instead of the difficult process of flushing out militants by armed assault, the army could simply line up a number of civilians and use them to breach a position they are hiding out in. This would also be “innovative” but it would also be a violation of the laws of war which Indian forces have upheld till now.
In much more trying conditions in the early 1990s, the army acted against its personnel for wilful abuse of civilians. As I have documented in my book, Lost Rebellion: Kashmir in the Nineties, an officer was cashiered and given a seven-year prison sentence for stealing Rs 8,000 in a search operation; a soldier of the 9th Field Regiment was dismissed from service and given six months in prison for molestation; punishment for rape was draconian and usually quickly delivered through a court martial. Three officers responsible for arresting and interrogating a journalist received severe reprimands. The Army has largely kept quiet about the punishment it meted out for excesses, but that does not mean it did not act. Army officers are aware of just how counter-insurgency situations undermine the good order of military units unless soldiers are kept within the straight and narrow.
It is because of this attitude that the security forces were able to defeat the militancy and bring sufficient peace to restore an elected government in the state by the late 1990s. Virtually all specialists will tell you that winning the hearts and minds of the people is an irreplaceable component of any counter-insurgency strategy, especially one such as we are witnessing in J&K today – where there are just a handful of armed militants operating in ones and twos, but a large pool of disaffected people sheltering them.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation