Armed forces

Kashmir Killing: When Soldiers Commit a Crime, Honesty is the Best Policy for the Army

Brushing things under the carpet to preserve the rhetoric of heroism does nothing for the army’s morale, as Lt Gen Hooda has shown.

Army personnel in Pahalgam. Credit: Bombman/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Army personnel in Pahalgam. Credit: Bombman/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Northern Command of the Indian army is its largest formation, responsible as it is for the defence of Jammu and Kashmir on both the Pakistan and China fronts, as well as for internal security.With more than a third of the soldiers deployed under his command, the northern army commander’s job is a consequential one. The current incumbent, Lt General D.S. Hooda’s, latest intervention has been a public expression of regret over the death of a lecturer in army custody, picked up during a night operation by the troops. The general minced no words in accepting that it was an ‘unauthorised’ operation and that the death by beating was ‘intolerable’ and ‘unjustified’.

The operation in question was carried out by troops of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), reportedly accompanied by special operations group personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir police. Apparently, there had been a bout of stone throwing earlier in the day against the army. Angry troops barged into homes by night and thrashed the residents, including women, resulting in 18 people being hospitalised. The lecturer was beaten and whisked away along with 30 others. Later, his body was handed back to the family.

Hooda went on to admit, “The instructions are there to exercise maximum restraint but these are difficult times. The security forces are facing tough times and sometimes things get out of hand.” Clearly, the situation is indeed getting ‘out of hand’ if normally stolid troops of the Kumaon regiment – who are seconded to the 50 RR – are affected in such a manner as to storm into a village for a night of mayhem.

Even so, there can be no excuse for this descent to barbarity. The army constantly reminds itself of its commitment, with one exhortation going, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ It is at junctures like these when discipline is tested that the army is expected to pass the test. Parade ground discipline is the easiest to display, for it is in peace time.

However, it would not do to blame those at the bottom of the food chain alone. Such actions by the Kumaoni soldiers on their RR tenure is difficult to comprehend in light of the reputation of the troops for discipline and solidity. Indeed, their sense of discipline is such that, in this case, it appears that they may well have obeyed illegal orders. The responsibility for this, then, must rest on the shoulders of their leaders.

The leadership of RR is largely drawn from the regiment, but there is also an assortment of other officers who are on their field tenure. The structural problem with the RR is that the officers and troops find themselves together for a field tenure. Not only do they have to get to know each other, but also have to do so under the challenge of counter militancy operations. As a result, the premium on leadership goes up. In this case, if the officers set the troops on a questionable operation, then they must bear the consequences. If instead, the operation went awry – with soldiers running amok – the officers are liable for not exercising leadership.

The buck cannot stop at the unit level. The command environment and command climate need probing too. The environment of command is set at a formational level by one or two star levels of brass. This level sets the bar in terms of ethical conduct – be it financial probity, social mores or operational rectitude. In terms of counter insurgency, this spells the difference between the prevailing doctrinal approach or a bean-counting approach, where officers at lower level take cue and either follow the leader, or their conscience.

In case of the Pulwama operation, the level to which the unit was pushed by a higher headquarters to dampen the stone throwing ardour in its area needs to be examined.

The command climate is set at the operational level. It is easy to spot the command climate in place by the spoken reputation of the generals at the apex. In the current case, the theatre commander has set very high standards. Even so, operational level commanders can only make a finite difference; especially in the face of a command culture that is wider than their swathe of influence. The culture of command extends across the army. This can be one of professional rectitude, moral courage or, of cut-throatism. This might explain the dissonance between Hooda’s desire for ethical conduct and the recurrence of avoidable incidents in the Valley.

Hooda’s public commitment to legal action needs to be swiftly followed up. There has been no closure for the case that occurred early this summer in which a girl was molested inside a ladies toilet, allegedly by an army man. Her forced testimony, exonerating the army, was over zealously coerced out of her and recorded by the police. It was unethically circulated by the army public information officer on social media. Promised results of the inquiry have not been made public. Even though the bunker has since been removed from the location near the public toilet, in case action is not taken against the errant soldier, the army would have a child molester in its ranks.

By taking appropriate action, the army must measure up to its public adulation and in so doing, it will set a model for the other uniformed forces. A case in point is the tardy action of the CRPF at the headquarters level in replacing pellet guns, while at the ground level, 500 injuries have resulted from pellet guns being fired vindictively rather than being aimed below the waist.

Hooda had set the bar high, having early in his tenure ensured judicial sanction in the 2010 Machil encounter case, taking strict action against trigger happy soldiers at a barricade in Budgam, where two teenagers lost their lives. His kind of military leadership makes India proud. The army must ensure a command culture that throws up such leaders. Doing so implies endorsing Hooda’s standards. Sweeping dirt under the carpet under the mistaken belief that morale would suffer or its image would go down, is quite the opposite.

Ali Ahmed, a former Infantry officer with a PhD from JNU, has worked at a think tank and taught at a central university in New Delhi. His writings are archived at ali-writings.blogspot.in. Views here are personal.