As the political debate over ‘surgical strikes’ degenerates into ‘mine was bigger than yours’, everyone needs to remember that some of the acts claimed are grave and indefensible by their very nature and are illegal under the laws of war – even if described as retaliation for a similar act by the Pakistani side.
The best efforts of television studios to count and celebrate “surgical strikes” notwithstanding, we may never know with certainty whether and when India’s armed forces had crossed the Line of Control in the past to execute cross-border raids. We can be sure, however, that several red lines have been crossed in the reporting of some of the alleged details.
On Sunday, The Hindu reported details of a retaliatory cross-border raid purportedly carried out by the Indian army in response to Pakistan’s beheading of two Indian soldiers in July 2011. ‘Operation Ginger’, which took place the month after, reportedly involved Indian soldiers crossing the LoC, ambushing their Pakistani counterparts, and finally “chopping the heads off” three dead soldiers. If The Hindu report is extraordinary for its detail, it is also marred by the casual treatment of an act that is patently illegal and condemned across the world. In other words, this is not a report on an ordinary cross-border raid, but an operation that involved the mutilation of dead bodies — a war crime that goes against the grain of international humanitarian law. Its very publication casts a shadow on the conduct of the Indian army, and indeed, the government of India.
The Hindu is an independent newspaper, and under no obligation to toe the official version of events. Yet it is astonishing, given the implications of the report, that it chose to run the story without seeking so much as a token response from the army’s spokesperson or the defence ministry. If an official statement was sought, it was nowhere to be found in the report. Instead, the report refers to a former two-starred officer by name, identifying him as the “man behind the planning and execution of Operation Ginger”. Major General (retd) S.K. Chakravorty confirmed the raid to The Hindu, but did not discuss its operational details. In outing the former soldier as the brains behind an act that is considered a war crime in many jurisdictions across the world, the daily has exposed him and his colleagues to potential legal action abroad.
The problematic way in which the story has treated in the Indian media, including social media, reflects popular discourse. The emphasis of the story — undoubtedly an impressive work of investigative journalism — is on the “surgical strike”, not the details of the alleged operation. That it involved the commission of a war crime was secondary, because the report merely fed into the political claims and counter-claims that have volleyed around in the aftermath of the cross-border raid by India on September 28, 2016 in response to the Uri terror attacks.
In question is an act of commission that is grave and indefensible by its very nature, even if described as retaliation for a similar act by the Pakistani side. The mutilation of dead bodies during armed conflict, according to customary international law, is a crime and an affront to personal dignity. The Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions relating to the “Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts” urges the respectful treatment of the “remains of persons” who have died on account of hostilities. (India is a party to the Geneva Convention, but not its additional protocols, though this principle stems from customary practice and thus is binding on all countries). The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – a treaty New Delhi has not signed – states that the “degrading treatment” of dead persons during armed conflict amounts to a “war crime” that can be prosecuted by the court. Treating dead bodies, either of combatants or civilians, with dignity is a basic tenet of war or international armed conflict. In many cases – most notably the court-martial of US soldiers who posed with photographs of beheaded and mutilated corpses during the Vietnam war – the armed forces have strongly condemned such actions by their soldiers. India may have its own reasons for not signing international instruments like the Rome Statute, but its commitment to principles of the law of armed conflict (LoAC) has been a basic and unwavering feature of its foreign policy. LoAC principles apply even without a formal declaration of war on either side, so it is clear the conduct of Indian and Pakistani forces is regulated by them.
If the media rushed to present evidence of yet another “surgical strike”, while ignoring the gravity of the actions allegedly committed, the custodians of state policy have gone one step further. The Indian National Congress, which led the United Progressive Alliance at the time of the cross-border raid, has embraced the alleged beheading of Pakistani soldiers with sickening enthusiasm. Congress spokesperson and former information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari taunted defence minister Manohar Parrikar on Twitter, asking “how many heads we brought back” from the cross-border operation of last month.
In 2013, when reports surfaced of Pakistani soldiers beheading Lance Naik Hemraj Singh and Sudhakar Singh of the Indian Army, it was ironically Tewari who claimed that the mutilation of dead soldiers was a “violation of the Geneva convention”. And Sushma Swaraj, currently external affairs minister and then leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, demanded India bring back “10 heads” from Pakistan in retaliation.
Another Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha suggested that the “INC stands vindicated” and urged Twitter users to “read, RT, share [and] talk [about]” the report on the alleged 2011 cross-border raid. The Congress spokespersons’ public comments are reprehensible: in their eagerness to score a political victory over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, they have imperilled India’s policy and armed forces with the taint of unbecoming conduct. For its part, the BJP is playing a detestable game of “my surgical strike was better”, with its spokesperson suggesting that the Congress did not have the “political courage to own up the army’s operation” – including, presumably, the commission of a war crime.
The alleged cross-border operation of 2011 likely did not have the imprimatur of the cabinet committee on security on it — if anything, the UPA was wise to hold back information on the raid, given its consequences for India’s image abroad. But the current atmosphere, marked by calls for bloodletting, has now imperilled the integrity of institutions tasked with India’s security. As the commentator Shashank Joshi has noted, the post-surgical strike environment is so strange that Indian officials are “cheerfully admitting to war crimes.” If a foreign government or organisation were to needle New Delhi with this episode, calling perhaps for an international investigation, India would only have its political class to blame. With the report of the 2011 raid out in a newspaper of national repute, the Indian army is faced with the uncomfortable prospect of opening an inquiry into the incident. For former or serving defence forces personnel, it is a reminder that their casual references to previous operations run the risk of being caught in the political cross-hairs, and drawn into a debate from which no one emerges the better.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.