New Delhi: On September 15, India TV channel broadcast the latest edition of its long-running show Aap ki Adalat, in conversation with the defence minister.
Twenty minutes into the show, the anchor and India TV head Rajat Sharma wondered if the government was taking steps to “straighten out Pakistan”.
“Lekin sawal hai Pakistan ko theek karne ka. Chunav ke dauran kehte hain ki woh do sir katenge to hum dus sir kat ke layenge. Lekin ab to dus to nahin kat rahein (During the election campaign, you people had said that if they cut two heads, we will cut ten heads. But ten heads are not really being cut now),” said Sharma. The studio audience clapped.
After the ovation subsided, Sitharaman replied, “Nahin. Main yeh bol sakti hoon…kaat to rahen hain hum, display nahin kar rahen (No. I can only say this…we are also cutting heads, but are not displaying them).”
As the audience erupts in applause, the anchor said, “Okay. I respect your limits.”
It is clear from the context of her answer that Sitharaman was referring to the cutting of heads of Pakistani soldiers killed by the Indian army in combat.
India TV also made the same inference in its own account of the September 15 TV programme, highlighting Sitharaman’s announcement about the beheading of Pakistani soldiers:
Replying to a question on what happened to assertions by BJP leaders that if it came to power, it “will get 10 heads in reply to two beheadings”, Sitharaman said. “kaat to rahe hain, display nahin kar rahen” (heads are being cut off, but are not being displayed).
This is the first time ever that an Indian government official has publicly said that Indian army has “cut off” the heads of Pakistani soldiers during operations at the Line of Control.
The public declaration is unusual, as such action is a direct violation of the Geneva Convention and customary norms of international law on armed conflict.
While there is evidence that such actions have taken place, their illegality is the reason the government has always maintained strict silence over them.
A major aspect of Indian foreign policy is a strong backing for the “rules-based international order”, which means a strict adherence to obligations undertaken voluntarily by signing onto multilateral treaties.
India is a party to the First Geneva Convention of 1949 for the “amelioration on the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field”. It was only the fifth country in the world to deposit the instrument of ratification with Switzerland.
Article 15 of the convention states:
“At all times, and particularly after an engagement, Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.”
The cutting off of a dead soldiers head and any other form of bodily mutilation amounts to despoiling, which India has a legal obligation to prevent.
A media report from January 2013 states that India raised strong objections to the “mutilation” of the bodies of Indian soldiers as it “was against the Geneva Convention” at a flag meeting between Indian and Pakistani army officers.
The flag meeting took place after India went public to say that two Indian army soldiers had been killed and beheaded by Pakistani troops after crossing the Line of Control.
The Ministry of External Affairs had declared that the bodies were subjected to “barbaric and inhuman mutilation”. Pakistan’s actions, the MEA said on January 9, 2013, was “in contravention of all norms of international conduct”.
After visiting the wife of one of the soldiers, then leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj told reporters, “If his (Hemraj’s) head could not be brought back (from Pakistan), we should get at least ten heads from their side.”
Despite repeated allegations, Pakistan has never publicly admitted to the beheading of Indian soldiers.
In 2016, The Hindu published a report on ‘Operation Ginger’, which was apparently a retaliatory cross-border strike by the Indian army in revenge for the beheading of Indian soldiers in 2011. The article claimed that Indian soldiers ambushed a patrol team and “finally chopped the heads off” of three dead Pakistani soldiers.
There had been no public response from the Indian government confirming that the Indian army also conducts cross-border raids which include the dismemberment of bodies – till now.
Sitharaman’s statement to India TV is the first time that any government functionary – from either India or Pakistan – has acknowledged that their forces conduct cross-border operations where “heads are being cut off”.