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How the Quicksand of Counter-Insurgency Operations Has Hurt Indian Army's Core Value

The recent Rajouri-Poonch incident has offered a chance to start the process of recovery and climb out of the morass. Distinguish between criminality and a genuine mistake. Instead of incentivising criminal behaviour using the plea of troops’ morale, prosecute and punish the criminals in uniform. Make an example of them.

The recent death-by-torture of three innocent Kashmiri men thankfully invoked enough shock and outrage among the well-meaning to force the government to react. Not only has compensation been announced, but employment has been promised to the next of kin. The Indian Army also has swiftly moved out a few officers, including a brigadier, to assuage the public sentiment while ordering a court of enquiry.

Even if the enquiry concludes complicity of the army personnel, their punishment would be a tough ask, given the government and the army’s track record on human rights offences. Hence, it is difficult to resist the feeling that had the video of torture not come out in the public domain, the three dead men would have ended up being statistics, adding to the number of disappeared persons in Kashmir since the start of the insurgency.

With this background, the twin emotions that I felt upon learning about the incident was déjà vu. And sadness. Not for the unfortunate Kashmiris. But for the institution called the Indian Army, which has progressively and steadily been losing its moral bearings in the quicksand of counter-insurgency operations. On this climb down the ladder of military professionalism, the Indian Army faced several stages from which it could have turned back – back to its core values – but it chose to continue trudging downwards. Hell does sucks you in with all kinds of allurements – recognition, gallantry awards, headiness of power, glamour of media attention and avenues of money making etc.

Truth be told, there has been an inevitability to this. The Indian Army is the only military force in the world to combat insurgency within its own territory – for over 70 years in the Northeast and 30 years in Kashmir. It would have been a miracle if it remained unaffected by the vested interests that develop when political problems remain unresolved for an extended period of time. Moreover, continuous exposure to debilitating violence, both inflicted upon you and inflicted by you, brutalises the victim and the perpetrator alike, so much so that after a point it is difficult to distinguish who’s who.

The key stages in the army’s descent into unprofessionalism were dehumanisation of the adversary, whataboutery on human rights issues, communalisation of the threats and political alignment for personal aggrandisement. Unless we understand this downward trajectory, we won’t be able to put the present incident in its correct context.

In the early years of my reporting on the Indian Army’s counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, I came across the story of Kunan-Poshpora. This was in 2005. Like most newcomers on the ‘army beat’, I was full of nationalistic fervour, so my instinctive reaction was disbelief.

“Raping women is not one of Indian Army’s KRAs (key result areas),” a very senior Srinagar-based officer had told me tersely in 2003 during my first assignment. We were talking about the possible human rights violations by the Indian Army in Kashmir, and he had taken umbrage at my artless question. “We don’t get up in morning and brief our men that they have to rape two women and kill four men today,” he said in a tone that shut me up right and proper.

Hence, when one Kashmiri journalist mentioned the Kunan-Poshpora incident to me, I dismissed it as separatists’ propaganda to malign the Indian Army. For the uninitiated, Kunan-Poshpora is a village in the Kupwara district of north Kashmir. And the ‘incident’ refers to the horrific night of February 23, 1991, when in the course of a cordon and search operation by an Indian Army unit, almost two dozen women reported being gangraped. There were several enquiries, but the findings remained polarised. The villagers and the women stood by their version and the army by its denial. No one was ever prosecuted. Even today, the incident remains between the grey intersection of facts and fiction.

Also read: J&K: Families Affected by ‘Fake Encounters’ View Poonch Civilian Deaths with Doubts and Despair

Such was my confidence in the integrity of the Indian Army, that my disbelief was not enough. I needed validation too. Especially, when I learnt about Kunan-Poshpora months after the Manorama Devi incident of Manipur. Manorama Devi was picked up from her home by the Assam Rifles for questioning in July 2004. Later her bullet-ridden body was found in a field, with gunshots to her genitals, apparently to remove evidence of rape. Thereafter, Manipuri women came out to protest against the impunity with which they thought the Indian Army operated in the state. Assam Rifles is officered by the army. The image of the naked protest by women holding the banner ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ refused to leave my head.

Disturbed by this consecutive shaking-up of my beliefs, I sought an appointment with the seniormost officer in Delhi responsible for public information. The two-star general graciously received me in his office, gave me tea and biscuits, before proceeding to put my concerns to rest. By way of breaking the ice, he asked me about my family background, my career goals and so on. Finally, he got down to the main issue. “People like us,” he said, “have different moral values. Can you come out on the streets naked to protest, whatever be the provocation?” he asked rhetorically. “People like us will not do that. Their society is different from ours. Their attitude towards sex is different.”

Having tackled Manipur, he proceeded to Kashmir. “Kashmir looks like a conservative society, but they are extremely fanatic,” he said. “Kashmiri women take great pride in having sex with the Jihadis. They regard it as their contribution to Jihad. They have no shame in saying that they have been raped to malign the Indian Army. That’s part of their psychological warfare.”

It took me a long time to process this conversation. I didn’t have the correct vocabulary to understand that dehumanisation of the adversary, whether in Kashmir or the Northeast, was one of the means of getting the soldiers to carry out unsoldierly and unprofessional acts. This dehumanisation was necessary to absolve oneself of the guilt of treating a fellow being as less than human.

You don’t feel any compunctions in pulling out an elderly man from his vehicle in the presence of his family and humiliating him, because ‘Kashmiris don’t have the same sense of dignity that we have.’ You don’t flinch when you torture a young boy because ‘They are used to much worse hardships.’ You are not horrified when you ‘accidentally’ kill an innocent person because ‘if they really cared about life would they let their children join the militancy.’ And so on.

However, dehumanisation can only go this far. Sometimes, the human rights types ask too many pesky questions, which require a response. So, throw the question back. Much before whataboutery became the nationalist’s reflex on the social media, the Indian Army officers had perfected it in Kashmir.

At a seminar on human rights that the army had organised in a Rashtriya Rifle unit in Pattan in the early years of the last decade, I was invited as a speaker. A senior officer who spoke after me, politely rebuked my talk by saying ‘What about the human rights of the soldiers?’ That set the tone for the rest of his talk. He gave examples of the brutality of the militants and the plight of the families of the killed army personnel. He spoke about watching his brother in arms bleed to death in front of him, or his buddy losing a limb. Sure enough, it was a whistle-worthy speech. The officer got a standing ovation.

Later during tea, I was accosted by many young officers who repeated the rhetoric of their senior, with additional examples. My assertion that soldiers and insurgents are held to different moral and professional standards went unheard and unheeded. Clearly, there can be no persuasive answer to the question that begins with ‘what about.’ In any case, the person asking the question doesn’t want the answer. The righteousness of their question is the answer in itself.

However, the biggest erosion has been of Indian Army’s secular values, which now also shape its attitude towards CI Ops in Kashmir. Many retired military officers rue the growing politicisation of the Indian Army. But the politicisation has only been possible because there was communalisation of the army first. Senior officers, especially from the retired community, are fond of throwing the examples of common prayer rooms in an army unit, called Sarva Dharm Sthal, and of unit officers practicing the religious rituals of their troops irrespective of their personal beliefs to underscore the army’s syncretism.

The truth is, it’s mere tokenism. And all officers know that. As everything else in the army, religious syncretism is also a parade. And it has a cute name too. It’s called mandir parade. Syncretism or tolerance is not what you display. It is what you believe. And believe so deeply that it’s like breathing to you. Religious tolerance by order is no tolerance; it’s a timebound duty.

However, communalisation of the Indian Army is not its fault. With the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as the primary military threat, religion was always a factor in its mental preparedness, especially in the infantry, where pure units had religious war cries. Once the insurgency in J&K increasingly assumed an Islamist character through Pakistan’s interventions, the internal enemy also increasingly started looking and behaving like a Muslim. If the army was not involved in CI Ops for a prolonged period, it would have been in the cantonment or training institutes preparing and training for conventional warfare. The impressionable soldiers and young officers would have been removed from the society where religious polarisation was becoming an everyday reality. And they may have taken mandir parade as the way of life.

But that did not happen. The army was forced to train primarily for counter terrorism, especially after the Modi government deemed terrorism as India’s main threat. Moreover, to isolate the Kashmir issue from its political context, the term insurgency was replaced by terrorism by the government. So effectively, the army was now training to fight Muslim and Christian terrorists. Consequently, it saw nothing wrong in issuing a tender for creating a simulated village in Officers’ Training Academy, Gaya in which it asked for “among other things, structures of village huts with different specifications of material and sizes, a mosque and a church.’ It also asked for ‘mannequins to be dressed in pherans, burkhas, pathani suits, skull caps, traditional clothing of women from the Northeast and robes of a Christian priest.”

Prolonged deployment of the army in CI Ops in Kashmir and the Northeast gradually turned it into a mostly Hindu army, with Hinduism being conflated with nationalism. When the Supreme Court of India also says that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion, how can one blame a mere military service for this confusion. From there to politicisation was a short distance. After all, when religion, nation and party are one, how can one distinguish!

Is there a way to climb out of this morass?

The recent Rajouri-Poonch incident has offered a chance to start the process of recovery. Distinguish between criminality and a genuine mistake. Instead of incentivising criminal behaviour using the plea of troops’ morale, prosecute and punish the criminals in uniform. Make an example of them. Sure, this will only be a patchwork. But until the military finds the muscle to stand up and tell the political leadership that it needs to go back to the barracks to resurrect its core values, patchwork will have to do.

Ghazala Wahab is editor FORCE magazine. Her books include Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power, Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India and The Peacemakers.