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Sticks, Stones and Human Shields: the Army in Kashmir

“Apologise, apologise NOW to Major Gogoi!” demanded the anchor of some panelists and those outside the TV studio who disagreed with the army major using a Kashmiri man as a human shield. India has a huge army presence – 700,000 – in Jammu and Kashmir. It has the power to treat civilian areas as a war-like zone under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Yet, a soldier ties a man to a jeep, parades him in the streets, ostensibly to shield people at a polling booth from stone-pelting locals.

The man who was used as a human shield on April 9 was not a stone pelter. Why, then, did Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi get hold of him, beat him up and strap him to a jeep? The message here is clear. The Indian army and the state view every Kashmiri as a threat. Major Gogoi was given a special commendation soon after for “sustained counter-insurgency efforts”. He began to give TV interviews, in his uniform.  While this demystified Kashmir facetiously, it brought with it nationalistic hype based on falsehood. Not only does the army have to deal with Pakistan across the border, it was implied, but also the enemy within. And the enemy that was until now militants were shown to be the local people – a shawl weaver, as in this case. It came to be seen as insurgency that required a counter.

Farooq Ahmad Dar could be the man at the store a tourist might visit; he was exercising his democratic right by voting, although in Kashmir not voting is itself a democratic thing if one considers that fighting against state shackles is a right and an important duty in a democracy.

“This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagements are there when the adversary comes face-to-face and fights with you…You fight a dirty war with innovations,” said Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat.

This leaves no doubt as to how the army in Kashmir today views the people. Every word that the General uttered is less about him having to “maintain the morale of my troops” and more about being adversarial to suit a political agenda as well as whipped-up public sentiment: “In fact, 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). Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you.”

The army has always done what it wanted to do. Civilians are shot dead, sometimes “by mistake”, sometimes “on suspicion”; it has blinded people, including children, with pellet guns by barging into homes. Kashmiris live in fear. The soldiers might live in fear too – the fear to perform and gather enough targets to meet a goal set by their superiors.

In the past, a colonel who had handed over arrested militants to the civil authorities was chastised by his superiors and ordered to produce “kills”, even fake ones would do. Col. Harvinder Singh Kohli dressed up five men and made them play dead. They were sprayed with ketchup and photographed. The bosses, in order to keep the regiment reputation high, cajoled Kohli to recommend gallantry awards for them. He was in a fix. The lie was sought to be made into the truth. The dynamics here suggest blind obedience and how hierarchies work. While he was sacked, his superiors got away.

Similar questions can be asked about the human shield incident. Was Major Gogoi acting on his own or was he used as a shield, or as a fall guy, by the top brass? There has been much talk of his “out of box thinking” that helped maintain restraint. If, indeed, he was trying to protect the officials and cops at the election booth, why did he parade Dar for five hours through nine villages where there were no mobs? And if the army believes in exercising such restraint, why are there so many missing Kashmiris and unmarked graves?

Every attempt has been made to portray Dar as not just a stone pelter but the leader of a mob in order to make the act of parading him more heroic, especially after the army lost its men to cross-border incidents, some with their bodies mutilated. While there is public anger, it has also raised doubts over the army’s ability to retaliate.

The human shield story is a PR exercise for the forces, It might seem ridiculous for the army to prop up a comparatively soft hero for mere innovation in dealing with a civilian mob, but in Gogoi it has scored a coup. By putting him on a pedestal – even if for a pedestrian act – the army has made a political point. The Major is from Assam, a state where AFSPA has been used against militant groups.

When the local boy is accepted – and the North East is often treated as the outsider in India – it acts as a placebo. How false perceptions are built is borne out by a report of the Major being “lionised in Assam as medieval war hero who fought Mughals”. This stretching of the imagination projects a mythical quality on a sneaky act, besides seeing Kashmiris as marauding outsiders in their own land, which they believe has been occupied by India.

It is baffling how the army that has been fighting terrorists, as well as conducting surgical strikes against Pakistan, finds it difficult to deal with stone pelters. The central government has allocated $9.38 m for an all-women battalion specially to handle such protestors.

The devious manner in which Kashmiri sentiment is being demonised is borne out even by those who ought to know better. The former chief minister of the state, Omar Abdullah, wrote in an article, “’What about the stone-pelters?’ is the instinctive question. My humble counter-question is, will we and should we hold our army to the standards set by stone-pelters and agitating mobs now? Is that the indication of this inference? God help us if that’s the way we are headed.”

On what basis is he decorating the army with the higher moral ground, that too as opposed to civilians and not even militants? Is it because as a politician he is aware that the forces can’t act independently? A service officer, responding to my critique, had written to me some years ago: “It is important to understand that the boundaries of the army begins below the Chief of the Army Staff. The army is a tool in the hands of a government, to be utilised by its political masters for whatever purposes they feel fit. Defence budgeting, foreign policies, cross border policy, usage of army to handle domestic situations or riots etc are political decisions. These decisions have got little or nothing to do with army per se.”

It is worrying that the go-ahead for the human shield incident could come from high up. It might not have been a direct command, but its justification by political leaders conveys their consent, even admiration, for such acts. The Bharatiya Janata Party with its ally People’s Democratic Party is in power. Kashmir is a prestige issue. Since it is unlikely that their bruised ego will get the salve of respect, they are betting on notoriety.

A recent piece has become a talking point for referring to the General’s statement and the situation as a “Gen Dyer moment” (harking back to the Jallianwala massacre in British-ruled India). The symbolic analogy may have truth as its basis, but the hyperbolic assertion makes a victim of the predator.

This is manna for evening news hawks. They have successfully reached homes where an article on a website is shown as an enemy of the state, sponsored by Pakistan. Patriotism has got transformed into a pantomime of genuflecting before authority figures. All manner of stereotypes are flung at the viewers. “Those sitting in airconditioned rooms, how dare you criticise the army…what have you done for the country? The General is doing his duty to save us.”

Are we to admire and be grateful to a general for voicing pugnacious thoughts to legitimise a helpless man being paraded in the streets? The irony really hits home when the words of the man who was tied to the jeep are repeated: “Am I an animal?”

Farooq Dar now suffers from mental stress disorders. He has nightmares. There is no report yet on the condition of those suffering from delusions of grandeur.

 

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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