It is distressing that the Indian political class has not reacted forcefully to the statements made by Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat. The “mainstream” media has also chosen to remain silent. Speaking at a media event recently, Rawat said Kashmiris were now offering to “lynch terrorists themselves”. This, he claimed, was a “very positive sign”. Social media accounts from Kashmir had expressed these sentiments, Rawat claimed.

What Rawat said next was even more sinister – it suggested that he meant to use the people of Kashmir as a shield for potential excesses by security forces. He claimed Kashmiris had offered to do the lynching or “make arrangements that they get lynched”. Does he mean that evening if local residents are not involved in the lynchings, every lynching is, in fact, arranged by them? Who would be carrying them out at their instance – the police or the army?

That the man who is supposed to be looking after the country’s defences speaks the language of street violence should concern all of us. That Rawat endorsed such violence and drew applause from the elite audience is frightening. That the general should forget the implications of his statement is also frightening.

The general’s record does not inspire confidence either. He had applauded the use of a Kashmiri man as a human shield in 2017. He had also suggested civilians supporting militancy would not be spared by the army. More than once, he has made comments that are partisan, supporting the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. With Rawat in command, public faith in the army as a protector of citizens has been shaken.

Rule of law

According to a lawyer, the general was in clear contempt of court in his remarks on lynchings. She pointed to the Supreme Court judgment in Tehseen S. Poonawalla vs Union of India, where the court made it unequivocally clear that lynchings were unlawful and criminal. “The horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land,” the court said. “Earnest action and concrete steps have to be taken to protect the citizens from the recurrent pattern of violence which cannot be allowed to become ‘the new normal’.”

The court pointed out that laws conferred rights on citizens but also regulated social behaviour in a civilised society:

“The primary goal of law is to have an orderly society where the citizenry’s dreams for change and progress [are] realized and the individual aspiration finds space for expression of his/her potential. In such an atmosphere while every citizen is entitled to enjoy the rights and interests bestowed under the constitutional and statutory law, he is also obligated to remain obeisant to the command of law.”

This was not the general’s understanding of how individuals function in society. We know that his view will be endorsed by a majority impatient for instant justice. It will also be argued that “terrorists” cannot be treated as citizens, that those who do not have any regard for the processes of law and who have no compunction in killing people cannot be beneficiaries of the same principles.

This is where the challenge lies. When it deals with those it deems terrorists, the state must demonstrate that it does not endorse their method or speak in their language. A democratic state cannot turn rogue, no matter what the challenges.

Who is a ‘terrorist’?

The general’s approach has dangerous implications for Kashmir, where many youth have taken up arms in recent years. State oppression has filled them with a sense of helplessness and frustration. They see themselves as subjugated to the Indian state by force, and left with no lawful means to express dissent.

Rawat’s stand is also dangerous for Muslims across India, where there is increasing acceptance of Hindu rightwing propaganda that casts all those who follow Islam as terrorists. According to this propaganda, they need to be dealt with in the language of gun and sword.

Kashmiris specifically have been reduced to the status of lesser humans by the state. Only consider how Kashmiri journalists are persecuted and government officials are dismissed arbitrarily from service, how even pro-India Kashmiri politicians have been humiliated and the courts have turned their eyes away from the injustice in the way Article 370 was gutted and Jammu and Kashmir stripped of statehood. Kashmiri have not been heard. They believe the Indian state would be happy to have the territory cleared of its people. For Indians, Kashmir is a tourist destination, meant to satisfy their aesthetic pleasure.

The author Premchand said, more than a century ago, that no self-respecting community can watch in silence its dignity being taken away. Yet Kashmiris see their sense of self diminished daily by the Indian state and media. Many have been driven to think of a different language through which they can force the Indian state to engage with them. It is self-destructive but the cruel insensitivity of the institutions of the state have contributed to this producing “terrorists” in Kashmir.

Of course, terrorism has a logic of its own and does not need oppression to justify itself. But the Indian state cannot run away from its responsibility. I write all this to understand the difficulty of using the word terrorist in this context.

Who is a terrorist, why should we not use all means possible to bring him around to engage in civil ways? But for that we need to remain civil. The general is making a populist argument to win the approval of the majority. It is dangerous and cannot be allowed. He is bound by the Constitution of India and its laws.