Sometimes history and especially the history of violence has a way of teaching us lessons by telling the story from different angles. The classic narrative often cited in this context is Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie Rashomon where a murder is seen from three perspectives. The emphasis here is not to create a picture of relativism but a thick description of the event and the responses to it. The effort is to show how the production and consumption of the event are knitted together. Guilt or innocence can be part of a chain of being, implicating more than one person.
The recent controversy surrounding the use of a “human shield” by an army officer seems to be of such a complexity. As with other such events nowadays, it all started on Twitter, when former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted a video of a young man tied to the bonnet of an army jeep.
Abdullah’s response at first seemed to be about comparative consternation. A few days earlier there was a video of armed Central Reserve Police Force personnel being heckled and harassed by Kashmiri “ruffians”. This video had gone viral producing a tremendous wave of sympathy for the security forces and, what was seen as, their exemplary restraint.
Quick to muddy waters, some claimed, Abdullah had unleashed the video of the man on the bonnet, asking querulously why this video would not generate the same level of anger as the CRPF video.
There is something adolescent about Omar Abdullah. He looks like someone who has not forgiven the world for voting him out of power. Secondly, his consternation strikes a comparative note, an Orwellian hint that some violences should be more equal than others. Thirdly, his language is not clear. We are not sure whether he is conveying pique or injustice. One does not know whether he would have behaved the same way if he was in power. The stones pelting trend, after all, arose in his time and has acquired epidemic proportions.
The event itself has to be located within a context not just of the army’s brutalisation of itself and Kashmiri society but the immediate context of the election. The latest bye-elections in Kashmir were an embarrassment for India. The turnout was pathetic with Farooq Abdullah being elected on a 7% turnout from Sri Nagar. The general propaganda pictures about high voter turnout that India preened about were not available this time. Electoral democracy seems to have given up on Kashmir.
The more immediate context was the situation of a Rashtriya Rifles officer who, it was claimed, had to provide protection, in fact, rescue a polling team from a stone pelting mob. Official reports cited by The Economic Times claimed that the government has decided to stand by the army officer:
Army probe into the April 9 incident which concluded that the commanding officer took the decision reluctantly and as the last resort after he realised that his unit had to pass through streets crowded with a mob of stone-pelters who had also taken positions on surrounding rooftops.
The trapped personnel included about a dozen local J&K employees, about 9-10 ITBP jawans, a couple of constables from J&K police and a bus driver.
The officer was lauded for his “quick thinking” which had led him to employ a ruse of tying a citizen to a bonnet and using him as a human shield. General GD Bakshi, a retired officer and regular presence on TV news channels, praised the officer for his “out of the Box thinking” which had “saved lives on both sides”, adding that the standard military solution was to shoot the pelters dead. Bakshi’s comments get more interesting. He slighted “the human rights tamasha” in Kashmir which, apparently, put the army at a disadvantage and added: “The Israelis do it routinely”.
Success seems to provide its own flavor and Israeli pragmatism seems to have a particular appeal for India. We project ourselves as twin countries caught in the same terrorist imbroglio. Bakshi’s comments are an example of an officer claiming that the ends justify the means, that a consequentialist ethics is all that matters. There is little or no reference to the fact that the Geneva convention bans the use of “human shields”.
In all this controversy, the experience of the victim hardly seems to matter. He is almost incidental to history, a piece of accident who happened to be there.
Other available accounts, not readily available in mainstream media outlets, provide a different story. Here, the man on the bonnet of the jeep gets a name and a profession. He is Farooq Dar, a shawl weaver, resident of Chil village in Beerwah sub-district in in Kashmir’s Budgam district. In this account, he was was paraded around a dozen villagers.
Far from being a stone pelter, the irony was that Dar said he had gone out that day to vote and was riding his bike to attend a condolence meeting at his brother-in-law’s house in Gampora village when he was stopped by the forces in a village where some women were protesting against the elections. Being a well behaved citizen, evidently, does not cut ice in a community of stone pelters. Dar claimed he was beaten and paraded in an almost unconscious state in a dozen or so villages. He emphasised he was not a stone pelter. He said he would not complain as he was convinced no one would listen to a poor person. The dignity of an anonymous citizen hardly seems to matter as the forces of history enact their bigger egos.
Meanwhile, the country’s highest judicial officer, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi, has spoken. Why was there so much noise about it, he wondered. “If it has to be done again, it should be done again,” he said in an interview. “We are 100 percent backing the Army and the major.”
The army, on its part, promised its ritual of enquiry. The army chief General Rawat had earlier warned that “overground supporters” would be treated like “armed terrorists” if they hampered military operations.
The question one has to ask is whether legitimacy is only a cover, a screen or is it a lived-out ontology of values.
It is almost as if each professional group – whether it is party or media or army – is taking strategy while the wider issues of ethics and democracy seem second hand. In fact, it echoes the recent statement of Narendra Modi asking Kashmiri youth to opt between tourism and terrorism. There is a facileness here which again reveals an alienation, a distance from the ground. No wonder The Indian Express editorial shrugged Modi’s option off as “a blithe binary”.
As the video war proceeds, creating images of competitive violence, one can virtually sense it has a higher turnout than electoral politics. One has to ask whether there is an abandonment of grass roots politics as tweets and Facebook posts pretend to substitute for constituency battles.
I must admit that the text of the story is fragmented. Each provides a different coating of morality. Yet, I think the context is important. To think that each one of these incidents is separate and discontinuous refuses to understand that Kashmir has been at war with itself for close to seven decades now. The state of internal emergency has brutalised people, left politics hopeless and ethics empty. The Kashmiri society is caught in an amoral vortex where violence and brutality is read as normal.
Some may admire Major Gogoi’s quick thinking but the event is a deeper one. Even if one believes the army version, at one level, the Major’s act was a bit of triage – sacrificing a Kashmiri to save a bunch of officials. The moral luck was that the Dar came out of it alive, or the army might be putting Gogoi on the dock.
In fact, reading it all one senses that there is no real value for human life. Worse, there is no place for ethics in a world that talks strategy, efficiency, cost-benefit. The sadness of Kashmir politics from Abdullahs to the army is that it has created a democracy as an empty forum without values. The Vietnamisation of Kashmir is proceeding blithely as officials point fingers at each other. It is the death of ethics that is the scandal of Kashmir.
Shiv Visvanthan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School, and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University.