Apart from a few uncles who served in the Indian Navy and Air Force and my father’s limited foray as a member of the now defunct Auxiliary Air Force, my family’s engagement with the armed forces has been limited. We have not lost any members of our family in the wars or to terrorism. I begin with these confessions to insulate myself from the predictable criticism that what I am going to say in this column comes from my “not having felt what it is to be a soldier”.

My respect for anyone, including jawans, activists, journalists and citizens who risk their lives to protect, preserve, rescue and save humanity is immeasurable. We sleep well at night because of all these fearless warriors, both uniformed and not uniformed.

As a free citizen of India, I am ashamed by the news that the Indian Army awarded a commendation card to Major Leetul Gogoi for his sustained efforts in counter insurgency. This is a man who, during elections for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency last month, barbarically tied a human being to the bonnet of his jeep along with a placard tied to his chest that declared that he was a stone-pelter. It is claimed that this was the only way the officer could save poll workers and his own men without a firing incident. But all this still remains only in the realm of claims. Major Gogoi, with the overt support of his top brass, and obviously the Government of India, is being decorated even before the official inquiry into the incident has been completed. The inquiry is then only an eyewash and this makes it that much more disturbing. Irrespective of the counter insurgency deeds of the officer, the timing of this commendation displays crassness, insensitivity and a total lack of decorum on the part of the Army.

Army vs the people

Was Farooq Ahmad Dar a stone-pelter? This question remains unanswered. The Army accuses him of instigating or leading the violence. He, on the other hand, insists that he was returning from exercising his democratic right to vote. As of now, we know that Dar is not a terrorist, he is not a wanted man, not an absconder, there is no proven connection between him and Pakistani intelligence agencies and there has not been any case registered against him. Therefore, it is fair to assume that he is just another Kashmiri, making Major Gogoi’s inhuman act that much more grievous. Even if Dar was a resisting, disgruntled stone-pelter, the Army is an official force of the State and hence is bound by the contours that the citizenry has drawn around it. Using human-shields lies beyond those lines. Military pundits may applaud the tactical smartness of the officer’s move but the ethical nastiness of such an action is as loud.

This incident only seems to further establish the fact that the Army, given its structural and responsibility chassis, is incapable of responding to situations of civil unrest. The Army jawan is a programmed unit of a war machine. He is tuned to perceive humanity in black or white, and anything in-between causes confusion, discomfort and, in most cases, results in violence. The Army provides logical reasoning for its actions. Here, for instance, a situation was handled with zero casualty and was therefore commendable. Everything else was hence inevitable. This threat-response syndrome is insensitive to the normal cycles of life and human nature. Normal human nature has been permanently extracted from the Army man’s operational reflexes. Is that not a universal truth, about all armies? Yes, and perhaps it is a prerequisite for war. But it is a handicap, a serious one, in fact a deep debilitation, in actions being undertaken by the armed forces in theatres of societal dissent.

Major Leetul Gogoi.
Major Leetul Gogoi.

Upholding the Constitution

When the Army is on the streets of a city or a village, and given extra powers in order to protect people, it is important that it carries out its duty in a fashion that is in harmony with a mature democratic republic. They have to take it upon themselves to find ways of protecting every tenet of the Constitution, irrespective of whether the other side is doing so. This is not an easy or enviable task. But there it is. The uniform empowers action, swift, effective action. It also enjoins care, judicious conduct and decent behaviour. If they cannot combine the two requirements of effectiveness and restraint, it is time that the extra powers are curtailed. We need them to fight any kind of attack from across the border or terrorist, but that cannot be an excuse to treat any and every person as a militant. This accolade for Major Gogoi will add to the growing feeling that all the people of the Valley are being seen as enemies of the State.

The situation in the Valley has been on a fast-tracked downward spiral for some time now, and the relationship between the Government of India and the people of the Valley, especially the younger generation, is at its worst point. Showering upon Major Gogoi such an encomium at this fragile hour is therefore no “routine decoration”. It is a designed statement. Will it promote peace, democracy and trust? Or will it increase unrest, resistance and suspicions? We cannot frighten the people of Kashmir and strangle our way to peace.

Comparisons with Israel

We often hear nouveau-nationalists demanding limitless power for our armed forces to tackle militancy, terrorism or Maoist attacks. But none of these nation lovers ever go into the human complexities that need to be unknotted in order to comprehend and find a way forward with the people on the ground. And let us be warned that trouble starts when we convince ourselves that the military with unfettered sanction will decimate the problem with their magic machine guns.

Each and every step taken by a soldier cannot be supervised by policy, true. But each and every step taken by a soldier can be imbued by a perspective. And that perspective can only come from a mature policy orientation. If it cannot, something in it is incomplete, flawed, and deeply unwell. The Army is no spotless shirt – it too has stains and tears, as does the attire of us civilians. The stain on a shirt can be washed off, on a uniform it stays. And so it should not be allowed to come onto the uniform, which, in a civilised republic, is not just attire, but the livery of responsible and exemplary conduct.

When I returned from Palestine a few months ago, a friend suggested that the situation for the people of the Valley was not very different from that of the Palestinians. At that time I wondered whether this was just an exaggeration, but today I fear we are headed in that direction. And to think of India as a version of the Israeli state is my worst nightmare.