On the eve of Independence Day, several outlets reported that Major Aditya Kumar was among 20 people who had been awarded the Shaurya Chakra, a military award for valour while not engaged in direct action with the enemy. The reports sparked outrage in Kashmir.

On January 27, as personnel from Kumar’s 10 Garhwal unit were on patrol in Ganowpora village in Shopian district, they demanded the removal of black Islamic State flags from the home of a militant who had been killed a few days before. This led to a clash between villagers and the army personnel.

Hours later, the soldiers returned in greater numbers. They fired on homes and into crowds of civilians, residents claim. Two civilians were killed. A third succumbed to his injuries days later. A statement issued by the army said that the soldiers opened fire in self-defence when a military convoy passing through the village came under “unprovoked and intense stone pelting”.

In Kashmir, where the killing of the three civilians is seen as one more entry on a long list of civilians unjustly killed by security forces, the award to Major Kumar has deepened resentment. Many Kashmiris took to social networking sites to express their outrage at the award. One described it as India’s gift to Kashmiris on Independence Day.

An ‘arrogant’ government

Following the Ganowpora incident, an FIR filed by the police in January mentioned Major Aditya Kumar as being head of the army unit that had opened fire on the villagers. This led to a controversy as Kumar’s father, Karamveer Singh, moved the Supreme Court against the FIR, invoking the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act. AFSPA gives the military sweeping powers to search and arrest, and to open fire if it is deemed necessary for “the maintenance of public order”. The act allows soldiers to do so with a degree of immunity from prosecution. In February, the Supreme Court directed that no coercive measures should be taken against Major Aditya Kumar.

Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer at the Shopian district court, said the government and the army had been encouraged by the Supreme Court that “stayed investigations per se” in the Ganowpora firing. “It’s the SC that has emboldened the government to go ahead and felicitate the officer,” he said. While “everyone knows the bent of the present dispensation” at the Centre, he said, now the Supreme Court, too, is no longer being seen by Kashmiris “as an independent institution, not affected by political climate”.

Still, taking another point of view, Iqbal said, the government may have undermined the Supreme Court because the matter is still pending. “Tomorrow if they decided to give a go-ahead to an investigation, we don’t know what the outcome will be,” Iqbal said. “The government is either too arrogant that they don’t care about the outcome or so sure that the person will be exonerated.”

‘Us versus them’

To many, the award for Kumar echoed the commendation last year for Major Leetul Gogoi. The officer shot to prominence in April last year after he tied a Kashmiri man to a military vehicle and paraded him through more than half a dozen villages in central Kashmir’s Budgam district as a warning to stone pelters. Gogoi was given the award even as the Army had set up a court of inquiry to investigate the incident. “They have drowned justice,” Farooq Ahmad Dar, Gogoi’s victim, had told Scroll.in.

In May, Gogoi stirred another controversy after being caught violating army protocol by trying to check into a Srinagar hotel with a Kashmiri woman.

For an assistant professor from South Kashmir, who requested anonymity, the award to Major Aditya Kumar further strengthened an “us versus them narrative” that has alienated Kashmiris. The message, he said, was clear: “Whosoever is a villain here [in Kashmir] must be a hero there [in India]”.

The professor said that the government had made clear its intentions “to give patronage to rogue elements who are taken as villains” in Kashmir. “Civil society may have criticised Gogoi but the state appreciated his actions,” he said.

These awards to army officers like Kumar and Gogoi have reinforced the belief in Kashmir that the killings of civilians are never met with punishment, but sometimes even rewarded. The impunity accorded to army personnel predated Gogoi, lawyer Habeel Iqbal said. He pointed to the cases since 1990s in which the authorities refused to sanction the prosecution of personnel. “We have seen how they get away with heinous crimes like rapes and torture,” Iqbal said, but now the army is “saying that no FIR should [be lodged] into the matter either”.

Rao Farman Ali, researcher and civil society activist in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, said the government’s award for Kumar would have consequences beyond Kashmir. For one, it would provide another “scoring point” for Pakistan against India. In addition, he feared that “soldiers [posted in Kashmir], given this orientation and mindset will act similarly and with impunity outside Kashmir as well”.

Repeat offenders

In Kashmir, the perception of the Indian Army has drastically changed since 2010, when officers killed three civilians in a fake encounter in the Machil sector, claiming that they were Pakistani infiltrators. The incident led to protests that eventually spiralled into widespread unrest that lasted several months, during which more than a hundred civilian protesters were killed in security force firing.

In a first, in November 2014, an army court had convicted five personnel of the 4 Rajputana Rifles for the killings. Among those sentences to life imprisonment were the regiment’s Commanding Officer, Colonel D K Pathania, and a Major, Opendra Singh. However, in 2017, an Armed Forces Tribunal in Chandigarh suspended the sentences.

Since 2016, civil liberties organisations claim, the army has adopted increasingly aggressive methods of dealing with civilians. In 2016, a lecturer was beaten to death in what the army then said was a raid that had not been sanctioned. Since then, soldiers have targetted and vandalised entire neighbourhoods, sometimes even villages. Senior army officials told Scroll.in these tactics were an “operational requirement” in South Kashmir. Neighbourhoods in the volatile Hajin town in central Kashmir have also experienced similar operations by the Army.

That isn’t all. Besides incidents of meting out collective punishment of Kashmiri civilians, the Army has also killed civilians when confronted by mobs. In June, a video emerged of another human shield incident, this time in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. In July, in South Kashmir’s Kulgam, an army officer locally known as “Major Mirchi” directed his men to fire on unarmed civilians, locals alleged. Three people, including a 14 year old girl, were killed in the incident. Villagers claimed that the officer told them: “We have orders to kill you whenever we have to.”

Besides, the continued presence of a large number of army soldiers in Kashmir and their movements on Kashmir’s highways, restricting civilian movement, is a major cause of everyday resentment in the Valley. Rather than dealing with the militancy directly, the assistant professor said, the army has continuously harassed the Kashmiri civilian population. That is “one of the major reasons why youth is angry today”, he said.