The civilian population in India is not informed enough about the restraints, risks and operational necessities through which troops function. Despite these constraints, our forces have always been prompt by coming down hard on officers who have been convicted of misdemeanours. The Army should announce an impartial probe into the Kashmir episode—that’ll take the wind out of the sails of those crying foul
The good news is that tourists are pouring into Kashmir—and Dal Lake, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and other scenic places are once again humming with fun and charm. The bad news is the hue and cry over the alleged ‘discovery of 2,500 unmarked graves in north Kashmir’ implicating the Army for it and raising questions on its role in combating terrorism in the Valley. The mute response from the government and the Army has only lent credibility to these allegations. Adverse commentaries by organisations like Amnesty International and indigenous rights activists have also come as a shot in the arm for the decimated anti-India lobby and political poachers of peace in Kashmir. The Army’s stance of avoiding questions by issuing defensive, cryptic one-line denials of allegations have raised more suspicions than allaying baseless fears and curbing mounting rumours.
Public curiosity demands answers to questions like, “Can the Indian Army really do this?” or “Are our soldiers so cruel and inhuman?” or “Is there no difference between the Indian Army and Gaddaffi’s?” Barring odd aberrations, the record of the Indian Army has been laudatory not only at home but also in foreign territories captured by it and where it held its sway in war or post-operational occupation like Bangladesh, Pakistan and the UN missions in Africa.
Having served as an Infantry Officer in the Army and the NSG, I have planned and conducted numerous operations at different occasions in J&K, Punjab, the North-East and special operations elsewhere. Fighting terrorists is a very complex operation because, no matter how much caution and care you exercise, the probability of collateral damage cannot be ruled out. This probability is further heightened when terrorists are holed up in densely populated built-up areas like towns and villages. The situation becomes even worse when the terrorists start shooting and throwing grenades with no regard to lives—military or civilian, their aim being to create chaos and confusion through which they can escape. Many gallant soldiers have sacrificed their lives fighting this menace, primarily because they moved with utmost restraint, risking themselves for the sake of the innocent local population, even as the terrorists sprayed the area with bullets and grenades. Despite abundant caution by the fighting troops, innocent civilians often get caught in this frenzy of fire. There have also been occasions when innocent civilians, even children and women, are held hostage and used by the terrorists to barter or cover their escape. It cannot be denied that innocent civilian lives have often been lost in such operations, not only in the Kashmir Valley, but in all terrorist-infested states in the country. Therefore, the onus of such deaths should be on the terrorists, not the Army.
Let’s also face it that there have also been aberrations where some extra ambitious sub-unit or unit commanders have tried to paint accidental civilian deaths as ‘terrorists killed in encounter’ to protect the wrongdoer and earn laurels for ‘a well-conducted operation’. Thankfully, whenever such episodes have come to light, the Indian Army has moved with terrific swiftness to enquire into the matter and punish wrongdoers. Officers and jawans indicted for serious offences have been dismissed from service and handed long jail sentences. It might surprise many to know that punishments awarded by Courts Martial have been so stern, that according to one researcher, nearly more than 93% of the punishments awarded by Courts Martial are mitigated and 40% acquitted by the appellate courts. And trials by Court Martial do not drag on for years like the cases going on for decades in our civil judiciary. Army officers involved in the ‘Tehelka’ scandal were sacked and punished even before formal enquiries commenced against the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the same episode. People also know what happened to the politicians and bureaucrats indicted for the same misdemeanour—sweet nothing! They were all back to business as usual until prevented by death or incapacitating diseases like Alzheimer’s. Let it also be widely known that stern action has already been taken against the serving army officers indicted for their role in scams like Adarsh Society in Mumbai and the Sukhna land deal—some have been demoted, sacked and punished summarily; some have been court-martialled while trials of the remaining few are in their final stages. What has happened to their civilian comrades-in-crime—ministers, bureaucrats and also those ex-military veterans now beyond reach of the Courts Martial? They are playing ball which keeps bouncing between this court and that. It is sad that the overflowing corruption in our bureaucracy and political life has spilled over to the military and smeared its image of pure professionalism, honesty, high ethics, discipline and selfless dedication to national safety, security and wellbeing. Candid analysis of the drift in character qualities at the top will surely suggest an urgent need for a comprehensive, sincere and ruthless self-cleansing operation to redeem the lustrous glow of the dimming top brass. The Army will delay this exercise at its own peril.
Unfortunately, the civilian population in India is not informed enough about the restraints, risks and operational necessities through which troops function. Local people do have a stake and responsibility in what happens in their vicinity and, therefore, they also have a right to know how the Army is delivering them from chaos and terror to peace, freedom and prosperity. It is sad that not enough is known about the Army even in the government echelons. Our political masters and bureaucrats who look towards the Army whenever in crisis do not have any idea about its capabilities and limitations—features that every citizen must know.
The age-old tradition of keeping the media and taxpayers insulated from all military matters in the name of security is now coming in direct conflict with the mood of the masses. We are living in the Information Age today, where transparency, connectivity and information-sharing are a rule rather than the exception. Spies and enemy agents no longer have to sneak into military Ops Rooms to steal traces and maps of our defensive layout. A click at Google Earth provides more detailed and accurate photographs of these defence works and terrain than the Top Secret war books and layouts locked up in strong room cupboards of the General Staff branch. Comprehensive details including photographs, blueprints and technical data of our classified weapon systems and equipment are also a click away on the Internet. Notwithstanding the dissatisfaction of the Armed Forces about the inadequate remuneration and
long-pending modernisation programmes, the defence budget is a huge chunk of taxpayers’ money. They have a right to know how their soldiers function, what they have, what they need et al. The Armed Forces stand to benefit more from the principle of transparency because their genuine needs will become a public concern too.
Thanks to the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) reports and RTI (Right to Information) activism, many wrongs in the government’s functioning have been exposed, leading to an unprecedented number of ministers, MPs, bureaucrats and corporate big-guns going to jail on charges of corruption. No doubt, transparency in the military context will have to have a limit beyond which it cannot be open to the public, keeping in mind highly sensitive matters of national security and operational imperatives. Yet, the blanket ban on sharing even routine military information with the people has only harmed the Army in many ways, including lowering its image and raising doubts in the public mind about the fairness in its conduct despite sacrificing gallant soldiers in selfless dedication to duty. Prompt and timely press briefings about successes and failures, if any, including misconduct by combatants—officers or jawans—and corrective actions contemplated or taken, would have stifled rumours that have thrived on military silence even as the media celebrated by scandalising ‘military crimes’. Imagine the positive effect on the people if the Army had shared the progress of inquiries and Court Martial proceedings in respect of those found guilty of offences in Kashmir Valley or, for that matter, anywhere else. In today’s transparent world, people neither expect nor believe that soldiers living and fighting terrorism under severe adversities will not commit mistakes, even crime, howsoever rare it might be. The ‘Army-does-no-wrong’ theory advanced as a line of defence is no more tenable. Persistent denials in the face of accusations have only damaged the Army’s credibility, whereas candid acceptance of such oddities would only reinforce people’s faith in the Army’s fairness.
While the aam Kashmiri is enthusiastically looking up to new vistas of hope and fresh opportunities in the dawn of normalcy now, the defeated alienists and power-hungry politicians will do anything to revive anarchy by provoking the masses against the Indian Army in the wake of the so-called ‘discovery’ of 2,500 unmarked graves. In the absence of plausible clarifications from the Army, rights activists within and outside the country have found it easier to lend their voice to a ‘cause’ in the Kashmir Valley. What if the Indian Army Chief, Gen VK Singh had offered—better still, demanded—an impartial probe into the discovery of unmarked graves with an unambiguous assurance that the military personnel found guilty shall be dealt with severely and swiftly? Hypothesising a worst-case scenario in which such a probe finds some, say 10, 20 or 50 of these corpses being those of the innocent villagers picked up and wrongly done to death by the Army, will such a finding itself not demolish the outrageously provocative accusation that implies that the Army had indulged in mass killings? Carrying the hypothesis a little further and assuming Gen Singh’s magnanimity to apologise for the odd military wrongs, the Army Chief orders enquiry to be followed up by general court-martial in respect of those found involved in the crime, howsoever rare. There will be three powerfully positive fallouts of such a bold action: one, the anti-Army propaganda will lose steam and people’s faith in the Army’s fairness will be largely restored; two, the wrongdoers within the Army will get the message loud and clear to steadfastly adhere to the laid-down ethics in operations; three, the reputation of the Army and its Chief will be greatly enhanced. Also, the Chief of the world’s third-largest Army has much bigger things to fight for and remembered by than mere personal battles seeking reconciliation between two conflicting dates of birth!
(The writer is a military veteran who commanded an Infantry battalion with many successes in counter-terrorist operations. He was also actively involved in numerous high-risk operations as second in command of the elite 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard (NSG.) He conducts leadership training and is the author of two bestsellers on leadership development that have also been translated into foreign languages).
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