For a few days in January it appeared India and Pakistan might again go to war, relentlessly driven there by the structured outrage of television anchors.
This was over the ghastly incident of mutilation and beheading of Indian army soldiers along the Line of Control with Pakistan.
For a few days it appeared, too, that the media had suddenly discovered India’s internal conflicts, specifically with Maoist rebels. They poured venom at Maoists when news arrived of rebels booby-trapping with explosives the bodies of slain Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in Jharkhand, in the hope more troopers would be taken out of the equation during search and rescue operations along the ever-shifting and numerous lines of control and despair within India.
Perhaps the incidents, grisly as they are, can serve to highlight a few truths, not the least of which is the everyday brutality of conflict. Perhaps we also need to look beyond the media’s role-playing of judge and executioner, of breathlessly boosting viewership and readership with clearly partisan approaches implicit in a mandate to hook and reel in numbers.
War, after all, is the business of dealing death using ambition, ideology, indignation and the moral imperative of defending a realm—any realm.
The recent mutilation of two Indian soldiers was not the first of its kind. The brutality of battle between Pakistan and its extreme Islamist proxies, and stated arch-foe India exceeds every precept of the Geneva Conventions, and the various articles of international humanitarian law that pertains specifically to behaviour of combatants towards non-combatants.
As I again read the documentation compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Article 3, common to all four Geneva Conventions, specifically requires “humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trial.”
The same as none of the perpetrators of battle excess on the Pakistani side, from the army or auxiliary, will ever be brought to account, neither will those from the Indian side who have, say, undertaken missions in Jammu and Kashmir that involved the beheading of Islamist militants to heap fear and ritual insult—let alone routine excesses of incarceration, torture and pressure practised on civilian populations by the army, paramilitaries and police on both sides of the Line of Control. References by any media to such atrocities are routinely labelled “anti-national” or partisan to one “separatist” or traitorous cause or another.
A similar deliberate blindsiding applies to India’s internal conflicts. While these are numerous—including the very real and deeply polarizing conflicts from forced industrialization of hinterlands—let’s take the Maoist rebellion. The rebellion is a brutal construct of a brutalizing state. For their part, the Maoists, whatever the noble pursuits of their stated cause to uplift the trodden masses of India, have an inherently brutal streak.
Extreme leftwing rebellions from the time of India’s independence have routinely dealt death as instant justice both in the battlefields of forests and farmlands of India, and rebel kangaroo courts.
Beheading of perceived traitors and police informers isn’t uncommon. Some readers will recall Maoists beheading policeman Francis Induvar in Jharkhand in 2009. Booby-trapping corpses of police and paramilitary personnel by Maoists was copybook guerilla war in the Chhattisgarh theatre through much of the mid-2000s.
While such actions make some descriptions applied to Maoist rebels—“Gandhians with guns” is one such—appear ludicrous, equally dangerous is the tendency by both government and trigger-happy elements in media to bury or downplay immense and near-constant brutality of police and paramilitaries even against non-combatants in such theatres of conflict in central, southern and eastern India to kill, maim, rape, torture, and illegally incarcerate.
Such actions by state agencies is played up by state propaganda machinery, for which certain media are now mediums, as necessary actions of the policy of prosperity to put down what the current Prime Minister of India described as India’s “greatest internal security threat”. Basically, anything goes.
While all this serves to show up the relative impotence of the Geneva Conventions to which both India and Pakistan are signatories, it also shows up the great impunity with which both state and “non-state” armed groups apply their precepts of just war and justice. It is important to recognize brazen spin for what it is, and not permit instant judgments powered by rogue media to cloud the root causes and root players of conflict. Being blind-sided by distorted information can add to war and so, to war crimes.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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