Indian Army cannot choose to imitate militants

Once an army crosses the line, it ceases being a professional, disciplined force, and begins to resemble a rag-tag militant outfit


The void of moral leadership is being filled by loud clamour, creating new norms of behaviour. Photo: AFP
The void of moral leadership is being filled by loud clamour, creating new norms of behaviour. Photo: AFP

Counter-insurgency operations falter and become even less popular when the civilians that the army is meant to protect no longer trust that army. That is the practical reason why responsible armies around the world have strict rules of engagement, which prohibit the soldiers, regardless of provocation, from humiliating civilians, or using them as human shields. There is then the legal reason—using human shields contravenes the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions, which apply to all parties in conflict. There is also the moral reason—a national army is expected to uphold the highest standards and it cannot imitate the tactics or practices of militia, guerrillas, or insurgents. Once that moral standing is lost, once the legal restriction is ignored, then the objective, of winning the hearts and minds of the people, evaporates.

The image of Farooq Dar, who says he is a shawl weaver and had cast his vote, and was then picked up by 53 Rashtriya Rifles, tied up on a jeep as a human shield to prevent demonstrators from pelting stones at military jeeps and attacking them, will haunt the Indian Army for long. The government doesn’t think so, however. India’s attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi, has defended the army’s tactics, giving a legal opinion on what appears to be a clear violation of the fourth Geneva Convention as well as the Indian Army’s code of conduct, which says “violations of human rights must be avoided under all circumstances, even at the cost of operational success”.

The chorus of jingoistic support in the broadcast media and on social media is loud. Some have cited the conduct of the Israel Defense Force, which has been accused of using human shields, as a reason to justify the Indian Army’s conduct. That argument misses the point that Israel is considered an occupying force in Palestine; to compare its tactics there with what India should do in Jammu and Kashmir, weakens India’s stance, which has steadfastly described the state as an integral part of India. Other armies that have mistreated civilians or prisoners—the British in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the US in Iraq—undertook serious investigations and took action to prevent the recurrence of such conduct. After the Parker Report of 1972, the British government vowed it would not use the tactics deployed during Operation Demetrius in 1971 in future. Eleven American soldiers were convicted on charges of ill-treating prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq during the early years of the Iraq war.

A few retired senior officers of the Indian Army have expressed concern over the incident. But those who see the army as the nation’s gladiators view it differently. Cricketer Gautam Gambhir, whose aggression these days is not targeted at opening bowlers, but at those whom he considers traitors, found a hidden meaning in the Indian flag’s design. According to his warped interpretation, the saffron is the “fire of our anger”, white is a “shroud for jihadis”, and green indicates hatred for terror. Prominent journalists defended the army, with one editor saying that an army can’t fight with one hand tied behind its back—missing the point that it was Dar whose hands were tied, not the army’s.

Others asserted that the army must pay back in kind, and do to the insurgents what they do to the army. But once an army crosses the line, it ceases being a professional, disciplined force, and begins to resemble a rag-tag militant outfit. It loses moral authority.

The Indian Army is aware of that. Its code of conduct wisely begins: Remember that the people you are dealing with are your own countrymen. It calls on soldiers to be compassionate to win the hearts and minds of the people, to keep operations people-friendly, without harassing the people, and to use minimal force and avoid collateral damage. It then reminds the soldiers that they must be truthful, honest, and maintain the highest standards of integrity, honour and discipline. Uphold the dharma, it urges, and maintain military professionalism.

Think again of that first sentence—remember that the people you are dealing with are your own countrymen. Dar is an Indian. But what do Indians love more, the piece of land called Jammu and Kashmir, or its people? Why would India use one set of measures to restore law and order in Jammu and Kashmir (and many parts of the North-East) and a different set when there are agitations by Gujjars or Jats in northern India, or Patidars in Gujarat?

Retired senior officers told Sushant Singh of The Indian Express that politicians need to provide the healing touch, rather than exacerbate tensions, and ensure that the situation does not worsen, with the army fighting its own people. “We can’t make it (the conduct) the norm,” one officer said.

Wise political leadership can help. But such leadership is in short supply. The eloquent Prime Minister is at a loss for words when in Alwar, a Muslim man is lynched by vigilantes, because he has legally bought cows and is transporting them. The political leadership expresses neither grief, nor does it reassure the victim’s family that justice will be done.

The void of moral leadership is being filled by loud clamour, creating new norms of behaviour. Institutions that value their professionalism and integrity will have to look within their own codes of honour for directions—the din heard across the nation may fill the vacuum, but it will not restore integrity.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil Tripathi’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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