Northern Command has ordered an inquiry into the Handwara incident that it termed ‘highly regrettable’. The army chief has thought it fit to fly in for a day’s visit to the state to take stock of the security situation that has witnessed five deaths so far. The aim would be to defuse the situation from snow balling into one reminiscent of the successive years late last decade. Youth who gained their political awakening in those years have since been depicted as tinder waiting for a spark.
This is the situation after over a decade of return of relative stability if not near normalcy. With two oversized corps deployed amongst a suspicious host population in the sensitive regions of the state, it is inevitable that there would be sparks of this kind. Absent conflict resolution that would push the situation indubitably into a post conflict mode, the authorities would likely be resigned to these occurring periodically, irrespective of preventive standard operating procedures in place. For response, there would also be standard operating procedures predicated in information management in a manner as to defuse the situation.
The army court of inquiry has much on its hands. Not only must it investigate whether the SOP was followed in opening fire, if indeed it was the army that did the shooting and not the police, but also who released the video of the girl’s narration of the incident, if it was not the police. These two lines of probe have the police equally in the sights. If the police has gone overboard particularly in respect of the second point - violation of the juvenile female’s rights - then ‘the nation needs to know’.
However, the army must pin point whether its soldier was in the female wash room. This must surely already be known through the peers of the soldier to the chain of command. The release of the video of the girl was perhaps with a view to indicate that there was no army man involved. However, since it already stands contradicted as under duress, no doubt owing to police over zealousness, it has succeeded in just the opposite: being taken as a possible cover-up.
Quite like the layers of obfuscation that papered over the death of two young women that sparked the outrage in 2010, truth in this case might meet the same fate. Whereas the earlier case involved the paramilitary, little better could be expected from a police-paramilitary combine. However, this time round it is the army and it has a reputation to protect.
The army has failed to be inspired by this imperative earlier, the infamous Manorama Devi case being a case to point. Eastern Command had lamentably clammed up and hidden behind AFSPA. Can the army in J&K be relied on to be different? Can this case have a different outcome?
If a benign view is taken then the army in not having owned up to the alleged molester in its ranks so far can be taken to suggest that the girl’s video version of the incident may be true. The latest turn to the issue carried in the media is that the girl deposed before the magistrate to the effect that she was not molested in the wash room but was accosted by two males outside, one of whom was in school uniform. Clearly, to its relief, this does help vindicate the army.
Nevertheless, the Northern Army commander’s direction of a speedy inquiry must result in its results reaching the open domain quickly. Once the girl is released by the police from ‘protective custody’, these findings would then be borne out by the purported victim more fully. However, in case the army is aware of its soldier being implicated in preliminary inquiry in some manner, such as for instance needlessly deploying or positioning near a female wash room, it must punish as necessary.
Morally, this is the least the army owes host communities. As the powerful actor it has to protect the vulnerable, particularly women. Institutionally, its reputation stands to go up in conflict areas in case of action against its errant individuals as against the mistaken notion held by some that sweeping things under the carpet protects its reputation. It would serve as deterrent to potential violators. Outside such areas it would justify the faith of citizens in it. Strategically speaking, the government would not be averse to such self-regulation either. Averse to resolving conflict in both J&K and the North East, it would prefer its lid on such conflicts remain as still as possible. The state government for its part headed by a woman for the first time would find it politically useful.
Now that the situation has cleared somewhat, the army cannot stop at punishments and fixing SOPs. Surely, its rules of engagement need a review. However, immediately, there is need to follow up on how the video footage was released. It rides rough shod over individual rights, particularly of women in such situations and of a juvenile one at that. Over the long term, the episode can be seen as opportunity for army wide action in reorienting rank and file to a modern take on gender issues intrinsic to counter insurgency. It’s not merely a discipline matter; it must be taken as a facet of a modernizing, twenty first century military.
Sixty years of political inaction of successive governments of all hues implies that the army would continue on internal security duties indefinitely. This requires that its approach to gender questions – of how to relate to women in host communities – be subject to self-critique. Rather than training, it is education it must rely on. There is a huge cultural distance between its soldiery and people in areas of conflict. This is particularly stark in the levels of freedom of women, particularly in the North East, as against where the main body of soldiery springs from, India’s cow dust belt. The fairness of Kashmiri women likewise cannot but have outsized effect on troops from catchment areas known for their notorious views on skin colour. Under the circumstance, zero tolerance is a fine disciplinary yardstick, but needs supplementing by mainstreaming gender into military education.
That tremors will persist in Kashmir owes less to what the army does or does not do than that absent political initiatives, both internally and in relation to Pakistan, many if not most Kashmiris will remain alienated. This episode appears have sparked the well spring of alienation, fanned by India’s detractors. This is all the more reason to go beyond mere SOPs and rules of engagement to renewing the army’s gender lens.