Monday, 17 August 2020


Why the déjà vu over the Shopian killings

Unedited version

Three men were killed in an encounter in Shopian last month by the army and passed off as unidentified terrorists. This version of events has been challenged by families in Rajauri claiming that the three were possibly their relatives who had gone to Shopian in search of work and went missing. The army has said that it will inquire into the matter. The police will undertake DNA testing to verify the claims of the families.

It is strange that the army requires a furore for it to inquire into the matter. If it was sure of the facts – and it must know more than it lets on – then it need not launch an inquiry into the matter. Afterall, if there is an encounter in which people are killed, it gets reported up the army’s channel. Therefore, it already has the facts. If these facts were questionable, then it did not wait into the following month to launch an inquiry. If it was sure of the facts, then there is no necessity of an internal inquiry as it now promises, but only an openness to outside investigation, in this case, to the one promised by the police.

Now, we have two investigations, an internal army one and one by the police, or perhaps just one, the army one being assisted through DNA testing by the police. If this be the case, the army needs faulting for dispensing with due diligence in its monitoring and reporting on the encounter. Surely, if the encounter was instead a ‘fake encounter’ then it has no place in the army’s repertoire. The penalty should have been instantaneously exacted last month. Since this has evidently not been done, the army chain of command was either complicit in the killings by creating and sustaining a command climate permissive of such killings, or, worse, ordering the killings.

Let us take the second, seemingly implausible, possibility first. This author as a  company commander once was privy to a corps commander dropping in at the battalion headquarters and – over lunch – suggesting to the assembled orders group of the battalion, that included this author as a young major, that the battalion needed something to ‘show’ for its presence in that hostile infested area of the north east. The corps commander explained that having been flown in for counter insurgency operations after the area was declared disturbed, the army needed to project that it was effectively tackling the insurgents. He thought it would be a good idea if the company commanders would rely on a couple of tough lads and take out a couple of civilians and depict them as militants. He said this would take the pressure of him to show results. The ever polite battalion officers saw off the corps commander that afternoon.

Since this episode was a quarter century back, there was no action taken on his suggestion, though the times were such – some seven years into the militancy in Kashmir where the corps commander had gained his spurs in command of a division – that the suggestion was made without flinching, even if received with some disbelief. With much water having flown down the Jhelum since then, it can be hazarded that not only can such demands be made, but there may well be enough volunteers in the ranks to carry them out. The demands in themselves would no doubt be cloaked as an operational necessity – such as unmistakable messaging to the militants to lay off an area of responsibility since the troops would through such killings demonstrate that they are alert. Such orders could well be obeyed since by now Kashmiris – who also are to top it all Muslims – are fair game, if the national – read majoritarian - interest is better served by some of them better dead. Recall a young aspirant politician's rueful statement recently that the only good Kashmiri politician is a dead one.  

Ten years back in a similar incident, three labourers were enticed to the line of control with the promise of work and done to death. Their dead bodies were passed off as those of infiltrators. The public tumult this occasioned did not allow the army to sweep the incident under the carpet. Instead, there was an inquiry leading up to a court martial which was endorsed by the then army commander, DS Hooda. Even so, the armed forces tribunal, with no less than a former army vice chief on it, let off the perpetrators. Sly potshots were taken by veterans, answering to the label ‘nationalist’, on Hooda’s stand and on his subsequent arraigning of trigger happy soldiers at a road barrier who shot up two Kashmiri teenagers in a passing car, calling the latter decision ‘politically motivated’. What this recount suggests is that within the military there is a counter culture – which is now the dominant culture –at gross variance with the purported ethics of the military.

Where the dominant institutional culture is this counter culture (with values aligned with the what passes for nationalism in politics today) a permissive attitude to killings such as this is extant. Not only does such an attitude allow for such killings but valourises perpetrators. Need one remind readers of Major Leetul Gogoi. When accountability calls, the counter culture facilitates cover up – such as at the infamous case of Pathribal when not only was no action taken against perpetrators, but even when called for by no less than the Supreme Court, the Court was fobbed off by the army’s inaction. It is easy to discern that the inaction owed to the accountability for the decision to kill the five unfortunate Kashmiris was at the highest door, with an operational rationale written all over it. After all, the American president was then on a visit to India and the Pakistanis needed to be painted in black. That the divisional commander was rehabilitated in another command billet and, post retirement, in a governmental sinecure, indicates illegal orders were passed on and obeyed. Therefore, the perpetrators had to be left off, lest all up the food chain would have to buy it too.

Now for the second possibility, that the command culture is so vitiated that long discredited ‘kills’ continue to be the yardstick of performance. This author had warned back when the army put out its doctrine in the public domain of ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ that it would not last the test of the next uptick in insurgency. What needed to be done was introspection over its record till then in Kashmir and an extensive education imbuing it with a democratic ethic valuing human rights and a duty to citizens caught up in such situations. The recurrence of incidents such as Machil soon thereafter and this case now does not mean that the army has failed as much as that it did not try, or, rather, did not want to try.  The public doctrine was merely public relations suited to the political circumstance of the time – of quietude in Kashmir and a ceasefire along the line of control. The army has also since been subject to the onslaught – through trojan horses within - of cultural nationalism. It can be inferred from this incident that the Othering that accompanies the Hindutva discourse has infected the army too; else how can one account for the perverse killing of three young men, the coverup and now the charade of an inquiry. The usual excuse that some army men were after awards is for the gullible and hides a systemic malady.

Command responsibility in this case must lie with the corps commander since the army commander is presumably distracted by the Ladakh front. It behooves on the corps commander to set the moral compass. If such incidents occur with accompanying inaction, whether Chinar Corps has lost its ethical moorings is a valid question. That the commanding general in Badami Bagh was last seen, with the divisional commander in tow, accompanying a bureaucrat, if a lieutenant governor, to the opening prayers at the Amarnath shrine bespeaks of priorities and levels of self-regard. If the level the army has been reduced to is one in which there are no whistle blowers and none preferring to resign rather than carry out illegal orders, then operational level leadership must face the music.

It is important that the dust not be allowed to settle on this case the way it has over other such instances. The army has to be alerted to a grim future ahead if it succumbs to yet another eyewash of an inquiry. There are far too many such episodes and corresponding inquiries going back to Kunan Poshpora that do its record in Kashmir no credit. It should not end up as yet another force indulging in fake encounters, little different from its khaki clad counterparts. It must preserve its professional backbone, lest it end up as yet another institution fallen by the wayside in the majoritarian march through this land.