Tuesday, 5 January 2021



A fake encounter, yet again?

Police has promised investigation into the Lawaypora encounter in which the army killed three allegedly innocent youth. The police for its part let on that two of the three were reportedly ‘hardcore associates of terrorists’ or over ground workers (OGW). In none of the army’s doctrinal products on counter insurgency, low intensity conflict and hybrid war, as the nature of the conflict in Kashmir has been variously characterised, is there any mention of elimination of OGW. The term used is ‘neutralize’, which by no means implies killing them off.

However, it has long been suspected that in many instances not only in Kashmir but in the north east OGWs have been eliminated rather brought in to face the law. Perhaps most of the 1500 or so allegedly fake encounters referenced in the Supreme Court case in Manipur involve the discreet elimination of OGWs, an Indian equivalent of Dirty War, the killings by the Argentinian junta. Often proxies have been used for such dirty work, such as the Ikhwan in Kashmir and surrendered Assamese militants.

As a line of action in an insurgency there may be a power-oriented logic. To deprive the militant of oxygen, the supporting infrastructure needs dismantling. This is comprised by OGW, who provision necessities, information, surveillance, finances and recruiting support. Where the intensity of insurgency is high, the state lacks capacity to interdict the OGW base through legal means, leading to the legal shortcuts that extrajudicial killings necessarily imply. It was argued by no less than KPS Gill that such was the case in Punjab.

By no means can this argument apply in Kashmir today. The police informs that in 103 encounters last year, 225 militants have been eliminated. A mere 300 or so militants are reportedly poised across the Line of Control to take up their place. For control of the situation resulting from ending of the status of the state under Article 370, the state had pumped in additional troops, most of whom continue in place. Besides, the police itself has, using modern means as matching telephone records, vouched for the OGW status of two of those killed in the encounter in question, suggesting that they have the capacities to take down OGWs by alternative means. Lately, the improved security situation has enabled the security apparatus to neutralize the support base by other means such as tracing hawala transactions, a method tom-tommed by security analysts.  

Therefore, their being killed instead calls for an explanation.

In Kashmir, the killings of OGW have intermittently been part of strategy. Early in the militancy, a perhaps apocryphal story has it that a divisional commander, though with a tenure in the counter insurgency school under his belt, began his daily chore by rhetorically asking those assembled in his operations room, ‘Aaj kitne titar-bater mare? (How many patridges have been eliminated today?)’ Then, some 200 Jamatis – supposedly the support base for the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahedeen that was then displacing the pro-freedom Liberation Front militants - were eliminated. By mid-decade, the Ikhwan was used to good effect towards the same end. Even human rights workers were not spared; Jalil Andrabi being a case to point.

Consequently, a lazy explanation could be that inertia leads to recurrence. Generals in command today were young officers through the nineties, many going on to serve multiple tenures. Some prefer command in areas of their familiarity, in this case, Kashmir. Thus, adapting to the changed circumstance, even if warranted, may not readily beat the ease of path dependence. 

A more sophisticated explanation is that there have always been two contrasting doctrinal strands within the military. There is the Winning Hearts and Mind (WHAM) school, which official doctrine endorses, and there is the counter narrative, the ‘get them by the ____, and the hearts will follow’ school. It would be fair to say that most of those who served command assignments in Kashmir subscribed to the official school. Sadly, this has never always been the case. The counter narrative has won out repeatedly and sometimes handsomely. Thus, counter insurgency ‘experts’ are now a dime a dozen in the military, and once their sell-by date in service is over, populate television studios.

If this were not the case, the Shupian (Amshipora) fake encounter would not have happened. The army has it that in this case, “powers vested under the AFSPA 1990 were exceeded,” and, “dos and don’ts of the Chief of the Army Staff as approved by the Supreme Court have been contravened.” Thirty years into the troubles, it can be expected that the army has the standard operations procedures in place to oversee operations, especially in an environment when these are few and far between. It beggars the mind that a captain, Captain Bhoopendra Singh, can organize such killings using his troops and the hierarchy does not get a wind of it for three weeks. That the army took three weeks to wrestle down the counter narrative within it indicates the levels of its salience.

Strategic logic, which an army can reasonably be expected to sign up to, would have it that costs must be factored-in in choosing between strategic options. The costs of success of the counter narrative are easy to see. A Kashmir observer David Davidas in his book, Rage, makes the that the violence the departure from official doctrine wrought in Kashmir in the nineties has given rise to the generation of ‘rage’ today. Under a right-wing government’s will-to-power, referred to by the Concerned Citizen’s Group leader, Yashwant Sinha, as ‘doctrine of state’, the counter narrative appears to have won out. Else, how can a yet another possibly fake encounter - Lawaypora – follow brazenly on the heels of filing of the charge sheet by the police in the Amshipora fake encounter in a court in Shupian? That another inter-generational passing of the insurgency baton is potentially in the offing should lend pause to the army from proceeding down such a track.  

The army would do well to take its own doctrinal products seriously. These are not meant as information war products. They confer adequate latitude on commanders at the frontline to use force tempered with judgment. That such judgment can be clouded by the counter narrative is a potent threat the army needs cautioning against.

Doctrine should be internalized in schools of instruction and the command climate in theatres of counter insurgency operations must provide for a ‘no-ifs-and-buts’ implementation. It should not be that the recent appointment of the first major general to head its human rights cell, Major General Gautam Chauhan, views his mandate as a white-wash of the army’s record rather than ensuring military wide dissemination and implementation of policy.