Kashmir- Indian State forsaking its army?

The Siamese twins, the army and the state have never been separated since they were born some eight thousand years ago. Army is a hireling of the state. Similar groups of armed men, if self employed are called rebels or bandits. For the army, the state is the client. That being so, why has the client forsaken its chosen agency in J&K?

During the Vietnam war, an anti army detractor sneered at a soldier on leave, ‘What are you doing in Vietnam?’. ‘I thought you knew’ came the prompt reply, ‘you sent me there.’ Yes, the army takes up a job entirely at the behest of the people, sent there by the people they chose. Why then do we find the representative of the people themselves questioning the army in J&K?

In J&K, we see the people not only disapproving of the actions of the army but taking active measures to thwart its moves. In Handwara in J&K, there was an incident on 19 April last year in which three army bunkers were removed on orders of the government. It is an important case since it exemplifies all that is wrong with employment of army in J&K.

In this case, the locals had been demanding removal of the bunkers for quite some time but the Army had put its foot down, saying it was strategically important for the troops. The demand for removal of these bunkers intensified after violence was triggered by alleged molestation of a girl by an army soldier. Three persons were killed in security forces firing while dealing with the protestors. And then the representatives of the people, the government, gave in and ordered removal of the bunkers. They were removed over night.

On 25 April a news item was published in FirstPost (www.firstpost.com) with headline ‘Why removing Handwara bunker is a major victory for mainstream politics in Kashmir’. It went on to add that ‘The installation in the middle of the main market in Handwara has been an eyesore for residents for a long time —– In Handwara, the removal of the Army installation has raised hopes that elected representatives in Kashmir too can stand up for their people — It should be a bunker-less relation. People living out of their free will. When you remove a bunker, it is the fulfilment of a dream’.

Representational Image. Source: Livemint

Next day, the Army chief visited the area and ‘expressed satisfaction at the situation’. How he would have faced the troops that day would is hard to assess. In an organisation where the Chief is treated as God, such a situation is really unimaginable. The army was publicly humiliated and the Chief had to ‘express satisfaction at the situation’. Scrutiny of the case becomes even more interesting when one ponders that the central government, which ordered the army there, is of the same party which is in power in the state too. Is quite an incomprehensible situation which is sought to be papered over by explanations like ‘a necessary step for immediate peace’ and ‘people are supreme’. But it was not an isolated incident. As it turned out, it was just a the starting of a trend. Sensing blood, people strengthened the practice of throwing stones at army men who were taking on armed terrorists. In some cases, such interference resulted in death of soldiers due to delay in evacuation or in escape of terrorists in the melee. Later, the new army chief tried to change the narrative by publicly stating the that such stone-pelters will be treated harshly. That expression of stiffening came in for immediate criticism.

Since then, there has been a simmering feeling in the lower and middle ranks of the army that their hands are being somewhat tied in the fight against militants. The army has tackled it for the time being.

It is correct that the army in external war and the army in J&K are two different situations. The task, of course, will be different in both situations. However, the principles of employment remain the same. Give it a clear task and then get out of the way. The principle of ‘no interference while at task’ is so important that when the army is employed in cases of restoring law and order, the rules require that the magistrate accompanying the army columns sign a document ‘I hand over the situation to the army’ when actually doing so and then sign ‘I take back the situation’ while resuming control. Verbal arrangements will not do. In the period while the situation is under the army and it is doing its task of dispersing the crowd, the magistrate is not allowed to interfere saying, ‘Fire now. Stop now. Fire at X but not at Y’. This principle has been known to soldiers, politicians and bureaucrats for several decades now. Only, in the J&K of today, it is acquiring some new meanings.

The problem in J&K is a political one for the government and a counter-insurgent one for the military. Both must deal with them in their own spheres, under their own rules of engagement. But it cannot be that the army is used to settle a political problem. When it is done, the impact on soldiers is severe. They lose all respect for authority. Losing respect in political authority is not so dangerous. But when they start losing admiration for their own officers, seeing them as unable to stand up for what they did right, it has long lasting effects on the army as an efficient war making machine. In their eyes, the image of the army takes a beating. They start seeing their valiant efforts as futile.

To some extent, senior army officers can help this downslide. They need to voice their concerns over political interference more strongly. Sometimes they themselves start condoning such acts believing that they are useful to keep the civilians pacified. However, they should care for the military part of the joint task and not its political part. Keeping the civilians pacified is not the job of the army. Nor is restoration of peace their job. Their job is simply to remove the counter-insurgent from the equation. Also, it is necessary that they keep up the belief of the soldiers that they have been sent to J&K to do a legitimate task, by the representatives of the people.

This piece is an OpEd by Col. Alok Asthana (Retd.) republished here with the permission of The Dialogue. It was first published on 07/04/2017.
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