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S.G.VOMBATKERE | 15 JUNE, 2017

The Human Shield: A Re-Look

Major General S.G.VOMBATKERE


MYSURU: Much has been written about the propriety of the “human shield” used by Major Leetul Gogoi, on April 9, 2017. On one side, the “anti-Gogoi camp” defends the human rights (HR) of the “human shield” (joined uninvited by Modi-critics), and proclaims Major Gogoi as a violator of the HR of Farooq Ahmed Dar, the civilian who was tied to Major Gogoi's vehicle. They flay Major Gogoi for his act and criticize army chief General Bipin Rawat for commending Major Gogoi. Congressman Sandeep Dikshit is reported to have even called army chief General Rawat a sadak ka goonda (reportedly, since apologized), thereby crossing all bounds of decency besides irresponsibly muddying the waters.

In the opposite “camp” are many vocal military veterans (and also members of the ruling BJP), outraged at criticism or condemnation of a young officer for doing what he did in “good faith” and succeeded in his mission in a situation not of his own making, with no casualties. These supporters of Major Gogoi verbally attack or troll anybody who dares to even vaguely criticize the event, using terms as extreme as traitor, Pakistani, and bloody Communist. Both “camps” have taken extreme positions though for different reasons. This writer points to a third position without taking sides.

We might begin by examining some issues. First, the reason that the Geneva Convention criminalized using humans as a shield was because sections of the Nazi German Army and the Imperial Japanese Army of World War II premeditatively used a captured soldier or civilian of the enemy nation as a shield to gain advantage in attack.

Second, Major Gogoi's human shield, albeit Indian, was used not in attack, but as an expedient in defence against aggressive mobs, while rescuing the Election Commission staff and their protection team, to get himself and his men and the rescued personnel safely out of an extremely dangerous situation. He spontaneously and not premeditatively, devised the tactic, accomplishing his rescue mission without casualties.

One needs to consider what the reaction might have been had Major Gogoi been unable to rescue the Election Commission staff and their protection team, or if they suffered casualties during rescue. One also needs to consider what might have resulted if Farooq Ahmed Dar had been injured or killed by the mob or a militant. Dar killed by a militant's “accidental” bullet would have brought huge negative focus on Major Gogoi and the army, but fortunately that did not happen.

Thirdly, Major Gogoi did what any young leader would have done ... confronted with the unforseen emergency of facing an aggressive mob, he thought on his feet and adopted what happened to be an unconventional tactic, especially because there was no time to consult his superiors. (Indeed, consulting superiors in times of dire emergency is not what military leadership is about). Thus Major Gogoi needs to be complimented for his initiative, even though he used a ruse which is questionable in retrospect, and for accomplishing his rescue mission without casualties. It is necessary to note that had the mob attacked them, Major Gogoi's group could have suffered casualties and he would have been forced to retaliate in self-defence and inflict casualties, to save the men under his command and himself.

Fourthly, the picture of Farooq Ahmed Dar tied to Major Gogoi's vehicle, went viral on social media, and the army ordered a Court of Inquiry (C of I) into the matter. Even if the commander who convened the C of I was unaware of the breach of the Geneva Convention, he clearly thought that prima facie, the incident needed inquiry, and took the first step in the practice of military law. (A commander at any level convenes a C of I when something untoward occurs within his command, to ascertain the facts and allow him to decide whether there is a prima facie breach of military law, regulations, procedures or practices, and whether further action under military law is warranted or not). It is certain that neither of the “camps” would object to this C of I being convened.

Finally, whether Farooq Ahmed Dar, an Indian citizen, was a member of the stone-throwing mob or a peaceful voter returning from voting, his human rights (HR) were undoubtedly violated by tying him against his will to a vehicle (illegal confinement), and exposing him to risk of injury/death in the event of violence. Also, apart from violating Dar's HR by deliberately exposing him to harm during the rescue operation, Major Gogoi is accused of further humiliating Dar by keeping him tied to the vehicle for hours beyond the rescue mission, and parading him through several villages. Whether this was true or not would have emerged from the C of I proceedings.

In the opinion of this writer, some facts emerge. One, Major Gogoi spontaneously used a tactic which has not been used earlier by the Indian Army.

Two, the tactic was defensive in nature.

Three, there were no casualties due to the tactic, and the mission was accomplished without casualties.

Four, a C of I was convened to examine the incident. Five, Farooq Ahmed Dar's HR were violated.

Major Gogoi's unconventional initiative was a gamble played between the safety and success of the mission against the safety and HR of Farooq Ahmed Dar. Fortunately the gamble paid off at least insofar as Major Gogoi and his command and the personnel rescued are concerned. What was lost was Farooq Ahmed Dar's HR and humiliation.

Attempting to balance the “gain” of Major Gogoi (successfully rescuing the personnel and accomplishing his mission without casualties) against the “loss” of Farooq Ahmed Dar (violation of HR and intense humiliation) is not to trivialize the matter. However, this “balancing” can only be done by looking at the larger public good. To this writer's mind, more and longer lasting public good was achieved by Major Gogoi in saving the election personnel and avoiding casualties, than was lost by the undoubted illegal confinement of Farooq Ahmed Dar and violating his HR.

The matter could and perhaps should have been resolved by completing the due process of the Commission of Inquiry, and then calmly and deliberately deciding whether or not Major Gogoi should be commended for his action, and if to be commended, do it unobtrusively. However, even while the C of I was in process, the Army Chief publicly commended Major Gogoi, thereby making the C of I useless – the Presiding Officer and Members of the C of I would not have been in a position to record their findings and views without prejudice. Effectively, the Army Chief intervened in the due process of military law, and provided unnecessary publicity to a controversial incident.

Worse, by commending Major Gogoi so openly (it could have been done discreetly, without pugnacious statements) the incident has become politicised, while the message sent by the army chief to the junior leaders who face bullets, grenades and stones on a daily basis, is that using a human shield is okay.

In the future, another young officer in a similar situation may premeditatively resort to Major Gogoi's spontaneous tactical precedent with the assurance that even if he is not commended, he will at the least not be proceeded against under military law. Thus using a human shield could well become a practice.

How would the army's hierarchy respond if the human shield becomes informally accepted practice by military or police leaders on-the-ground? How would Government view such a practice in the political sense?

These and more questions remain, but restricting the public debate to name-calling by the supporters of Major Gogoi and objections by so-called bleeding-heart HR activists will neither satisfy nor benefit either camp. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. Perhaps it would be apt to say that the human shield event could have turned out much worse, with casualties on both sides or Farooq Ahmed Dar suffering injury or death rather than a badly bruised ego. In the meanwhile, Dar's complaint in the J&K State Human Rights Commission awaits consideration and decision.

In the final analysis, it is worthwhile emphasizing that the Army has been deployed continuously (not continually, please note) in internal security duties in Kashmir, to handle adverse situations created by political chicanery over decades and mis-managed by a politicised and corrupt government administrative machinery in state and centre.

As the Indian nation-state's instrument of last resort, the army, which is trained for effectiveness in deployment in any (repeat, any) situation, will always have on-the-ground leaders like Major Gogoi, who produce results. Young military leaders like Major Gogoi are many, and the nation depends upon them to produce results, because if they don't succeed in their missions, the nation has nothing else upon which to fall back.

Sadly, the gravity of this reality is not understood by the political class and the self-serving bureaucratic class, which includes the police top hierarchy.

The top politicians in the J&K State government and Central government would do well to realize that Kashmiris will never settle down peacefully on a lasting basis with the use of military force.

History shows that peace, which is a socio-political situation, can never be achieved solely with the use of force, which however may only be useful on a limited scale for limited periods. Honest, non-partisan politics must be the basis of governance.

(Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. With over 550 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.)

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