S.G.VOMBATKERE | 18 APRIL, 2017
The Army As the Politicians' Human Shield?
MYSURU: The recent video clip of a civilian strapped to the front of an army vehicle deployed in internal security (IS) operations in Kashmir has made headlines. Many army veterans are defending it as a tactical means to avoid stone-pelting and thus permit operations with minimal bloodshed of protestors and army personnel alike. Some journalists aver that this tactic is “effective”, thereby obliquely justifying it, and there are of course journalists and citizens who outrightly approve of it.
Militants in Kashmir have used tactics like wearing a burkha and carrying a weapon or grenades under it (ostensibly a kangri, customarily used by Kashmiris for warmth) to attack security forces. Such means of deception to gain surprise and tactical advantage are certainly not new.
More recently Maoists are reported to have used innocent civilians as shields. Have we not seen umpteen movies in which the villain holds the heroine with a knife at her throat or gun at her temple, as he bargains with the hero? So the human shield as a bargaining chip or for tactical advantage is also not new, but the Indian Army using it appears to be new, at least to this writer.
The army personnel who used the tactic (civilian human shield) are clearly at the end of their tether in being deployed in IS Ops with no end in sight. The fact that the army authorities have initiated an inquiry into the matter is indication enough that this tactic is prima facie wrong, especially as the civilian in question is an Indian. Notwithstanding, it must be pointed out that it is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions to use civilians or prisoners of war as human shields, and was criminalized because the German Nazi army and the Japanese Imperial army used this tactic during World War II.
It is necessary to show the mood of the soldier deployed in the IS role. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election campaign speech in Kashmir in 2014, he referred to the announcement of the army personnel court-martialled in the Machhil encounter case of 2010, saying, “The Army has registered a case against their own men. This is the proof of my good intentions before you”. Omitting some colourful language, one junior officer was heard reflecting the general mood: “I don't care for AFSPA-shafspa. After this, one thing is clear to me. When the paltan goes to the valley, I am not going to stick my neck out for anything. Let the militants kill as many people as they want, and escape. At least that way there won't be any risk, either of getting killed, or killing someone, getting court martialled and going to jail.”
No doubt the remark was in the context of his apprehension of not receiving essential operational protection from AFSPA, and moreover it was three years ago. However, even more today, the average young officer and soldier is frustrated with IS Ops. Even so, having no choice but to carry out orders, he performs his difficult task, living with the ever-present risk of getting hit by a militant's bullet or grenade splinter which can kill or maim him for life.
Many soldiers and young officers have displayed amazing courage and self-sacrifice in carrying out their assigned duties in the best traditions of our army. But we must never forget that this same soldier or young officer would much rather be elsewhere, performing his primary role instead of the (secondary) IS role. Thus, this same soldier would use almost any tactic or ruse to minimise risk and make his IS role more effective. And using a human shield is the most recent. This is not to justify using a human shield but to emphasize that the soldier and young officer on IS duties in Kashmir are at the end of their tether.
The real question is whether the continuing and escalating use of military and police force can defeat militancy in Kashmir, which is essentially a political problem caused and exacerbated over decades right up to the present time, by wrong and dishonest politics at State and Centre. Good governance has been grievously lacking over decades in Kashmir, and this condition continues to the detriment of Kashmir and India in general.
M.G.Devasahayam, former army officer and senior bureaucrat, writes: “Good governance is participatory, transparent and accountable. It is effective in making the best use of resources and personnel and is equitable. Basically, it promotes justice and the rule of law.”
This more than adequately demonstrates governance failure of successive governments at State and Centre in Kashmir, as we witness the widespread, dismal failure of justice and the rule of law. It also demonstrates that continuing, long-term use of military and police force is an ineffective governance tool. Continuous use of force to “solve” social and political problems created by poor governance only exacerbates problems – up-spiralling violence in Kashmir is evidence of this. Social and political problems can only be solved or resolved by politicians using the participatory political tools of dialogue, debate and discussion.
But to revert to the “human shield” issue, whether or not one opines that it is wrong and punishable or is justifiable and has precedent, it should be indication enough to army authorities and governments alike, that soldiers on-the-ground would not have used the tactic had they not been frustrated with having to take the blame for failures and the bullets and grenades from militants over the decades, for pulling politicians' chestnuts out of the fire, a job that the police on their own are clearly not quite up to. Would it be an overstatement to say that the army has been used as the politicians' human shield?
The Union and State governments and the army top brass might seriously consider noting that:
# Long-term use of force in governance has historically never worked and this is being demonstrated in Kashmir today, though signs have been clear for at least 10 years.
# Problems caused by governance failure over decades have to be addressed by political measures using only minimal police force and excluding military force. There is no substitute for honest politics, which is not an oxymoron.
# Social unrest in Kashmir provides advantage to Pakistan, which is steadily gaining traction to internationalize the Kashmir question.
# The pulse of the soldier and young officer and even officers of Commanding Officer level in the field, indicates that though they are bound by their regimental pride and tradition, their sense of duty and their respect for military command, to carry out assigned tasks to the best of their ability, they would like nothing better than State police and CAPFs handling IS on their own, perhaps with army help for limited periods in special circumstances. This will also solve the AFSPA problem.
# Using the soldier-on-the-ground continuously for IS duties neglects his training and readiness for dealing with external threats to our nation's sovereignty and security. This is especially in light of around one-third of our army deployed on IS duties even as China gets increasingly belligerent and maintains a close nexus with Pakistan, presenting the probability, howsoever limited, of armed hostilities on two fronts.
(Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. With over 520 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.)