By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Indian Army Chief of Staff General Bipin Rawat, during a recent ceremony to award Chief of Army staff (COAS) commendation card to Major Leetul Gogoi, has strongly defended his soldiers currently involved in counter terrorism operations and quelling rioting Kashmiris.
Major Gogoi is accused of using an arrested stone pelting protestor as a human shield. The protestor was tied to the front of an army jeep on April 9 before moving his unit together with a dozen local Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) employees, ten ITPB Jawans, several constables from J&K police and a bus driver trapped inside a polling booth, to safety. The group was surrounded by a large number of violent protestors who had also taken up position on surrounding roofs. After reaching safety, the protestor used as a human shield was handed over to local police. The incident which was videoed went viral within hours.
Gen. Rawat justified the awarding of the COAS commendation to Major Gogoi even prior to the conclusion of the court of inquiry as necessary to boost the morale of young officers and soldiers engaged in counterterrorism operations faced with stone throwing mobs in the Kashmir Valley. He commended Major Gogoi for his “presence of mind and initiative in preventing bloodshed”’ and described the human shield incident as “a last resort”.
Major Gogoi’s act has been condemned by some members of civil society including some retired army generals.
The Indian army chief came out in defense of his troops and Major Gogoi with all guns blazing. He stated, his forces were involved in a “dirty, proxy war in J&K. It required the use of “innovative means”. “This is a proxy war. Proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagement are there when the adversary comes face to face and fights with you. It is a dirty war. Troops need innovative ways to fight against the dirty war in Kashmir”. He further stated, “I have to maintain the morale of my troops who are operating there. That is where innovation comes in. You fight a dirty war with innovations. People are throwing stones at us, people are throwing petrol bombs at us. If my men ask me what do we do, should I say, just wait and die? I will come with a nice coffin with a national flag and I will send your bodies home with honor. Is it what I am supposed to tell them as the chief? I have to maintain the morale of my troops who are operating there”. The Army Chief also warned, stone-pelters hindering anti-insurgency operations too would be deemed as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.
Gen. Rawat is a tough talking commander who earlier this year, while addressing his first annual conference after assuming duties as Chief of Army Staff stated; “equal opportunity brings equal responsibility. It’s up to women to decide if they are willing to join men in a frontline combat role without separate and additional facilities.” Reminding of the absence of toilet facilities when out on patrol, he stated “if we induct women into combat role, they will have to share equal responsibility like their male counterparts. It means that they will have to perform exactly the same task.”
Meanwhile, J&K officials registered a FIR (first incident report) against the army unit involved. FIR, the first step to litigation and / or prosecution was hitherto not an option in cases involving members of Indian armed force due to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) introduced in J&K in 1990. AFSPA protected members of security forces from prosecution for alleged Human Rights abuses and empowered security forces to search, detain and use lethal force against any person acting against the law in areas declared by the Center as a ‘disturbed area’.
In this instance, Government of India (GoI) has decided to stand by Major Gogoi’s decision to use a protestor as a ‘human shield’ in order to lead his group to safety. GoI has appreciated the controversial decision taken in an extraordinary situation when the officer commanding the unit involved, was faced with a nearly impossible choice.
On this occasion, J&K police officials were able to register a FIR over the ‘human shield’ incident. A bench comprising of Indian supreme court judges headed by chief justice JS Khehar, in July 2016 negated the protection against prosecution to members of armed forces provided by AFSPA.
The Centre, in filing objections has stated, “If the position maintained by the impugned order continues, it may, one day, be well-nigh impossible to maintain peace and security.” The position maintained by the Centre is relevant in the context of ongoing violence in J&K. Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, in a robust appeal against the judgement stated “The Indian Army has to, in given circumstances, take quick decisions which cannot be dissected later on like an ordinary murder appeal. In other words, the scope of judicial review against active military operations cannot be on the same parameters as in other situations. Therefore, action taken by Army during operations cannot be put to judicial scrutiny.” He concluded stating “In a combat operation against militants and insurgents, who were armed with weapons, Army personnel needed to deal with full force.” The appeal further claimed, “If an army personnel remained apprehensive about using force fearing a militant’s death as that could lead to registration of FIR against him, it would be difficult to win the battle against insurgents and militants, who aim to secede territories from India.” The Attorney General’s arguments make it abundantly clear, the firm stand taken by GoI in defending its men in uniform.
The supreme court bench presided by Chief Justice Khehar in rejecting the appeal stated, “You cannot expand this petition to make the court deal with it again on merit.”
Indian social media is awash with comments, for and against the use of a ‘human shield’ by Major Gogoi. A vast majority support his decision. Some even suggest, those opposing his decision including supreme court judges be sent to J&K on a tour of peace keeping duties.
Some of the arguments submitted by the Center through its Attorney General opens the Pandora’s Box of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka on behalf of Tamil separatists. Protesting Kashmiris are Indian citizens in as much as members of Tamil community in this country are citizens of Sri Lanka. Considering the bleeding-heart justifications of successive Indian governments and its leaders for their support to Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka, India’s moral bankruptcy stands exposed for the manner in which it treats with its own citizens in J&K who are armed with stones and petrol bombs and not sophisticated communications equipment, automatic weapons, artillery and a naval squadron as were the LTTE. Kashmiris are yet to start the use of suicide vests and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Kashmir, Delhi or elsewhere, as was the case with LTTE.
It is indeed a pity, the combined wisdom, so magnificently articulated in Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s submission and Army Chief Rawat’s defense of Major Gogoi had not dawned upon the Indian establishment when it repeatedly voted against Sri Lanka in Geneva, during the UNHRC Resolution 30/1. A vote in favor of Sri Lanka or even an abstention, on similar grounds applied to the Indian army, would have been justifiable.