Indian Army: Little Glory, Loads of Gore

[Published in Kashmir Times in two parts, on 16 and 17 November 2012, From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in the UTS Voice, 16-30 October, 2012]

In the popular discourse mere mention of Indian Army evokes two extreme and mutually incompatible responses. The believers see it as the last standing holy cow of the chaos called Indian nation, one that is incorruptible in the face of corruption that has become the new normative and remains fiercely apolitical when everything else is politically inclined, and dirty by extension. Ask the wretched fellows stranded on the wrong side of post-colonial history, and Indian army comes as a brutal occupying force that derives sadistic pleasures, and of course patriotism, from maiming, raping and killing the very people it is supposed to protect.

Intriguingly, the conspicuous contradictions run along the axes of geo-political realities and not along the premodern structures like caste, creed and religion that produce a million fissures underneath the modern and democratic body politic of the nation. If, contrary to this, they really do, then Indian army deserves a lot of praise for concealing them with exceptional aplomb. It maneuvers its ruthlessness in a continuum that is directly proportional to its operational distance from the national boundaries and, thus, earns a genial and almost affable image exactly where it matters.

Isn’t a sight where one find minorities, particularly Muslims, otherwise almost always persecuted by the law-enforcing agencies rooting for army in the middle of any riots as much a condemnation of a state claiming to be a secular, socialist and democratic republic as it is an honour for the Army? Haven’t we found this to be the case more often than not, be it Uttar Pradesh, Andhra or Gujarat? In fact, many a studies have corroborated the allegations against the local civil and armed police and found them siding with the rioters belonging to the majority community and ensuring heavy losses of life and property over the hapless minorities.

Army, as opposed to them, has almost always found to be impartial law-enforcer. Indian army has merely bolstered its image with its dogged opposition to the government’s attempts of dragging it to contain the ‘Maoist’ insurgency that has spread over many parts of erstwhile peaceful parts of central India. Its treatment of the problem as a civilian conflict which should be dealt by the civilian administration has not only helped its case of not getting dragged into a war with its own people but also has stopped the insurgency from fanning out into a full-blown civil war. This army, unlike many others in the subcontinent, seems to know the rules of engagement with citizens as against the enemy.

Not really, for the rosy pictures gives way to a thorny reality once one starts getting close to the international borders. The same army which enjoys the confidence of the minorities even in a state as communally volatile as Gujarat loses all of that in Manipur. Think of it, Manipuri Hindus belonging to the majority religion of India are as fearful, and scornful, of the Indian army as are the Christians of Nagaland and Muslims of Kashmir. Interestingly, in these ‘disturbed’ areas, the army that takes pride in its secular credentials starts speaking a language rooted in theology and vouches for black laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1956(AFSPA) as being pious and indispensable for its operations.. Ask them how they contain riots in rather mainstream parts without such protection, and they repeat that AFSPA is pious.

Dig a little deeper and a thousand skeletons come tumbling out of the closets of the Indian army. The skeletons are of those who are otherwise buried inside yellowing files that declare them to be ‘missing’, sometimes for decades and deny, in the process, closure to their kith in kin. The skeletons must have belonged to someone like us, alive, before finding their bullet-ridden bodies getting summarily buried in over 2,700 unmarked graves scattered across three districts of Kashmir. Think of the existence of 2,700 unmarked graves whose existence even Indian government could not wish away and was shamed into ordering a probe into. Sometimes the dead scream louder than the living, don’t they?

The stories of such bravery of Indian army are not limited to otherwise serene and scenic province of Jammu and Kashmir alone. It has received many such medals in the North-East of the country, ironically, just as scenic as Kashmir and therefore dubbed as the ‘lost paradise’ in the ‘incredible India’ campaign launched by the tourism department of Indian government. Paradise it certainly is, at least for those who were sent to their graves by the Indian army. In these parts of the country, epitaphs do not remain as epitaphs; they turn into the medals decorating the officers of Indian army. Look intently at them and one can read the stories of bravery of army officers inscribed in bright red letters on these epitaphs.

Top brass of both the Army and the civilian administration is well aware of the situation. They keep on responding to the enormity of the problem as well. The responses center around warning the ‘erring officials’ and ‘repeated’ adoption of policies named like ‘zero tolerance regarding human rights violations’. They also keep directing their field commanders to ‘exercise maximum restraint’, appeal them to ‘use minimum force’, that too ‘in good faith’. Then the field commanders respond by nabbing a young, unarmed surrendered militant to compensate for their failure to apprehend real ones, drag him inside a medical shop, and come out with the dead body of his. That a heavily pregnant unarmed civilian Rubina was also killed in the ensuing melee is beside the point for Indian army does believe in the idea of ‘collateral damage’ even if it does not acknowledge that. They could have justified even this had Tehelka, a reputed newsmagazine, not brought out definitive photographic evidence of him being unarmed.

Then the field commanders in Kashmir follow it up by shooting to kill teenagers pelting stones at their armoured convoys knowing fully well that the stones contain no significant risk either to the vehicle or the soldiers inside. They do it with such aplomb that even the Prime Minister of the country has to wake up from his slumber and take note. It does not really matter that it takes him more than two months and fifty killings for doing so, does it? He then acknowledges that militant activities in the state had been ‘curtailed’ and now it was the ‘public order dimension’ that has become ‘a cause of serious concern’. Standing true to his affable image, he called upon the officers for revisiting the ‘standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and focused measure.’

The same Indian army which has doggedly refused to be dragged in ‘civilian strife’ raging in the jungles of central India does not think twice before shooting at teenage protesters! Do the responses seem to come out of the same forces? Not really, for its not only the Army but Indian polity itself which is so fiercely divided over the ways to deal with the ‘insurgency’ or the ‘public order’ problem or whatever it is in the border areas. Nothing defines this rupture more than juxtaposing the calls of Omar Abdulla, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and those of Cabinet Committee on Security. Mr. Abdullah’s appeal to the security forces for exercising ‘maximum restraint’ was followed by Cabinet Committee ordering the same forces for ‘maximum crackdown on the miscreants’.

How does, then, the army maintains its affable and pro-people image in the largely peaceful northern and southern provinces of the country. Simple, it does that by employing the same methods which it does to maintain its ‘clean’ and ‘incorruptible’ image despite having a long and shady history being knee deep in corruption. It keeps itself aloof from the local nexus of corrupt officials and influential politicians and steers clear of controversies. The ‘image’ of the army gets a much bigger boost, though, from the fact that it does never meddle into muddy waters of ‘politics’.

Politics being ‘the dirty thing’ for the middle classes; an apolitical army got to be loved by the middle classes, is not it? It is politics, after all, that stands as the single biggest hindrance to their efforts of usurping all sources of power including the public opinion and dissent. The army, however, does not return the favour. It views and treats the ordinary folks with a little disgust; a disgust betrayed by the way the army men look down upon ‘civilians’.

This is the contradiction that defines the behavior of army men right from the level of ordinary soldier to top general. They perceive themselves as the Brahmins of Indian society, pure, incorruptible and virtuous unlike the ordinary civilians. Dig a little deeper, however, and this façade collapses like a house of cards. The inside stories from this holy cow institution are not only haunted by a thousand scams, they have had shady characters like Adnan Khashoggi and Chandraswami as their lead protagonists.

The bogey of the scams within army that started with Jeep scam soon after the independence and ended up making Jawaharlal Nehru cry during the debate in the parliament did never end. Forget the ones like Tatra trucks and Bofors, the arms lobby that operates within the army, in fact, did not think twice even before minting money out of the coffins of soldiers who laid their life for the country in the Kargil war. So much to support the claims of army being the infallible institution defining the country!

This is why the army needs to confront with itself to resolve all these contradictions. The honour of the Indian army lies in the fact that unlike its counterparts in many other countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, it has never ever challenged the constitution that imbues sovereignty in the people and makes them supreme. It had won laurels for the patience it showed in tough operations like Operation Blue Star. It has earned respect for its dogged refusal to get dragged into civilian conflicts like the one raging in Bastar and other parts of central India.

The same army, however, recently has been in news for all the wrong reasons. Its soldiers have repeatedly violated the fundamental rights of the citizens they are duty bound to protect in areas dubbed as ‘disturbed’ under a draconian and bad in law act Armed Forces Special Powers Act. There had been skirmishes between the soldiers and the officers. Its formal general has gone to the Supreme Court against the government that had appointed him, a first in the hitherto unblemished history of Indian Army’s complete submission to the civilian administration that is the most crucial guarantee for a functioning democracy. To top it all, it has, reportedly, moved two of its units towards Delhi without prior permission of the government. It is no one’s case that the practice was an attempt of coup or something like that, yet, the fact it happened with the general being embroiled in a legal battle with the government makes it alarming.

The point is simple, it is high time for the army to reengage not only with its own soldiers but also the general population which it disdainfully refers to as ‘civilians’. It must sensitise its soldiers against violating the human rights of ordinary citizens of India irrespective of wherever they live. It must immediately stop to treat states like Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam as enemy territories and their people as enemy combatants. It must instill within them the same sense of confidence it evoked within the minorities of Gujarat facing the worst ever pogrom against them, orchestrated and led by the state authorities.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a tall order for an army that tries to goes out of the way to protect its officers guilty of violating human rights of their fellow citizens. Remember the former general V.K Singh who confessed that he could not do anything against the person, including senior army officers, who offered him a bribe for making arms deal, and the job looks like an impossible one. The stakes are rather high, though, to let the job of reforming army from within unfinished.

The laws of the land and rights of its citizen are one and the same. We must realize that if an army officer can get away with impunity after violating the rights of a fellow citizen in Kashmir, however deeply entrenched in mainstream India we are, we would not remain safe for long. Every such violation of the rights of a citizen of India, therefore, threatens the democracy. We have not gone the Pakistan, or Bangladesh way till now partly because our army did not go that way either and we need to keep the record unblemished. Sensitising the army men regarding the human rights of citizens and demolishing the arms lobby can be a beginning.