VIEWPOINT: INDIAN ARMY IN LIMELIGHT
The Indian Army continues to be an institution that is loved and respected by the nation and its people. Let us not drag this fine institution in to politics and controversy.
Since the past one year plus the Indian Army has been in the news for some good and some not so good reasons. Unlike most of the other institutions the Army is held in high regard by the general public. What is disturbing is the remarks by individuals who consider themselves “intellectuals”, even though they sound more confused than the others, and some self centered politicians. The former use their academic and other credentials and the latter use their political status, shady though it may be, to criticise the Army and its leadership when they are actually totally ignorant of the situations faced by the Army in Jammu and Kashmir, its operational and institutional culture and its methods with the limited tools available to it, to normalise such situations.
Notwithstanding the above let us examine some of the broad events and activity that has caused the emergence of controversial and contentious views from certain quarters.
Indian Army carried out surgical strikes across the line of control in September 2016 which was widely reported by the national and international media. From disbelief initially by some political leaders of opposition parties in India and even the international media to the imaginary versions of the strikes put out by some TV channels and print media; the surgical strikes by the army did manage to excite the India public who were bored with the passive responses by the over cautious UPA government earlier. Pakistan continued to be in the denial mode that the Indian operation had caused heavy casualties to terrorists and some Pakistan Army personnel in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Among the international media the UK Telegraph reported that the Indian ground troops crossed a few hundred metres inside PoK to destroy six to eight terrorist “launch pads” – structures close to the border used by militants preparing to infiltrate into India; the BBC said in its report said that the operation was “aimed at preventing attacks being planned by Pakistan-based militants”. It also quoted unnamed Pakistani Army officials as saying that the fighting started in the early hours of Thursday, September 29, 2016, and continued for about six hours. The New York Times termed the Indian army operation as a ‘precedent setting’ one.
While the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) in a press conference on September 29, announced the Army’s actions on night September 28/29, no further statements were made by the Army, however that did not prevent the ruling party from taking advantage of these strikes to convince home audiences regarding their tough and proactive stance against the proxy war by Pakistan. The Congress, however, claimed that such strikes had taken place earlier also and the only difference was that it was not publicised at that time and kept a secret. Seeing BJP take political advantage of the strikes, it prompted some opposition parties, out of fear, to express doubts about the veracity of the surgical strikes. The political bickering dragged the Army needlessly into the midst of their meaningless controversy.
The long-simmering controversy over the use of ‘Sahayaks’ by officers of the Army was raked up once again when two videos surfaced on social media in March 2016. The first, a sting video published by a news website, showed Lance Naik Roy Mathew complaining about being made to do personal chores for his superior officer; in the second video, which also went viral a jawan named Sindhav Jogidas accused “some officers” of treating jawans as “slaves”.
Lance Naik Mathew was found hanging at Deolali Cantonment in march 2017 — the Army, while ordering an inquiry, said he may have been driven by the “guilt factor of letting down his superiors or conveying false impression to an unknown individual”. This matter is also now in the court against the journalist who carried out the so called sting operation. In the latter case the Army has rejected Jogidas’s allegations as baseless, and said he had never been employed as a Sahayak.
The above incidents led the Indian Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, to warn personnel from using social media to air their grievances and to cut the long story short, the Government defended the Sahayak System and told the Parliament “Sahayaks are combatants and provide support to officers and JCOs in the Army when serving with units or HQ functioning on War Establishments.” While the matter was settled by the Governments statement in the Parliament, however it did bring Army in to this controversy once again.
On February 17, the media reported the Indian Army Chief General Rawat saying that security forces in Jammu and Kashmir were facing higher casualties due to the manner in which the local population was preventing them from conducting the operations and “at times even helping the terrorists to escape.” He said “We would now tell the local population that people who have picked up arms, and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism, displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as antinational elements and go for them. They may survive today but we will get them tomorrow. Our relentless operations will continue,” the Army Chief told reporters here, sending out a stern message to those who support militants. While the Army Chief is to be applauded for his open warning to those who interfere with military operations, it however gave rise to some nasty comments and observations of the human rights activists and opposition political leaders in Jammu and Kashmir.
Action by Major Leetul Gogoi
The Army Chief’s award of Commendation Card to Gogoi, who had tied Farooq Ahmed Dar to an army jeep and used him as a human shield from stone throwers in April to save a large number of security and other personnel who were trapped by a large mob of stone pelters, was criticized by human rights activists, Kashmiri groups and by a few retired army generals. A video of the incident had gone viral on the Internet triggering a row with many condemning it. The Army clarified that Gogoi in fact saved the day by using his presence of mind to avert what could have been a disaster.
Stoutly defending the actions of the officer, the Army Chief in an interview said “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 honour. Is it what I am supposed to tell them as Chief? I have to maintain the morale of my troops who are operating there”. Talking about the complexity of the security challenge in the state, he suggested it would have been easier for the armed forces if the protesters were firing weapons instead of throwing stones. He further stated that “Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us”. At the same time, he asserted that maximum restraint is being maintained while handling the situation in the Valley.
Criticism of Army Chief by CPI(M)
The CPI(M) criticised the Army Chief Bipin Rawat for backing the use of a “human shield” against stone-pelters by Major Gogoi. The Left party also hit back at the BJP for accusing it of being a “mouthpiece of China and Pakistan”, saying the Kashmiri man used as a “human shield” was an Indian and the episode had nothing to do with China. Senior CPI((M) leader Prakash Karat the former CPI(M) General Secretary also sought to clarify that the party had criticised the Army chief and not the armed forces.
Criticism by Main Stream Politicians and the Hurriyat
Mainstream politicians as well as separatists in Kashmir have criticised the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement warning local youth against creating hurdles during anti militancy operations even as the government came to his defence. Both the camps said that such a statement would fuel a spurt in militancy in the state. The opposition National Conference expressed disappointment and dismay over the “belligerent remarks” of the army chief and said such posturing would compound the situation and increase the hostility in the Valley.
Referring to the statement of the Army Chief, hardline Hurriyat Chairman Syed Ali Geelani said “India’s arrogance and stale thinking is the basic reason for continuous bloodshed and political uncertainty in state”. He further stated that people of state and particularly the youth are up against this hegemony and suppression. Chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front ( JKLF) Yasin Malik termed the statement of Army Chief as a case of “political immaturity”.
Killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, also known as Burhan Wani, by Indian security forces on July 8, 2016, was perhaps a turning point in bringing about a new trend of resistance in the Kashmir valley. Widespread protests erupted after his death, causing unrest in valley for nearly half a year in which more than 90 people died while over 15,000 civilians and more than 4,000 security personnel were injured. The unrest after a lull for a few months is continuing. The new trend has brought about a situation in which the armed police, and the army at times, find themselves facing mobs of young school and college students pelting stones at them while they are not at liberty or in a position to take any drastic action against them. This a different dimension of militancy in which the new threats and challenges that are arising or may well arise in the future which are not easy to predict.
Statements by military and political leaders no matter how well intended fuel the existing situation and therefore could be more damaging in the long run. It is difficult to prevent political leaders from making statements because that is how they remain relevant among the masses and their existence is dependent on their relevance. However as far as military leaders are concerned our advice would be to show patience and restrain our vocal abilities as these qualities would benefit us in achieving our mission in such situations with least cost to our selves.
The Army should also gear up its PR to deal with changing trends and reorganise its Sadbhavna machinery along with the elements of state administration at the formation as well as at unit and subunit levels to see how we could together reach out once again and create positive impact on the public in Kashmir while conducting military operations without alienating them further. The intelligence network of informants must be able to pick up anti nationals from their hide outs. The moment success is gained in a region, administration must establish itself.
New operational situations in counter insurgency affected areas demand new methods and new technologies to cater for the new trends and we have to rise to these occasions to confront the new trends. The Army has the mental and physical abilities to achieve this and it must place its genuine requirements in front of the government so that these are met in time. The Army continues to be an institution that is loved and respected by the nation and the people. Let us not drag this fine institution in to politics and controversy.
As far as military leaders are concerned our advice would be to show patience and restrain our vocal abilities as these qualities would benefit us in achieving our mission in such situations with least cost to our selves
Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat