Major Leetul Gogoi - who had tied a local Kashmiri youth to a jeep as a 'human shield', allegedly to prevent stone throwers from stopping a military convoy during last year’s by-elections to the Srinagar Parliamentary constituency — has now been found prima facie guilty of “fraternising with locals” in violation of laid-down procedure, and, importantly, for “being absent from duty in an operational area” by a Court of Inquiry.
The 'human shield' episode caused a huge controversy about the armed forces in Kashmir. (Photo: India Today)
The latter charge is akin to desertion in wartime.
Months after Major Gogoi was awarded a medal “for his sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations as well as his presence of mind and initiative to prevent bloodshed” during the operation, he was in the news again.
His efforts were prized. But the glory hasn't lasted long for Major Gogoi. (Photo: India Today)
The second instance was unsavoury, especially for the Indian Army. Major Gogoi was involved in an altercation at a local hotel where he was reportedly to rendezvous with a local woman.
Major Gogoi during the altercation with the hotel staff. (Photo: CCTV screengrab)
Is Major Gogoi's case an aberration?
Or, a reflection of troubled times, in particular, that of the leadership of the armed forces and beyond?
Besides Major Gogoi, the military also has to grapple with the fact that nearly 350 soldiers have moved the Supreme Court, seeking protection against inquiries of counter-insurgency operations carried out in various parts of the country, in particular, Manipur. The apex court is hearing a case that alleges extra-judicial killings during counter-insurgency operations. In their petition to the apex court, the aggrieved soldiers have said because of these inquiries, confusion prevails as to “whether they are supposed to continue to engage the proxy war and insurgency with their military training, principals, standard operating procedures, operational realities, valor and courage or act and operate as per the yardsticks of peace time operations, law and order issues and CrPC.”
But a collective action by serving personnel has legal, moral — and even ethical — implications for the country. The 350-odd serving soldiers who appear to have jointly filed the petition seem to be crossing the red line fundamental to a democracy - which bars the armed forces from forming “associations.” And, for good measure, The Army Act, Indian Navy Act and Indian Air Force Act which forbid collective petitions or representations.
The question then is - did the action of the soldiers not draw the attention of their immediate commanders, higher formations, the office of the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army and finally, the Ministry of Defence and the government? If it did, why did they leave the soldiers to fend for themselves? Is it not the duty of the higher commands to be moving court on behalf of the soldiers? Or are we to assume that soldiers were tacitly told to move court?
Are the three top guns aware of the rumblings in the ranks?
Both propositions are bad.
At the very least, this reflects poor leadership. Or even a singularly sinister plot to pit the judiciary directly against the military.
Also, importantly, it appears that the soldiers who have moved the court believe that no inquiries can be conducted when counter-insurgency operations are carried out under the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA).
Such a belief is not only erroneous but dangerous.
The military is indeed the last resort of the nation and an instrument of national power. But no civilised nation can condone acts of commission in counter-insurgency operations.
Dissent against atrocities in combat zones is - and must be - present in a democracy.
Be that as it may, the fact that the senior leadership of the military, ministry of defence and government have decided to be spectators rather than playing their designated role - this is a cause of concern for every individual.
The learned and honorable justices will surely find the best way out, but at a time when pseudo-nationalism reigns and other arms of the state, like the legislature and executive, pale into insignificance, it is easy to get carried away, leaving institutions poorer.