Retired Lieutenant General HS Panag served in the Indian Army for over 40 years and was the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Northern Command and the Central Command.
This military veteran, however, has recently faced immense social media criticism from ultranationalist hawks – both within the armed forces community as well as from among those who have elevated espousing the cause of rightwing militarism to an art form.
With a video showing 27-year-old Farooq Ahmad Dar tied to an Indian Army jeep and paraded across 10-12 villages in the Kashmir Valley, first tweeted out by former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah, making international headlines, this recorded instance of the Indian Army using a human shield in the most brazen fashion has jolted many out of their complacence.
Here's the video as well. A warning can be heard saying stone pelters will meet this fate. This requires an urgent inquiry & follow up NOW!! pic.twitter.com/qj1rnCVazn— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) April 14, 2017
Upright military veterans and serving/retired officers have justifiably condemned the incident as a contravention of the Geneva Conventions and an instance of recorded human rights violation, which must be probed into, apologised for and never ever repeated.
Among the prominent public figures with a military background, Lt-Gen HS Panag was most scathing and categorical, mincing no words when he tweeted:
Image of a 'stone pelter' tied in front of a jeep as a 'human shield',will 4 ever haunt the Indian Army&the nation!— Lt Gen H S Panag(R) (@rwac48) April 15, 2017
Others, such as Major General (Retd) Siddharth Chatterjee, Major Sherbir Panag also posted their unequivocal criticism of the shameful incident.
@abhijeetsinger I am a military veteran. @rwac48 is absolutely right. This image is a slur on the ethos & values of India's Army & its democracy. @adgpi pic.twitter.com/xXGSTNcE01— SIDDHARTH CHATTERJEE (@sidchat1) April 16, 2017
My father was a marked man as Army Commander Northern Command.I don't wear that as a badge of honour nor was it his ticket to HR violations https://t.co/f9R82xka4g— Sherbir Panag (@Sherbir) April 15, 2017
When something unlawful takes place, the state must step in through legal means. Justifying illegal means to curb illegality is an oxymoron https://t.co/GPLSV0RQ6w— Sherbir Panag (@Sherbir) April 16, 2017
Yet, what Lt-Gen Panag faced since he called out this gross and unforgivable instance of the Indian Army abusing the human rights of a Kashmiri civilian, who had actually gone out to vote and participate in the elections to uphold Indian “democracy” at gunpoint, was unbelievable.
It was grotesque to witness Lt-Gen Panag getting ridiculed and questioned on his patriotism by those whose political opportunism is hardly a secret, even though they belong to the constitutionally secular and neutral, politically unaffiliated armed forces.
This sounds more like a political statement a left liberal than the dare devil General that once we knew him https://t.co/oYbPIUf031— Aviator Anil Chopra (@Chopsyturvey) April 15, 2017
Air Marshal, that's your best argument against your visibly gross incompetence to hold the appointment you do? pic.twitter.com/f2lda0g1FP— Sherbir Panag (@Sherbir) April 15, 2017
@Chopsyturvey @rwac48 This is illegal even in Israel. It has been so for over a decade. Shocking that as an AFT member, you don't know this.— Pierre Fitter (@pierrefitter) April 15, 2017
As journalists and celebs with a conscience leapt to defend Lt-Gen Panag, to shield him from the online barbs from those who haven’t once been inside a conflict zone, a bizarre spectacle unfolded.
Former GOC-in-C of Northern Command being lectured on counter-terrorism by a meat trader. Who said it's difficult to be a butcher in India? pic.twitter.com/HXvCODLCHB— Aditya Menon (@AdityaMenon22) April 15, 2017
Beats me how he gets away with such badtameezi. Such a terrible blot on the artist community. Apologies to @rwac48 pic.twitter.com/1cxBm7RRgz— Chinmayi Sripaada (@Chinmayi) April 16, 2017
Never thought I 'd seethe day a war veteran, a respected General Nd a former Northern Army Commander could be subjected to such abuse. +— Saikat Datta (@saikatd) April 16, 2017
And this vile abuse on a fine former General because he has a different opinion on the use of human shields in military operations +— Saikat Datta (@saikatd) April 16, 2017
Hmm...Either both were given the "kicked, beaten, humiliated on the streets of Kashmir" script or one is copying the other. pic.twitter.com/Q3IsPVqBBy— SamSays (@samjawed65) April 16, 2017
@samjawed65 What else are they capable of saying anyway?— Lt Gen H S Panag(R) (@rwac48) April 17, 2017
But what about those within the Indian Army who say tying up Farooq Ahmad Dar to the Army jeep was justified?
When the Army Chief says something, you listen to him. This time he requested politely. Next time, seperatists may not be this lucky. https://t.co/5YoG3LeUE4— Major Gaurav Arya (@majorgauravarya) April 14, 2017
Video of stone pelter tied on army vehicle is 100% genuine. Some stone pelters were feeling adventurous so #IndianArmy took them for a ride????— Major Gaurav Arya (@majorgauravarya) April 14, 2017
They are screaming for the scalp of that young Major Gogoi who tied a stone pelter on his jeep. I think in... https://t.co/rr3pU0VmRc— Maj Gen GD Bakshi SM (@GeneralBakshi) April 15, 2017
In fact, it seems the Centre is least apologetic about this human shield issue coming to the fore, and has reportedly decided to “stand by army officer” who used Farooq Ahmad Dar as a human shield.
What the Army veteran says
It is therefore extremely worthwhile to listen to what Lt-Gen HS Panag has to say about this incident.
1) Bad for Army’s image
In a piece for The Quint, Lt-Gen Panag has said: “If this action is going to be supported, if there’s no action or clarification, then I’m afraid we’re going downhill and we will reach a point of no return.”
Lt-Gen Panag also writes: “On the same day as the incident, his superiors should have issued a suo motu statement, clarifying that such an incident had occurred, and why such tactics were employed and an assurance that the Army will never repeat it again.”
2) Flouting its own rulebook
The military veteran also added that the “Indian Army’s own rules and regulations, drawn by the Chief of Army Staff for it to operate in J&K, clearly lay down that such a thing should not be done and under no circumstances should human rights be violated”.
As senior defence journalist Sushant Singh tweeted:
For those who don't know, here is Indian Army's Code of Conduct for Counterinsurgency operations. pic.twitter.com/1ShuMDZVMF— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) April 14, 2017
From Indian Army Doctrine Part-2, Page 25; Para 5.4 || For those who don't even know what the Indian Army itself professes pic.twitter.com/199dt9lz1u— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) April 14, 2017
This is it. The essence of the whole thing. https://t.co/JDFsSxjZ4E— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) April 15, 2017
Lt-Gen (retired) Panag categorically states that what transpired was a “criminal offence and can be tried under the Army Act, Section 69”, that “includes holding a person hostage, holding them under confinement and threat, or pushing them towards danger deliberately”.
3) Less guns, more political connect
The war veteran also sounds the most important warning: “We’re winning the military war, but losing the political war.”
Lt-Gen Panag asks a very pertinent question. “The problem, now, is that our methodologies are crude and the dividing line between terrorists and public is becoming blurred. Consequently, everyone becomes the enemy. How can we fight an insurgency like this?”
He also says that while the State is winning the military battle and squandering the political outreach, the opposite is true for militants, who are dying by hordes, losing the insurgency militarily, but gaining enormous political traction and emotional support from the larger populace. And that’s because the State and the discourse around Kashmir has become corrosive.
4) The road ahead
However, Lt-Gen Panag says all is not lost and we can still turn back from Kashmir hurtling into an abyss of bloodshed and political disaffection. He said that despite TV and social media footage of the Kashmir crisis, the Army had faced worse times when women and children would lie down in the path of Army convoys and protect militants.
Lt-Gen Panag observes that even though few terrorists are left with depleted inflow of arms and ammunitions, only a political outreach can make things better now. He gave the example of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 J&K visit, where “he made the famous statement about ‘jamhooriyat, insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat’. After that things turned for the better”.
Panag says: “The worst thing a government can do is use an iron fist. Firmness is key, yes. Force as per law is important, yes. But it must be backed by political goodwill.”
5) Army and (ultra)nationalism
Lt-Gen HS Panag also couldn’t not observe the absolute irony in others giving him lectures on patriotism and nationalism, while calling him a “Khalistani” supporter. He says public discourse has changed for the worse, and that he sees “increasing talks of nationalism (bordering on jingoism) on social media and private WhatsApp groups, even among ex-servicemen”.
Panag says: “The Army as an institution has been accorded a halo – that it can do nothing wrong and nobody should criticise it. This is the worst that could happen to an army. It prevents the army from undertaking reforms which are always necessary for the betterment of any organisation.”
A wrong is a wrong. Can not be justified for expediency or due to circumstances. pic.twitter.com/3Y5ZI3wyoh— Lt Gen H S Panag(R) (@rwac48) April 17, 2017
In other words, Lt-Gen Panag is vigilant about the Army being susceptible and adding on to the State’s own excesses, and crushing a popular uprising at gunpoint, without taking into account the extreme political disenchantment that has set in among the Kashmiri residents, particularly among its unemployed and demonised youth.
Lt-Gen Panag’s warning against extreme nationalism couldn’t have come at a more poignant time. While the Centre is busy siding with the erring officer for his “out-of-the-box” thinking, we have a COAS in Bipin Rawat who has said that stone-pelters would be considered “overground workers” of terrorists and would be treated accordingly.
Can this hardening of militaristic nationalism be stopped now? Will the Indian State and the Army under the current leadership pay heed to the dire warnings of one of its most respected and intrepid sons?
We can only hope so.
Also read: On Kashmir: I felt like an 'anti national' speaking for Jewish rights in Hitler's Germany