Military veteran says Army was wrong to use human shield: Is he also anti-national?

Lt Gen HS Panag (retired) says armed forces are not above criticism and Kashmir needs a political solution.

 |  10-minute read |   18-04-2017
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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.

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:

Others, such as Major General (Retd) Siddharth Chatterjee, Major Sherbir Panag also posted their unequivocal criticism of the shameful incident.

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.

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.

But what about those within the Indian Army who say tying up Farooq Ahmad Dar to the Army jeep was justified?

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:

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.”

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

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