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Why is the Indian Army becoming a target in Kashmir?

The J&K Police, on the orders of the state government, has registered an FIR against Army major for Shopian firing.

 |  6-minute read |   30-01-2018
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The recent incident in Kashmir's Shopian district, where the Army opened fire to disperse stone-pelters who were seeking to lynch Army personnel accompanying a convoy and burn their vehicles, resulting in the death of two civilians has dominated headlines. The police, on the orders of the state government, registered an FIR against one Army major accompanying the convoy and one more, leading to a political debate and national outrage.

The J&K director general of police, on the other hand, claimed that no one specific had been named in the FIR and that the case would be investigated prior to arriving at a conclusion.

It has again brought to fore the political differences between the BJP and PDP, the ruling partners in the state and between the government and Opposition. Kashmir-based political parties blamed the Army, while the BJP supported it. Further, it refuelled the debate of continuation of AFSPA, a statement against which was recently made by the Army chief. The separatists who had lost all support and were battling for survival and legitimacy suddenly got ammunition to reclaim some space.

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Mehbooba Mufti, the chief minister, did not waste time after hearing of the incident and immediately called the defence minister to complain. Her comments that such incidents would push back the situation, which had shown a remarkable improvement were unjust and made in haste. She claimed that she had instructed the Army to fire in the air, instead of on the protestors, ignoring that the Army, as an instrument of last resort is neither the police nor the CAPFs which are trained to disperse mobs. They are trained to act and fire for effect, which unless they do, would render their control and task of being the ultimate element of power of the nation meaningless.

It is time for serious soul-searching on what could have led to the incident and whether it was avoidable.

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A convoy of vehicles moving in the area inadvertently got split and a few vehicles entered a village in Shopian. This was the same village where a few days ago, two militants were eliminated. The villagers' anger was apparently taken out on this column. Only further investigation would determine whether they were instigated, or it was a spontaneous action. They attempted to grab weapons, lynch a junior commissioned officer (JCO), who was a part of the escort, and burn vehicles. Seven soldiers were injured in the process, compelling the escort to open fire in self-defence, which in this case was also permissible under the IPC. This led to casualties.

Some aspects, being ignored in the political battle which followed need to be placed in the right perspective. The Army column was moving towards its destination and hence had no reason to commence firing. The mob was initially about 100-strong, which swelled to 200 in a short while. Photographs of damaged vehicles, doing the rounds indicate that they were distinctly attacked.

The fact that there were two fatal casualties indicated that despite strong provocation, they only responded with minimum force. If they had opened fire indiscriminately, or in panic, the casualties may have been much more. Had they not acted, it would have set a precedence for the Valley in the future and similar incidents would be attempted. It would also give a boost to Pakistan and their proxies, and headlines in Pakistan media would have indicated the failure of the Indian army.

Loss of Army lives to rioting mobs, especially when they have the right of self-defence and are armed is akin to surrender and is unacceptable within the Army. It would have been a blot, which would remain for decades. Secondly, akin to the Army major Leetul Gogoi incident, there was no reaction time to contemplate and move away from the mob. It was the training and cool response, targetting the ring leaders which saved further casualties. Like the Gogoi incident, the relatives of the casualties would claim that they were innocent bystanders witnessing stone-throwing and not participants, which again is nothing, but a joke.

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The irony of the aftermath was the state government seeking to file an FIR against the Army to gain a few local brownie points. They remain aware of the fact that the Army responded, did not instigate. There should logically have been a magisterial inquiry to determine the circumstances leading to the firing, as is prevalent across the nation, FIRs being subsequent action. It appears that the Army has been caught in the political slugfest between the PDP and the NC, as also disagreements within the ruling coalition of the PDP and the BJP. The message being conveyed is clear, make the Army the scapegoat, while PDP attempts to woo the masses.

While stone-throwing could have been spontaneous, instigation by anti-national elements cannot be ruled out. In recent times, Shopian has witnessed increasing incidents of terrorism. There have been reports of snatching of weapons from police personnel and killing of political activists in the region. The Army has repeatedly, over the last year, launched large-scale anti-terror operations in this region. Hence, spotting a separated convoy, may have provided some to instigate others to resort to violence.

Simultaneous has been the demand by Valley-based political parties, desperate to gain additional votes demanding the rollback of AFSPA. The comments by the Army chief stating that this is not the time to do so was criticised by many quarters, including in an editorial in The Statesman. Few realise, outside the military environment, that the soldiers battling Pakistan-sponsored terrorists are doing so with severe restrictions on use of force, solely to save civilian casualties, however losing more of their own. No other nation places such immense restrictions on its armed forces. AFSPA is an enabling act, not complete immunity as the soldiers can be brought to book by the sanction of the Centre and it has been done.

Politicians should grow beyond short-term views and look at the broader picture. The Indian Army is there to protect and secure the nation, not to target its own. It never does so, unless compelled by circumstances and attacked first. Let us leave politics aside, quit questioning the comments of the chief and stand by the Army, as it battles multiple threats, which we as a nation face. Targeting the Army to gain votes would harm national security and those who place their lives on the risk for it daily.

Also read: India can celebrate Tipu Sultan as much as Shivaji: BJP can't erase history

       

Writer

Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of the book, Harsha Kakar writes.

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