AFSPA again in line of fire

  • Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd), Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Nov 07, 2014 14:31 IST

The death of two young men at an army naka in Budgam district (Jammu and Kashmir) recently has understandably resulted in large-scale protests in the Kashmir valley. From what has so far surfaced in the media, it appears to be a case of over-reaction on the part of Rashtriya Rifles troops at the naka. Notwithstanding the precise reasons why these troops had to resort to firing, the incident is highly regrettable and perhaps completely avoidable. In the first place, why was a barricade not placed to stop vehicles for checking? The army has been quick to start investigations in the incident, in all its details and can be relied upon to take prompt action in the matter.

Unfortunately, an impression is being created that the army glosses over such incidents and that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives the military licence to kill at will. Nothing is farther from the truth. Army does admit that in counter-insurgency operations excesses do take place, often unintended, because such is the very nature of these operations. Military authorities do take care and pay heed to Nietzsche's saying: "Care needs be taken so that those who fight monsters do not turn into monsters." Then there is a saying that if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes back at you.

Thin line

Military commanders deployed in counter-insurgency environments have to constantly sensitise, educate and train troops to walk this thin line with care and caution. It is important to instill in troops the imperatives of civilized behaviour and make them value human life. Sometimes, this aspect is overlooked by commanders and consequently their troops indulge in high-handedness and more.

What is little known is that every case of human rights violation is promptly and fully investigated by the military and appropriate action initiated. Military authorities admit that there are aberrations and excesses in anti-terrorist operations and therefore, in the interest of discipline and morale, stringent action is necessary, where evidence points to violation of human rights or high-handedness. Consequently, in the past few decades, close to 100 court martials have been held and offenders put behind bars for various durations. The military justice system is fair and quick, while in civil courts, cases can go on for decades.

It is not to contend that there have been no case(s) where the guilty have been able to get away and escape punishment. Sometimes, it is difficult to differentiate between unavoidable and unintended collateral damage and purposeful violation or negligence. Insurgency, by its very nature, is brutal in the extreme and requires rigorous and determined effort to fight it. The long and sustained fight by the Indian Army against insurgents of various hues has not left the army untouched by insensitivity and to an extent brutality. During the past two decade, the army has lost nearly 600 officers and about 8,000 soldiers. That is a large figure on any count and does reflect on the nature of these operations. So, to an extent, the fallout of these casualties is inevitable. Yet the military makes every effort to keeps its own reaction within the confines of rational response.

Enabling law

The AFSPA is an enabling law which helps the military carry out counter-insurgency tasks without the burden of unnecessary litigation in civil courts, which can stretch on for decades. The military, otherwise, does not have even normal police powers and is deployed because of the existence of extraordinary environments, which are outside the capabilities of the police (central and state) to manage. Unfortunately, with every incident of the type that took place at Budgam, there is a clamour to remove AFSPA. Such an approach misses the woods for the trees and reflects lack of understanding of the nature of insurgency environments: difficulties in combating it.

It has become customary for the media to quote old cases, but not in their entirety. The killings that followed the Chittisinghpura massacre (2004) were a joint operation where the police (senior superintendent of police) had played a major role. The Anantnag SSP was suspended and a case initiated against him. He was acquitted and later promoted. So why insist on action against military personnel involved in the same incident!

On the face of it, the Budgam incident was wholly avoidable and therefore, inexcusable.

Unfortunate as the incident is, the army can be relied upon to take the most stringent action not only against the offenders but also those controlling the operation.

Finally, it would be most incorrect, perhaps unfortunate, to remove or tamper with AFSPA because of this incident, more so when the specter of turmoil in the Middle East and developments in Pakistan and their more likely fall out on Jammu and Kashmir are too obvious to miss.

(The writer, a former deputy chief of army staff, is a commentator on defence and security issues. The views expressed are personal)

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