The encounter at Machil in 2010 has finally been fully exposed and acknowledged by the military as a ‘staged encounter’. Court-martial has dished out the necessary punishment to the offenders of this despicable crime. It is hoped that the civilians involved in this heinous act will soon meet similar justice. However, it is not the first time that the military has taken to task the offenders of human rights in its rank and file. There have been scores of court-martials in the past, but these never appeared on the front pages of the national newspapers and, therefore, remained unnoticed.
The disturbing element in this tragic episode is twofold. One, the commanding officer of the unit was directly involved; second, and more regrettable aspect, is that the reputation of a great unit with a commendable record from many wars has been tarnished. The last great action this unit saw was at Kargil in 1965, when it took that formidable feature, known as 13620 that menacingly dominates the town of Kargil and the brigade headquarters. It was in that most determined and daring assault on that impossible feature that Major Randhawa won his Mahavir Chakra posthumously.
The motivating factors in this dreadful crime were some awards: both monetary and decorations to individuals. Military authorities need to investigate as to how such an open and blatant crime remained concealed from the brigade and divisional headquarters. What sort of monitoring was in place or did they simply turn a Nelson’s eye to the acts of this unit. The fallout from this case must reach up to the brigade and divisional commanders.
It is time the Army investigated all those cases where there are possibilities of misdemeanour, highhandedness and perhaps faking, and the guilty brought to book. Care will have to be taken that collateral damage is not clubbed with the fake.
Indian army has been in counter-insurgency operations for too long and some degree of brutalisation of its troops has been inevitable. Because counter-insurgency operations are brutal in the extreme and prolonged exposure to these cannot leave troops untouched. That is where good and effective leadership comes into play: troops are sensitised, made to understand value of human life and the imperatives of restrain and soldierly conduct. It is better to let 10 terrorists get away, to be tackled later, than kill one innocent person.
But when unit commanders themselves stoop to such low levels of conduct and are instrumental in engineering fake encounters, then the higher command in the military must get alive to the gravity of the situation. This manner of killing of innocent civilians is a sure sign of cowardice and fall in standards to a dangerously low level.
Shadow on awards
This one incident has cast a shadow of doubt on meritorious and gallantry awards, conferred during counter-insurgency operations and those earned during wars. It has done great disservice to all past awardees. There was this case of a ‘ketchup’ colonel and video clippings, of fake attack on a bunker and killing of enemy soldier at Siachen, taken by a major. That sure was a wake-up call for the senior echelons in the military to take corrective action.
While there were innumerable allegations of fake encounters by the police during the eighties and nineties in Punjab, the army when deployed in the province kept its record commendable and was instrumental in winning back the confidence of the people.
In the clamour following this shocking incident, many responsible personalities have joined the chorus to remove or at least dilute the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Not to be left out, P Chidambaram informs us that he had been, for long, a votary of dilution of AFSPA, if not its removal, but had met with stiff opposition from many quarters. He would have done well to explain as to how and why, successive governments, of whom he has been repeatedly a part of, have failed to contain, and during these many decades, remove the underlying causes of insurgency. On the other hand, it has spread to over 200 districts in the hinterland of the country, in addition to those previously in the vortex of insurgency.
The tragedy of the Indian setting has been that we have been trying to find a military solution to problems, which are political and economic and in the case of J and K, diplomatic as well.
(The writer, former deputy chief of army staff, was the Corps Commander in J&K at the height of insurgency there. The views expressed are personal.)