Who can guarantee Major Gogoi’s copycat human shield action won’t be repeated?
General Bipin Rawat has commended the major for counter-insurgency operations but the army is fooling nobody for Gogoi is a household name for the ‘human-shield’ operation where he tied Kashmiri shawl weaver to a jeep.
On a recent visit to the Valley, I learnt – through confidential conversations with various state actors – that Major NL Gogoi, the army officer who infamously tied Farooq Ahmed Dar, a Kashmiri shawl weaver, to a jeep, had been called by his bosses and asked to explain the circumstances that led him to use a civilian as a human shield. The conversations revealed another important fact: Gogoi had not reported his ‘innovative’ prowess to his immediate senior for three days.
The fact that Gogoi had stripped a civilian of his right to life and liberty came unmasked only after a video showing the shawl weaver strapped to a jeep bonnet was made public on social media. Was Gogoi aware – within himself – that he had perhaps crossed the line? Was that the reason he had not revealed his actions to his superiors?
The same action – justified as one taken under grave circumstances, so lives could be saved – has now won Gogoi a commendation from the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat. The chief, and everyone down the hierarchical chain in the army, has endorsed the view that Gogoi deserves to be honoured, but in the tenuous relationship between the common Kashmiri and the men in olive fatigues, what message have the army and the government (to whom the army reports in India, unlike in Pakistan) sent to an entire population that is already alienated because they feel a deep denial of justice?
“Was I an animal?’’ the ‘human shield’ asked my colleague, soon after he learnt of the honour bestowed on Gogoi, wondering which provision of the law permitted him being driven across villages for over 20 minutes.
The law is an ass but its practitioners will tell you that it will be judged as an illegal act and is of course, a harsh and inhuman step no army can – or should – be proud of. Rawat has commended the Major for counter-insurgency operations but the army is fooling nobody for Gogoi is a household name for the human shield operation and there is no other action against his name that stands out for ‘commendation.’
Dar has been condemned as a ‘stone pelter’, though there is no evidence to support that. What we do know, for a fact, is that Dar was one of the few who came out to vote on April 9 for the by polls being held for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. The election was violent: eight civilians were killed and only 7.4% turned out to risk getting the ink mark on their finger.
The commendation for Gogoi adds another layer to the already complex reality of Kashmir: Dar now stands identified as one of the minuscule few who risked their life by walking to a polling booth. Given the current mood in the Valley, where even mainstream political parties are getting marginalised, the shawl weaver suffers social humiliation for favouring democracy and is of course, a victim of army excesses because human shields are a complete no-no, as per the Geneva convention, even in a non-combative situation.
Attention is being focused on Gogoi’s actions – and less on Dar, who has already been painted as a ‘stone pelter’ who, according to the growing breed of ‘nationalists’, deserves what he got.
Given the culture of commendations within the army – particularly in a conflict zone like Kashmir – where battalions are honoured for the number of militants arrested and killed – where is the guarantee that copycat human shield reactions will not be repeated? The honour, after all, has been bestowed by none other than Gen Rawat himself. Which young captain or major, would not want to catch the eye of the chief? Remember the ‘ketchup colonel’ who faked ‘slain militants’ by smearing them with tomato sauce – all for gallantry medals.
In the end, the army has only harmed itself and its own image. In the intricate security apparatus comprising local police and paramilitary forces, the army stood out for its WHAM approach: ‘win hearts and minds’. By honouring Gogoi, it has lost more than just Dar’s heart and mind.