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A blemished medal
Posted:May 24, 2017
 
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“Things got a little out of hand,” a former Kenya Regiment officer reminisced of the time he brought a Mau Mau insurgent into the interrogation centre at Embakasi, near Nairobi. “By the time I cut his balls off, he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him”.
 
 
The judge, at a 1953 torture trial, wrote up the moral consensus in colonial Kenya thus: “It is easy to work oneself up into a state of pious horror over these offences, but they must be considered against their background. All the accused were engaged in seeking out inhuman monsters and savages”.
 
 
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh made precisely this argument when he advocated a medal for Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, accused of using a civilian as a human shield against a stone-throwing mob in Kashmir (‘I applaud Major Gogoi’, IE, May 20). “A tooth for a tooth and a nail for a nail may sound a crude way of putting it, but the fact is that brutality and barbarism need to be tackled with an iron fist”.
 
 
The applause generated by the army’s decision to give Gogoi a commendation demonstrates the deep approval Singh’s arguments have in our society — an approval that makes it possible for a chief minister to counsel ignoring the Indian law, and the Constitution itself. Lamenting his argument though will do nothing to address the deep frustrations engendered by the republic’s failure to ensure order, for which the violence in its war-torn margins is but a metaphor. Instead, the philosophical underpinnings of this moral consensus need to be examined, and the notion that savage force will solve the problem unpicked.
 
 
Liberals, as well as India’s right, have long shied away from the horrific human costs of the country’s many insurgencies and small wars. Police and the armed forces have engaged in combat under a criminal law framework neither designed for, nor capable of, meeting the challenge. Such wilful blindness encourages hypocrisy, allowing governments to pretend that the rule of law is being preserved when it is not: Torture, wrongful arrest and savagery against communities is well-documented in proceedings before the courts. For the most part, India’s counter-insurgency forces remain under-trained, under-resourced and underpaid — all things which incentivise the use of force as the sole instrument to enforce order.
 
 
Though it sits ill with India’s self-image, barbarism has been as much part of counter-insurgency as the more advertised “hearts and minds” strategy: From the bombing of Aizawl by the air force in 1966, the burning of hundreds of homes in Sopore in 1993, or the destruction of villages in the Northeast and Bastar, there is a long record of evil.
 
 
Like Singh, many soldiers and police officers have come to rely on their moral intuitions to guide them through a world which institutions and the law so patently fail to address. Thus, Singh asserts, in words few might dispute, “There is a time and place to be polite and courteous, and a time and place for aggression and retaliation”. Moral intuition, though, isn’t as common sense as it seems. Take a thought-experiment well-known to philosophy undergraduates: The brakes on an amusement park ride full of little children fail. The only way to stop is by pushing a bystander onto the tracks. Perhaps many agree it is fair to kill one person to save many — but what if the man was to invent a medicine that would save millions, and one of the children were to grow into Adolf Hitler?
 
 
There is similarly the question of the consequences of tying a man to a jeep, who may or may not be a member of a stone-pelting mob, and driving him down the road.
 
 
Military history holds out some lessons for us to think about: There is a reason, after all, that our laws mandate the measured, proportionate response to threat that Singh scorns as the gentleman’s way.
 
 
Imperial Britain, we know, thought that force would work. Following a Mau Mau ambush at Kandara in 1954, in the heart of Fort Hall District, the historian Caroline Elkin has recorded in her masterwork Imperial Reckoning, local residents were stripped naked and beaten; others were shot. The dead were buried under the main road, and it was tarmacked over again. For months after, blood kept oozing out. In the end, though, despite hundreds of thousands dead, mass castrations and rapes, and the depopulation of the Kikuyu reserves, Britain had to leave Kenya a generation earlier than planned.
 
 
The idea of bludgeoning adversaries into submission is a seductive one — but has unintended consequences, and disastrous outcomes. The Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, which involved devastating the countryside, is one example, but there are others. A little more than a decade ago, the United States’ campaign against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah led to the levelling of between two-fifths and a third of the city’s buildings, and the death of over 1,000 civilians. The consequence of the Iraq war’s savagery is the obscenity we call the Islamic State.
 
 
From the work of scholars like Ivan Arreguin-Toft, we also know this: Asymmetrical wars and insurgencies are increasingly ending in grim stalemates, precisely because of the cult-like military veneration of force. From 1800-1842, states decisively won 88.2 per cent of wars; in 1950-1998, that figure had come down to 45 per cent.
 
 
Barbarism is an excellent tool for punishing enemy populations, but it rarely wins peace. India, which won the 1971 war in large part because of Pakistan’s savagery in its eastern wing, should understand this better than most. Instead, states need to learn to fight wars with a far lighter military footprint, integrate their coercive institutions with those of investigation and justice, and, critically, develop tools to address the political contexts in which insurgencies thrive.
 
 
The stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, facing incensed Roman legionnaires in 69 AD, stood to counsel them against rash acts that would lead to civil war. He was saved, the historian Cornelius Tacitus tells us, because he “listened to the warnings of the quieter soldiers and the threats of the others, and gave up his untimely wisdom”. Rome went down the road to destruction.
 
 
In times of war, to borrow the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s evocative phrase, only the dead can smile. There is no doubt that India needs a calm, sensible debate on its small wars and insurgencies, that addresses its institutional deficiencies and anaemic capacities.
 
 
Amarinder Singh’s iron fist might desolate Kashmir, but it will also lead India to certain defeat.
 
Indian Express, May 25, 2017
 
 
 
 
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