It is ironic that those who fired in self-defence, according to the law of the nation, are being charged for murder. Soldiers cannot be murderers, writes Brig Anil Gupta for South Asia Monitor
By Brig Anil Gupta (retd)
The incident at Shopian and its fallout has again foregrounded the question of local politics taking precedence over the freedom of security forces, particularly the Army, to conduct anti-terrorist operations in Kashmir.
With the situation improving in the Valley after successful conduct of "Operation All Out” by the security forces, the government was preparing to hold local body (panchayat) elections. The Hurriyat and their handlers in Pakistan sensed a return of peace and grassroots democracy in the trouble-torn state, which threatened failure of their agenda to continue their so-called freedom struggle.
The successful conduct of the Republic Day Parade on 26 January, despite the Hurriyat and terrorists’ call for a boycott, sent shock waves across the separatist camp and their mentors. It became vital for the anti-national forces to derail the election process and place security forces on the back foot.
South Kashmir - a den of terrorism and the turf of the Jamaat- was chosen as the venue. The players were available from the recently released stone-pelters - beneficiaries of the amnesty scheme offered by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Stone-pelters with radicalised minds were allowed to join the mainstream without any effort to de-radicalise them or enhance their skills.
A convoy of an army unit transiting through the Shopian area was ambushed by 100-200 stone pelters and subjected to heavy stone throwing. The mob soon grew to near 300, resulting in grievous injury to a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) leading the convoy and injuries to 7-8 other soldiers. The mob also attempted to set the vehicles on fire. The troops reacted in self-defence, resulting in the death of two stone-pelters. The conspirators aimed to demand postponement of panchayat elections and malign the Army.
Non-condemnation of the stone pelters and the violence perpetrated by them even by the state’s chief minister was astonishing. The Shopian incident was a pre-planned act planned and executed by forces inimical to return of peace and grassroots democracy. Kashmir’s political leadership, irrespective of their parties, lost no time in converting it into a political issue and continued their tirade against the Indian Army which is operating against many odds in the Valley.
Kashmiri leaders are blaming the Army and not the stone throwers, without the benefit of a proper inquiry. The Hurriyat even gave a call for a Kashmir Bandh (closure). The demand to revoke AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) grew louder. The demand is politically motivated and far from ground realities. The Chief of Army Staff has set to rest such demands and said “time has not come to re-think on AFSPA.”
The Army cannot operate in a hostile environment with hands tied to its back. In the past two decades whenever the terrorists are under pressure, suffer huge losses and are driven on the back foot, their sympathisers seek the removal of AFSPA, to put pressure on the Armed Forces.
A FIR has been launched against the unit. The Supreme Court had ruled a year ago that lodging of FIR would be mandatory in case of loss of civilian lives resulting from Army operations. An officer named in the FIR was not even present on the scene! The FIR has been lodged for ‘murder’ and ‘attempt to murder’! It is ironic that those who fired in self-defence, according to the law of the nation, are being charged for murder.
How can soldiers be murderers? What message is the police trying to convey or is it acting at the behest of the political masters? It would be dangerous and harmful for national security and would encourage separatists. The statement that such FIRs do not affect the soldiers’ morale is as flawed as the policy of amnesty to stone pelters and Mehbooba Mufti needs to revisit both soon, before they become dangerous.
A mid-course review is needed by the Home Ministry to examine if the government has conceded too much in too short a time in an effort to find a long-lasting solution to the trouble in Kashmir. To get the Hurriyat to talk to the government’s Special Representative, one hopes that the noose tightened by the NIA is not loosened!
It is the responsibility of the executive to ensure that the morale of soldiers is not affected by judicial activism. The security forces need to be provided a level playing field while combating cross-border jihadi ideological terror. If required, the government should bring in legislation giving soldiers immunity from FIRs while performing bona fide military duty in anti-terror operations.
There is a difference between a civilian at home and a civilian who forms part of a stone-pelting mob and tries to lynch soldiers on duty or set on fire government property.
A leaf can be drawn from the UK which has acted to exempt its troops from human rights convention. Prime Minister Theresa May announced that human rights laws will be suspended on the battlefield after Britain pulled out of European Union human rights conventions. Accordingly, British soldiers will not be accountable for human rights abuses during conflicts and lawyers cannot sue soldiers with "vexatious" claims.
A soldier is taught ‘to do what you are supposed to do – your duty- and leave the rest.’ A soldier’s 'dharma' (duty) is to kill the enemy and win. How can he be termed a ‘murderer’ when he is performing his duty of defending his colleagues from stone-pelting hooligans?
(The author is a Jammu-based strategic analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)