Chattergam incident – a proof that Kashmir is highly militarised!
Rollback the dreaded AFSPA
Send the troops to borders
Punish the army men who shot down two children
Army’s top commander in Northern region Lt Gen B S Hooda did something unusual on November 7. Accepting it as a mistake, he owned the responsibility for killing two unarmed teenagers by his soldiers on November 3 near Srinagar. After the initial gaffe’, the Army for the first time realized that covering this brutal act under the ready-made excuse of militant’s “first opening fire” would not help. Before Hooda, the Srinagar based Commander of 15 Corps Lt Gen Subrata Saha too had admitted that the rules of engagement were not followed by the troops of 53 Rastriya Rifles (a counter insurgency wing carved out of Army) when they showered bullets on four young men. This surely does not compensate the loss and is not going to neutralize the tempers that are still running high over this incident.
However, this is for the first time the Army has publicly acknowledged the wrong done by its men on the ground. In the past the theories of cross fire and militant attacks would be used as a cover up. This time Gen Hooda has also promised that the trial would be speedy and “justice will be done”. This remains to be seen whether the Army Commander keeps his promise to deliver the justice. The kin of two innocent boys have turned down the relief offer of Rs 10 lakh, thus standing tall in this hour of tragedy.
Here the question is not of Army’s public acknowledgement that its men did the wrong. It is also not known that which way the trial would move. In the past it has been seen that Army courts have failed in instilling confidence among the people as far as punishing the soldiers is concerned. The incident in Chattergam (in central Budgam district of Kashmir) should not been seen in isolation but in the larger backdrop of a place that is highly militarized. The numbers vary between the separatist camp and the security establishment. Whether the separatist figure that more than 7 lakh troops are on the ground is correct or the “conservative estimate” of officials putting it at less than 5 lakh (including all forces), does not make much difference. It is actually the visibility of the troops, their conduct and the mechanism of delivering justice on the ground that matters more.
The controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that the outgoing Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had assured would go “during my tenure” has worked as a strong tool to infuse confidence among the troops on the ground to do whatever they want.
Army’s top officials do admit in private that the wrongs done by their men on the ground do not fit in their rules of engagement. And even the incumbent Corps Commander Lt Gen Subrata Saha admitted that publicly. But when it comes to the AFSPA it is like a raw nerve for them. What the troops of Rashtriya Rifles did on November 3 is the direct result of unaccountability that the system has strengthened over a period of time. Getting immune with the unbridled powers to shoot even in suspicion has made them trigger-happy. These powers are continued even when by their (government) own admission the number of militants in Jammu and Kashmir was not more than 200. And these powers were brought when the number of active militants in Kashmir ran in thousands. The parametres of normalcy, again according to government figures have undergone a drastic change. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressing at Police Commemoration day function on October 21 reiterated his demand for repeal of AFSPA arguing that the militancy has seen a sharp decline of 70 to 80 percent in past few years. Then why the number of troops on the ground remains same leading to the situation like that of Chattergam.
Army’s stiff resistance to thinning out of troops and repealing AFSPA is based on the argument that no chances could be taken, as the “success against militancy” needs to be consolidated. Through Defence Ministry, the Army emerged stronger than the all-powerful Home Ministry when the then Home Minister P Chidambaram was keen to at least bring certain amendments in the law. The cabinet memo suggesting those amendments must be now gathering dust. Even if the premise that more concentrated effort is needed to prevent the rebirth of militancy is taken on its face value, then the security grid along the Line of Control needs to be strengthened rather than dominating the hinter land with olive green uniformed people. If the troops are withdrawn from populated areas and then shifted to borders to plug the infiltration routes that would help curtail the militant movement. But in that case the Army and Border Security Force may feel more accountable before its system in case everything is not plugged. In past the allegations that those guarding the borders also played role in facilitating the militant entry into Kashmir have also raised eye brows.
Since the Army has failed to respect the institution of justice, no healing would matter this time. In past the Army has put its foot down when it came to punishing the officers involved in fake encounter case of Pathribal in which five innocent civilians were killed and then labeled as “dreaded foreign militants”. Trial in Bandipore, Ganderbal and Machil fake encounters also is something that does not help it to restore its credibility. One odd case of punishing Major Rehman who was responsible for rape of women in Handwara is far less in weight to convince the people that justice would be done. Now that Gen Hooda and Gen Saha have assured that a speedy trial would be ensured, it is expected that the results are delivered in promised time frame.
Answer, however, lies in reorienting the Army and its behaviour. Withdrawal of troops coinciding with the repeal of AFSPA would make the Army normal in its conduct and help it to be less irritant on the ground. What is important is to respect the recommendations of Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission and Mohammad Hamid Ansari (current Vice President) headed Working Group on Kashmir that suggested roll back of this law. More than that the Army needs to change the glasses through which it sees every Kashmiri as a gun totting militants.(The writer is a senior journalist and former Srinagar correspondent of The Hindu)