Only when the ‘human shield’ incident became public, the explanations began coming in. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)
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Gen Panag Exclusive: ‘Criticism is Needed in Order to Reform Army’

A shocking video of a Kashmiri youth being tied to the bonnet of an Army jeep has come out in the public domain. This is the first such on-record and on-video incident of the Indian Army since 1947. There have been allegations, yes, but they have either been denied or not enough proof has been produced.

So far, the circumstances under which this has happened are not clear. Newspapers are going by “as per reports" – and even the Army has not issued an official statement yet.

The reports indicated that stone-pelting had "spun out of control” in Budgam on repolling day, following which the Army unit – 53 Rashtriya Rifles – took a call to use a ‘human shield’ to protect a five-vehicle army convoy, carrying 12 poll officials.

Apparently, the man was tied to the jeep, and announcements were made on loudspeakers declaring that stone-pelters would meet the same fate.

The Army’s message is very clear, but the circumstances are not.

At the same time, I'm sure more videos will emerge. After all, everyone is recording everything in Jammu and Kashmir.

How the Army Could Have Acted

Let’s assume that the version that the officer has given out is correct. He claims that the man was tied to the jeep to protect the convoy from stone pelting mobs.

The incident took place on 9 April. The moment it occurred, the officer – who was senior enough to immediately offer an explanation after the video was made public – should have informed his superiors.

Instead, only when the incident became public, these explanations began pouring in. Perhaps, these were really the circumstances, we don't know yet. But had it been explained by the Army spokesperson on the day of the incident itself, this issue would not have arisen.

What the Indian Army's Own Rules Say

While the Geneva Convention applies only to war, various United Nations conventions which have followed the Geneva Convention – and which is generally understood by nations – also apply to all conflict situations.

The Indian Army's own rules and regulations, drawn by the Chief of Army Staff for it to operate in J&K, clearly lay down that such a thing should not be done and under no circumstances should human rights be violated.

This is a criminal offence and can be tried under the Army Act, Section 69. The Section includes holding a person hostage, holding them under confinement and threat, or pushing them towards danger deliberately.

We're Winning the Military War, but Losing the Political War

At the moment, the dividing line between terrorists and the general public in Kashmir has become blurred. After mass protests and stone throwing incidents, there's a general feeling among the Indian public that they are the same.

The Indian Army has not lost a counter-insurgency campaign yet – because we have played by the rules.

Both the State and the terrorists always target the population. They want the population to side with them because the population generally wants peace and stability.

But what has happened in the last five years is that the terrorists are winning the political battle, even if they are losing the military battle. All the people are now siding with the terrorists.

The State has won the military battle, but politically we have failed.

What Is the Road Ahead?

There has been increased media coverage of the situation in the Valley. But we have faced worse times and overcome it too.

During the insurgency in 1989-91, when the army used to move out, women and children used to lie down on the streets to prevent us from moving. Not a leaf used to move in Srinagar, the situation was such.

The situation today is not so bad that it cannot be retrieved. In my view,

  • We have won the battle militarily
  • There are very few terrorists left
  • For the first time, the number of Pakistani terrorists has gone down to sub-critical levels
  • The inflow of arms and ammunition has depleted
  • Counter-infiltration is good but can be better

Even at this stage, a political move forward can create a situation which will become conducive for more formal negotiations.

In 2003, for example, we saw one of our worst years. Around 1,800 to 2,000 terrorists were killed that year, and we lost 400-500 soldiers.

A ceasefire was declared and by 2010, the number of terrorists killed annually came down from 2,000 to about 30.

Even today a path-breaking political initiative can create conducive conditions for proper negotiations.

Social Media and Nationalism

There has been increasing talks of nationalism (bordering on jingoism) on social media and private WhatsApp groups, even among ex-servicemen. I'm not surprised at all.

In the last few years, the whole issue of nationalism has been brought to the fore. The army as an institution has been accorded a halo – that it can do nothing wrong and nobody should criticise it. This is the worst that could happen to an army. It prevents the army from undertaking reforms which are always necessary for the betterment of any organisation.

Extreme nationalism is a popular rhetoric and is the general feeling amongst people. When an atmosphere of this kind is created, this is bound to happen.

The clamour on social media is to "crackdown" or take action against ‘anti-nationals’. If that be so, and if this is what the politicians feel, then what are they waiting for?

The truth is, a sensible, stable government like ours will never do something as silly as a "crackdown" on mass agitators and the public.

The worst thing that a government can do is use an iron fist. Firmness is key, yes. Force as per law is important, yes. But it must be backed by political good will.

I won’t however blame it on the government. What has changed is the flavour of public discourse.

Coming back to the ‘human shield’ incident – it is something to be worried about. The image of the army is important to me and the fate of Kashmir is really important for all of us.

If this action is going to be supported, if there's no action or clarification, then I'm afraid we're going downhill and we will reach a point of no return.

(As told to Jaskirat Singh Bawa. Retired Lieutenant General HS Panag has served in the Indian Army for over 40 years and was also the GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command.)

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