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Nagaland or Kashmir, More 'Kills' Shouldn't Be the Forces' Goal

The objective of forces in areas of insurgency must be to capture & prosecute suspects, not primarily to kill them.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Coffins ofcivilians who were killed in Nagaland.&nbsp;</p></div>
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Why should the primary objective of the armed forces in areas of insurgency be to kill rather than capture and prosecute those identified as terrorists? That’s the question we should be asking – and asking vigorously – in the wake of the tragic killing of innocent civilians in Nagaland.

Early on, the argument used to be that terrorists got killed in firefights because it was tough to capture them in the heat of battle. But we’ve reached a stage now when it is taken for granted that the outright objective is to go in with guns blazing.

The miners who were killed in Nagaland on Saturday were unarmed and posed no immediate threat to anyone. Yet, they were gunned down mercilessly.

Such operations sometimes give the impression of being like a medieval hunt for wild animals. It’s about killing, rather than capturing insurgents, or others who may be labelled as terrorists, in order to prove their guilt in a court of law.

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Need to Fix the Justice System

One argument that officers in charge of counter-terrorism operations often give is that convicting captured terrorists is tough, since the legal system is time-consuming, complicated, and, at times, compromised.

Their implication sometimes is that judges who live in areas of insurgency may fear for their or their families’ security if they convict a terrorist. The irony is that it is the job of those very officers to ensure the safety and security of judges and their families. It’s a cop-out to say they can’t do it – pun not intended.

In fact, that sounds to me like an argument about the need to fix the justice system, to make it swifter and safer.

Draconian Laws

That sort of argument also ignores the fact that specific terror laws are so draconian that it isn’t even possible for most of those charged under those laws to get bail.

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), like its predecessors, is applicable all over the country, and can now be prosecuted by the centrally-run NIA. Then, there are such laws as the infamous Public Safety Act (PSA) in places like Jammu and Kashmir. Under it, anyone can be locked up without the case against them needing to be proved.

Incentives For More 'Kills'

The fact that no one wants to confront is that incentives have been placed across the entire apparatus of counter-insurgency to encourage what is quite blatantly called ‘kills’.

One hears in Kashmir, for instance, of one or another police officer getting several promotions over a relatively short period, because ‘he had a lot of kills’.

Those in forces that undertake a lot of counter-terrorism operations not only get out-of-turn promotions for ‘kills’ but also, in some places and some forces, special pay and perks – plus medals and citations often accompany ‘kills’.

But Positives Are Instead Mocked

I have argued for years that there should instead be incentives for officers in whose areas of operation (in an otherwise insurgent area) there are no incidents or no terrorists, or a decrease in alienation and violence.

But such positive trends are not only not rewarded, senior officers at times even deride officers whose areas remain peaceful, calling them unsuccessful, and challenging them to show more ‘kills’.

In Kashmir, there have been periods during the past 30 years when there has been a sort of competition among unit commanding officers to show more ‘kills’.

This only makes the cycle of violence turn faster – especially when, as is manifestly evident right now in Nagaland, the killing of innocents increases public anger and alienation.

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The Burhan Wani Example

I had argued when Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in 2016 that every effort should have been made to catch him alive. If that had been done, the new militancy he had helped to bring into being could have deflated and possibly collapsed.

In fact, I had said the year before he was killed that that particular militant must not be killed, since doing so would make the situation much worse. I wrote strong words a few hours after he was killed: that those involved should be sacked for incompetence or tried for treason.

I am glad that extra efforts to plead with militants in Kashmir to surrender have been mandated in the past couple of years.

Flawed Intelligence

Forces who go for ‘kills’ often act on information that a person or persons in a particular vehicle or house are terrorists. Sometimes, such information can be flawed. It could be mistaken information or given by an enemy of the target.

Wrong information could even be given by those who want to incite trouble. There are some who believe that information on where Burhan was came from across the Line of Control (LoC). This is a major threat at a time when war clouds loom.

Even if the information is initially well-founded, the intended target may have got into a different vehicle after stopping for something like a tea break, or may have left the particular house just before the anti-terrorist force arrives.

On the other hand, it is possible that some children may come to the house by chance, and could be killed if the force attacks with lethal weapons without checking, warning, and seeking surrender.

It is only when suspects open fire that the soldiers can conclude that they are indeed likely to be criminals.

Cordons and Barricades

Of course, soldiers must be protected when they challenge suspected terrorists. That is what cordons are for. Forces often set up an elaborate cordon, sometimes a double or triple cordon, before closing in on their target.

They use loudspeakers to challenge or issue instructions or ultimatums to suspects from a distance.

If suspects are mobile, their vehicle must be stopped with barricades and by deflating tyres with spikes. The force must ensure that it has barricaded the spot where it stops the vehicle well enough to prevent the suspects from escaping.

Soldiers who engage in such operations must have excellent body armour to protect them. After all, the country spends thousands of crores on equipment for counter-terrorism every year in order to ensure that forces are suitably equipped for such operations.

(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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