(By Syed Nazakat)
Jan 20, 2014:How much is a life worth? Not more than Rs.50,000, according to a few errant soldiers of 4 Rajput Regiment. That was the price they put for the lives of three Kashmiri youth, Shahzad Ahmad, 27, Riyaz Ahmad, 23, and Muhammad Shafi, 23. The trio from Nadihal village in Baramulla, some 70km north of Srinagar, did not know that they were walking into a trap when they were offered jobs as porters for the Army. They were lured by renegades, who had fixed a deal with the troops.
On April 29, 2010, they were taken to the Machil sector of the Line of Control. Next day, they were driven to the desolate woods nearby and shot dead in a staged encounter. To make sure that they could not be identified, their faces were mutilated before burying them in unmarked graves near the border. In the first information report filed subsequently, they were described as dreaded Pakistani terrorists. And, the fake encounter became a badge of bravery on paper. The killings triggered violent protests across Kashmir, claiming at least 123 civilian lives, with each new death leading to another round of protest marches and more deaths.
The Machil fake encounter raised a number of disturbing questions. What prompted the Army men to kill three innocent civilians in cold blood? Who paid the money? Were the senior military officials aware of the killings? And, more importantly, whether the regiment had conducted similar encounters in the past? As the Army announced its decision to court-martial the accused, Colonel D.K. Pathania, the then commanding officer of the regiment, Major Upinder Singh and four jawans, these questions, too, need to be answered.
“This [court-martial decision] should adequately project that when there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations, the Army will never stand in the way of justice,” said Lieutenant General (retd) Ata Hasnain, former military secretary. “The Army took immediate action, but the whole case got mired in legalities of jurisdiction of military or civil legal process, which is why it has taken so long to commence the proceedings.”
From extrajudicial killings and abductions to rape and harassment, the Army is facing a series of allegations of human rights violations. As many as 93 serving soldiers, including senior officers, have been named in FIRs related to rights violations in the last three years, according to a defence ministry statement. Most of these cases were recommended by different state governments and human rights commissions. However, the military commanders have, on most occasions, reflexively glossed over them.
The instances of abuses are not limited to Jammu and Kashmir. In 2013, the Supreme Court set up a three-judge committee, headed by retired justice Santosh Hegde, to examine a case of 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur. The committee selected six encounters and found that none of them was genuine. In one of the cases, the committee indicted Major D. Sreeram Kumar, a recipient of Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peace-time gallantry award.
There is no dearth of guidelines to ensure that human rights are not violated during counterinsurgency operations by the Army. There are strict instructions against keeping anyone under illegal custody, destroying civilian properties or humiliating locals. Yet, extrajudicial killings remain unabated.
A senior officer said these were merely aberrations. “To suggest that an aberration is the norm is to present a completely distorted picture,” he said. “Please remember that fighting insurgency is a very complex job and mistakes happen inadvertently.” He pointed out an incident in Handwara in Kashmir in 2011. Manzoor Ahmad, a 21-year-old student, walked into an ambush the Army had laid for militants. The Army had asked local people to carry lanterns at night to avoid being mistaken for militants and Manzoor was without one that fateful night. When the troops detected a movement towards the ambush site, he was asked to surrender. Manzoor, however, turned back and started to run for fear of the Army. The troops opened fire and he died on the spot. The Army expressed regret and said it was a case of mistaken identity. No one was punished for the killing.
Between 1993 and 2013, the Army’s human rights cell investigated 1,394 allegations of human rights violations in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. Of these, only 54 cases, it claimed, were supported by facts and evidence. Consequently, 124 personnel, including 39 officers, were punished. However, the Army has not given a detailed breakdown of the courts-martial cases. Neither has it shared details about the large number of cases which it has outrightly dismissed as false and baseless.
“The Army should be more transparent in its approach in dealing with human rights cases,” said Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta. “The actions of one rogue military personnel demean the sacrifices of those who put their lives at risk to defend the nation.” He said the root cause for the fake encounters was the reckless temptation of a few to win rewards and promotions. “We need to discourage this trend of rewarding a unit or a battalion on the basis of the number of terrorists it has killed. There should be other ways to judge the performance of the soldiers,” he said.
M.M. Ansari, who was the Union home ministry’s interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir, said there was no transparency over how the Army investigated cases in insurgency-hit areas. “Many complaints have been described as false by the Army without disclosing details of the inquiries,” he said. “That reflects a culture of impunity.”
There are also cases like the Pathribal killings of 2000 that received prominent national attention, but yet remain unresolved. Five days after 36 Sikhs were killed by unidentified gunmen at Chattisinghpora in south Kashmir on the eve of President Clinton’s visit to India, the J&K Police and the Army, in a joint operation, killed five men in Pathribal village on March 25, claiming that they were the foreign terrorists responsible for the massacre. Soon, it turned out that the slain five were civilians, who had been picked from different areas and then killed in a staged encounter. The CBI’s investigation found that it was a cold-blooded murder and the accused officials were guilty. However, the families of the victims are still awaiting justice even as Brigadier Ajay Saxena, who was identified as the key accused by the CBI, was promoted to the rank of major general.
Christof Heyns, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who visited India in 2012, observed that most extrajudicial killings fitted a common pattern. In a majority of the cases, the victims were killed after they were picked up by security forces. In one such case, the Dimapur-based 3 Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit was accused of killing three people in a fake encounter. The whistleblower in this case was Major Ravi Kumar of the same unit, who said the victims were brought to the officers’ mess and later killed in a fake encounter. The Army, however, said the allegations were “found to be devoid of merit and were not substantiated”.
In 2012, the same unit was accused of a botched intelligence operation in Jorhat, Assam. Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag, who headed the unit, was subsequently slapped with a discipline and vigilance ban by General V.K. Singh, who was the Army chief. After General Bikram Singh became the chief, the ban was lifted and Suhag was promoted to head the Eastern Army Command. On January 1, 2014, General Suhag took over as vice-chief of Army staff, making him the most likely successor of General Bikram Singh.
General Hasnain said the Army had tried to identify all symbols of aggression and provocation and dilute them as much as possible, besides attempting to train all ranks in cultural sensitivity. “The lessons from these efforts have been codified and are being more extensively studied and taught at the Army War College, Mhow,” he said. “We need to conduct operations with size of force commensurate to the task. Overkill fetches us no dividends.”
Ten Commandments of the Army chief for troops in counterinsurgency operations
* No rape
* No molestation
* No torture resulting in death or maiming
* No military disgrace
* No meddling in civil administration
* Competence in platoon/ company-level tactics in counterinsurgency operations
* Willingly carry out civic actions with innovations
* Use media as a force-multiplier
* Respect human rights
* Only fear God, uphold dharma and enjoy serving the country
Cause for concern
* The Army’s human rights cell investigated 1,394 cases of human rights abuses in the northeast and J&K between 1993 and 2013
* 1,340 cases were dismissed as false
* 124 personnel, including 39 officers, were punished