Even War Has Limits


While the horror of barbaric incident of October 28, when militants aided by the Pakistani Army had mutilated the body of 30-year-old sepoy Mandeep Singh  is still fresh in our memory, yet in another gory instance on November 22 the body of another Indian soldier, Prabhu Singh of 57 Rashtriya Rifles,  was found in savagely mutilated state in Machhil sector along the Line of Control (LoC)  in Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir, triggering collective outrage and anger across the country.

The current cowardly act of mutilation of the body of our soldier is not a one-off case of Pakistan’s cold-blooded brutality. Earlier in January 2013 the bodies of Lance-Naiks Hemraj and Sudhakar Singh of the 13 Rajputana Rifles were found in a horribly mutilated state in the Mendhar sector of the valley. In a similar incident in July 2011 the Pakistani Border Action Team after striking a remote Indian army post in Gugaldhar ridge in Kupwara had taken back the heads of Havildar Jaipal Singh Adhikari and Lance Naik Devender Singh of 20 Kumaon Regiment. According to media reports the Indian Army had recovered a video clip from a Pakistani militant who was killed in an encounter while trying to cross the border, showing some jihadis and members of Pakistani Army dancing around the severed heads of Adhikari and Singh displayed on raised platform.

The brutality committed by Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil War of 1999 is well known when Captain Saurabh Kalia and his sepoys Arjunram Baswana, Mula Ram Bidiasar, Naresh Singh Sinsinwar, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria and Bhika Ram Mudh of 4 Jat Regiment were tortured to death. Their ears, nose lips, limbs and genitals had been chopped off and their skulls had been cracked open and they had been burnt with cigarette buds.

In August 2011 Pakistan had also complained that three of its soldiers were beheaded by Indian troops in a raid on a post in the Sharda sector in Kel. This has been confirmed in a recent media report claiming that the Indian Army in a retaliatory strike known as Operation Ginger had allegedly chopped off the heads of three dead Pakistani soldiers. A similar complaint was lodged by Pakistan in June 2008 alleging that Indian soldiers beheaded one of its troops and carried his head across the LoC in the Bhattal sector in Poonch. Earlier, in 2003  Pakistan charged Indian troops with killing and decapitating one of its soldiers and carrying his head off as a trophy, in a raid in Baroh sector. These acts on the part of the Indian Army, if confirmed, are also equally grave and patently illegal which can’t be justified even as a retribution for similar acts.

The mutilation of dead bodies during armed conflicts is not only inhuman and defies the minimum standards of human decency expected to be followed by a disciplined and professional soldier but also a grave violation of  international humanitarian law amounting to war crime. The old maxim that “all is fair in love and war” represents only half truth. It is no longer correct at least so far as the “war” is concerned. There is a whole body of law known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which stipulates that “Parties to a conflict and members of their armed forces do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare”. It is prohibited even to employ methods or means of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Any soldier or civilian who falls into the power of an adverse party is entitled to respect for his life and dignity. Though the laws regulating the war accept that the death is an inherent part of war, they also recognise that the care and respect of the living holds greater priority.

IHL contains elaborate set of rules concerning the treatment of the dead during the armed conflicts the most prominent being safeguarding the personal dignity of the deceased. Parties to an armed conflict are under an obligation to search for the dead ‘without adverse distinction’ as it is necessary for returning the remains or providing a decent burial. Where possible, the burial or cremation is to be done in accordance with the religious rites of the deceased. According to customary IHL the mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited. There is not only prohibition on mistreatment of the dead but it is also prohibited to despoil or pillage the dead. The acts of abusing the dead amount to war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as such acts are covered by the war crime of “committing outrages upon personal dignity”.

The Military Manuals of many countries such as France, Germany, Israel, United Kingdom and United States etc. also prohibit the mutilation or other maltreatment of the dead. The U.S. General Military Government Court in Schmid Case held that the mutilation of the dead body of a prisoner of war and refusal of an honourable burial amounted to a war crime. In 1967 during the Vietnam War a U.S. Army sergeant, who had posed for a photograph holding the decapitated heads of two enemy corpses, was court-martialed and convicted of “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

Though both India and Pakistan are not parties to Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions and the Statute of the International Criminal Court they are still bound by the customary principles of IHL concerning treatment of the dead. They should realise that the respect and compliance to the conventional and customary IHL pertaining to the dead is not only a legal duty but also in their mutual interest. Such restraints help boost their image as a responsible state committed to ethics of war in all circumstances. Furthermore, respect for such humanitarian restraints forms the basis of a professional disciplined army. History is witness to the fact that whenever soldiers had been given free hand to kill, destroy indiscriminately or committing act of savagery against the enemy, they are more prone to defy political leadership and to act ruthlessly against their own people. Additionally the violations of laws of armed conflicts also causes grave threat to international peace and security providing lame excuses to many for armed interventions.


  • The writer is a Professor of Political Science at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh and has authored a book on International Humanitarian Law.


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