The Nation And The Soldier
24 December, 2014
During his recent election campaign in Kashmir, Prime Minister Modi said, “This is the wonder of Modi sarkar. The Army has registered a case against their own men. This is the proof of my good intentions before you.” He was referring to the announcement of the army personnel court-martialled in the Machhil encounter case of 2010. In characteristic self-certification mode, PM Modi credited himself with the court-martial and implied that the army had not until that time, punished army men who had been charged with crimes committed during counter-insurgency (CI) operations conducted under AFSPA. The public including Kashmiris may choose to believe Mr.Modi's verbal political stunt, but he is far from fooling army personnel who, on the contrary view his words as untruths at best, but mostly as a taunt or insult.
After PM Modi's outright insult to the Indian Army during his election campaign speech in Kashmir, one soldier was heard reflecting the general mood: “Saala, I don't care for AFSPA-shafspa. After this, one thing is clear to me. When the paltan goes to the valley, I am not going to stick my neck out for anything. Let the militants kill as many people as they want, and escape. At least that way there won't be any risk, either of getting killed, or killing someone, getting court martialled and going to jail.” The colourful language has been excluded, but the words convey the ominous ramifications, on which more later.
Even more worrying is the post on WhatsApp social media by an as-yet unidentified junior army officer who says in effect that they “are caught between senior officers’ demands to 'deliver results', i.e. to kill militants; while at the same time uphold the human rights of locals, most of whom sympathise with militants, if not actively support them”. [Ref.1].
Ground and legal realities
Soldiers are exposed to risk of attack because they are easily identifiable by their uniform, but the attacker is not known until he actually attacks, and sometimes even after he attacks and inflicts casualties. Often enough, a militant dressed in a burkha and hiding his weapon, attacks and disappears into the crowd. Thus the soldier deployed in CI operations is always emotionally keyed-up because of the ever-present risk of any kind of attack (rifle fire, grenade, etc.) from any direction at any time. In this stress-loaded circumstance which repeats day after day for months on end, he may misjudge a situation and open fire. It is his military training and discipline which has kept mistaken firing to a minimum. But alarm-panic or anger, both very human emotions, at his comrade being killed can cause a soldier to fire unthinkingly, causing unintended deaths and injuries among civilians. This is not to justify such acts but to point to mitigating circumstances for errors committed during the course of duty, for after all, a soldier is also human. Such errors of course deserve thorough inquiry and appropriate disciplinary action, but with due consideration of extenuating circumstances under which firing took place. This is the circumstance to which the young officer quoted above was referring.
The young officer's post on social media also bitterly says: “We ought to accept such mistakes when we deploy the army for restoration of the situation. Everyone must understand the real purpose of AFSPA. It is meant to cover unintentional mistakes made by soldiers in the course of the performance of their duty.” The WhatsApp message strongly reflects the soldiers’ viewpoint that they are doing a thankless job for military seniors, political leaders and a public that neither understands nor sympathises with the army.
However, there can be no mitigating circumstances for serious crimes such as rape and murder, which are termed “civil offences” according to the Army Act, 1950. Though admittedly there are inevitable slippages and cover-ups in the system as in any system, soldiers are prosecuted under military law, because the legal position demands such due process, and more importantly because military ethos demands that a soldier committing crime must be punished since he cannot be a reliable member of a battle-effective team.
The soldier and the public
The general public and the political-bureaucratic-media community are mostly under the misapprehension that AFSPA enables soldiers on CI duties to commit crimes. They are unaware that soldiers cannot legally operate in the CI role without the authority of AFSPA. [Ref.2]. And that brings us back to the soldier who was quoted earlier. He is doing a risky, tough and thankless job, only because an incompetent civil administration has called him in as a last-resort measure. Even the simple jawan is well aware that if the army fails when called “in aid of the civil power” as envisaged in the Constitution of India, government has no further recourse, since it has called out the army because the bureaucracy and police have failed to handle the situation. God will not come to the aid of the civil power – at least that cannot be the basis of governance. This may account for the poet Francis Quarles singing: “God and the soldier we alike adore // In times of danger, not before // The danger past and all conflict righted // God's forgotten, the soldier slighted.”
Consequences of not doing his duty
Reverting to the soldier quoted above, if he “does nothing” and allows militants to kill and escape, and he only ensures that he and his team escapes attack, he is liable to be disciplined by his own officers for not carrying out his assigned duties and specific orders, for those are the compulsions of military service under the Army Act. If he feigns sickness or inflicts an injury upon himself to avoid active duties, or refuses to eat prepared rations, he becomes liable for disciplinary action under military law. He cannot demand leave because leave is an entitlement for which a soldier can only apply, while granting leave is the prerogative of his officer depending upon the operational commitment and the manpower state at any given time. Likewise, the Army Act specifically denies the soldier freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of communicating to the media, and in default, strong and rapid disciplinary action according to military law.
All this is unknown to most civilians, and incomprehensible to those who know, because it is undeniably harsh. But this is the reality of military service. It cannot but be otherwise, else we may have soldiers and officers backing out of hard service and risky duties, thereby denying the nation its measure of last resort. Thus, while the soldier may say that he “will not stick [his] neck out”, he knows very well that he will be between a rock and a hard place, between his superior officer who expects and orders him to do his duty – as he has done for example in the Kargil operations in 1999 – and unforeseen attacks from the militants.
Government and the soldier
Already the soldier (the term includes all ranks of the army, navy and air force) is fully aware of the dismissive attitude, often even scorn and hostility, with which governments (the term includes the politician-bureaucrat-police nexus of central and state governments) view and treat serving soldiers and Veterans. He is also angry or disappointed with his senior officers who have not placed the problems and hazards of service strongly and squarely before government.
On the other hand, governments are yet to understand the hard fact that the combination of their mis-governance, mal-governance and non-governance which causes social unrest and law & order situations, is routinely being compensated by the soldier who is the measure of last resort to bail them out of difficult situations. Also sadly not understood is the fact that having the soldier perform CI duties continuously over decades has not only not solved problems caused by sustained political insufficiency which cry out for political solutions, but exacerbated them and also adversely affected civil-military relations so essential for national security. The combination of government's anti-Veteran actions and policies (for example, the policies and actions of the Department of Ex-Servicemen's Welfare under the Ministry of Defence) with growing dissatisfaction of serving soldiers is a veritable ticking bomb.
PM Modi would do well to address the problem of national security with out-of-the-box thinking, guided by some important focus points. One, improve civil-military relations by fairly addressing the problems of serving soldiers and Veterans, and inducing bureaucrats to understand that their present attitude towards soldiers and Veterans is seriously detrimental to national security. Two, national security is a function of both internal and external security. Internal security may be handled by a bureaucrat or police officer, but these cadres are not capable of adequately handling external security, as a Defence Services officer can. Thus, as Chairman of the National Security Council, PM Modi would do well to create the post of National Security Advisor (External Security) to be held by a Defence Services officer, and rename the present NSA as NSA (Internal Security) of equal status. This will give the Defence Services equal and productive status in the best interests of national security. Three, continuous deployment of the army for decades in India's north-east and Kashmir has caused severe withering of the democratic political structure. The collapsed political structure in terms of People's confidence in governments must be very urgently rehabilitated. How precisely this is to be done is outside the scope of the present article and outside the capability of the present writer, who can only go as far as to indicate what is wrong.
Reverting to the young officer's fulminations on WhatsApp by communicating to the media, he is liable for disciplinary action. However, one hopes that the disciplinary action taken – and it must be taken in the interest of the Service – will be tempered by the mitigating fact that he has spoken at the end of his tether what is widely felt but cannot be expressed. His communication should serve the purpose of making institutional changes and encouraging senior army officers to speak frankly to government without the sort of equivocation and circumspection that has been used hitherto.
It is pertinent to emphasize that the disgruntled soldier who knows that he is the last-resort instrument of governance, must not and cannot be treated as at present, without grave risk to the sovereignty, integrity and stability of the Republic of India.
1. Ajay Shukla; “Young army officers blame commanders for Uri debacle on social media”; Business Standard, December 7, 2014; http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/young-officers-blame-commanders-for-uri-debacle-on-social-media-114120600897_1.html
2. S.G.Vombatkere; “AFSPA: Misconceptions and Ground Realities”; Defence Watch, Dehra Dun, Vol XII No 8, April 2013, pp.12-19.
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. With over 400 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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