Not unexpectedly, the statement made on Wednesday by Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Bipin Rawat, that those who “obstruct our operations” in Jammu and Kashmir (read stone-pelters) and don’t support security forces, shall be “treated as over-ground workers of terrorists” and that residents “who want to continue with terror by displaying flags” of Pakistan and Jehadi groups will be treated “as anti-nationals” and the army “will not spare them”, has run into major controversy.
The government has been cautious in endorsing General Rawat’s decision to voice sentiments that strictly speaking, fall into the realm of civilian or political jurisdiction. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, declined to reply to the question whether the comment should have been made or not, pleading “he was not there”. He, however, stated that army or other security forces were entitled to take “decision based on the situation at the local level” and that “army has a free hand for CICT (counter insurgency and counter terrorism) operations and the final decision rests with the local commander.”
The controversy has been accentuated by the fact that the statement has come on the back of General Rawat’s image of being a no-nonsense soldier, someone who superseded two colleagues because of the perception that in the government’s assessment, he was ‘tougher’ than the others. Yet, there is no denying that this hullabaloo could have been best avoided as the occasion – paying tributes to army personnel martyred in two encounters with militants in Kupwara district of north Kashmir – was solemn and not given to provoking a hostile response both on the ground and in the political arena.
Moreover, because the army chief was joined in paying homage to deceased soldiers — by coincidence as per reports — by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, if any statement that converted the sombre ritual into a matter of public debate was to be made, the right for this vested with the chief executive of the country not the head of the army. Given the sensitivity of the matter and political orientation of the ruling party, there would be obviously no public disapproval of General Rawat going public. But Parrikar’s tactic to dodge the question makes the government’s thinking evident.
The defence minister is right in stating that army and other security forces need to have the liberty to take operational decisions but can local commanders or superiors take a policy view on who constitutes a threat to internal security and which actions can be depicted those that warrant being painted as “over-ground workers or terrorists”?
The right to portray such action, which fits into the framework of unarmed violent protest, is the political leadership’s and not that of the security forces, including the army. The political leadership alone has the competence to judge which statement is appropriate to what occasion. Its authority to pronounce statements that may impact – negatively or otherwise – the ground reality in sensitive terrorist affected regions, cannot be violated any other arm of the state.
Few will raise questions, certainly not this writer, on the army’s commitment and sincerity in relentlessly pursuing anti-national forces in consonance with local police and other paramilitary forces, in Jammu and Kashmir for close to three decades.
To the best of their abilities, standard operating procedures have been followed and responses of the army have been an enabler in successive government’s securing extensive global support on its position on Kashmir. There have been issues at times on adherence to human rights in conflict situations but divergent views have been mainly on political lines. Yet, no government, especially this government too, has declared that the State believes in only a military solution.
General Rawat’s statement of intent has predictably stirred a hornet’s nest. Unfortunately, with winter thawing, when infiltration and terrorism traditionally gain momentum, there was a need for initiating nuanced dialogue and instead, the entire conflict has been once again reduced to binaries.
On the one hand, we are witness to painting the army chief’s assertion as an instance of the Army declaring virtual war against the entire people of Kashmir. Such depiction, in the Valley and outside, is aimed at turning the entire people against the state and turn sympathisers of terrorists. In the final analysis, the fallout of statement may well turn out to be counter-productive.
On the other hand, the general’s declaration cannot but be backed by the government and even by those who accept a legitimate, albeit calibrated, the role of security forces, including Army. If General Rawat is either criticised or disapproval of his statement is publicly made, it would lead to a conclusion that India is opting for a soft approach to the conflict. Besides damaging the morale of Army and other security forces, this would also be politically unacceptable to the Modi regime and its backers.
The general may have had a more nuanced view, more in conjunction with Parrikar’s view that the forces did not view “every Kashmiri on the street as a terror sympathiser” but this did not get communicated by the professional of inscrutable competence and integrity, purely because talking to the media is a tricky business. Television reporters dislike gray shades to cast every issue in black and white, not only because of choice, but because of limitations of the medium. For them, every utterance must be reduced into a binary.
This is not the last occasion that the Army chief or his colleagues have been button-holed by a battery of camera-wielding journalists. Even if no one in authority hints at indiscretion on his part, it is for the chief to draw his own lessons from this episode. He would be the best to judge if this situation could have been best avoided.