Indian Army's use of human shields dehumanises locals and dishonours tradition

When one reads the history of the surrender of Pakistani forces at the Dhaka Race Course in 1971 one remarkable thing comes to mind. As soon as the Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora received the Instrument of Surrender from the Pakistani Lieutenant-General AAK Niazi, the crowd at the race course began making attempts to lynch AAK Niazi and for good reason.

A screenshot of the video of Army using a man as a human shield in Kashmir. Image courtesy: YouTube

A screenshot from the video of Army using a man as a human shield in Kashmir. Image courtesy: YouTube

Pakistan had been responsible for some of the worst human rights atrocities in Bangladesh during the war. However, the Indian army formed a cordon around him and escorted him safely out of the race course. The Indian Army further ensured the safety of every Pakistani prisoner of war and made sure everyone was repatriated in accordance with international law.

This brings to mind another incident; during the IPKF operation in Sri Lanka when Major General Harkirat Singh received an instruction from the Indian High Commission in Colombo to eliminate LTTE Commander Parbhakaran during the flag meeting of the IPKF. Major General Harkirat Singh refused to follow this order citing the fact that the Indian Army was an orthodox army that did not shoot people in the back when they came for flag meetings.

From back then we come to today, where we have an image of an Indian citizen strapped to an Indian Army vehicle as a human shield. The use of human shields is a war crime under the norms of customary international law and is also unbecoming of a professionally trained force.

No matter what the circumstances are, the Indian Army cannot resort to committing a war crime in the furtherance of a military objective. The soldiers clearly understand this which is why the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, assured the J&K chief minister of timely action against those responsible for the incident even though the central government has for reasons, best known to its electoral propaganda machine, has decided to stand behind the offending soldiers.

Here is why the use of human shields becomes problematic. In Kashmir, the Army has a responsibility to not just ensure the safety of one set of people it was trying to protect but to also ensure the security and safety of the man who was tied on to that jeep. By using him as a human shield, the unit essentially abdicated a part of its responsibility to protect all Indian citizens in Kashmir and officially pushed forward the narrative that the Indian Army was in the Valley to subdue the local population instead of working with them to quell the violence.

Stone-pelters, once in Army custody, become prisoners who have to be treated in accordance with law, therefore, soldiers have to ensure their safety even at the risk of their own lives. By choosing to use human shields, the unit dehumanised members of the local population and also brought great dishonour to a trained fighting force whose history of tradition and valour go back more than a century.

Even if the person strapped to the jeep was a stone-pelter and an enemy of India, Indian soldiers should not wilfully place an unarmed person in harm's way in order to secure themselves. What if someone had thrown stones at this person and the person had died? It would have been a wilful killing by the unit of the most grotesque kind. The employment of human shields during the time of war has been declared a crime for this very reason.

Armies are supposed to fight each other while protecting civilians and when the armed forces are deployed to essentially do riot control, as they are currently doing in Kashmir, sacrificing one set of civilians in the name of alleged protection is not the way to do it. To argue that this was the reason is a false argument at best. If the Army has been pushed to a situation where this has been done, then it means that we have failed militarily in Kashmir and we need to re-evaluate our entire military strategy in that region. Even the United States while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi insurgents have never had to resort to using human shields and those situations are far more volatile than those in Kashmir; the enemy there is far more organised and far better armed.

The behaviour of the unit was disgraceful and not in line with the best traditions of a professionally trained army. If we use the argument that circumstances could justify the breaking of the war law, then tomorrow we can justify all sins— the use of chemical weapons as a means of riot control or even the use of internment camps and other atrocities that the civilised world has abandoned forever.

The battle in Kashmir is as much a moral battle as it is a military and political one and the act of an Indian citizen strapped to an Army vehicle is like committing a moral suicide. The soldiers responsible need to be court-martialled and be given a dishonourable discharge at the least. As a nation we must be thankful that the gentleman on the jeep is still alive; had he been dead, the stain on our collective national conscience would be far worse.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 15:04:32 IST

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