The Handwara Lies

The molestation incident in Handwara in Kashmir Valley has been the news for past few days. It was alleged without any valid proof that an army man had molested a local young girl. It was obvious from the very beginning that the story was fabricated by some locals to instigate the local people against the Army. In the ensuing protests and violence by crowds five people lost their lives when security forces were forced to open fire to control and contain the mob violence.

The girl in question was seen in a widely circulated video stating that no Army personnel were involved. Unfortunately this video was reportedly circulated by the Army and therefore its reliability was questioned straight away. Later the victim stuck to the same statement in front of a magistrate too and clearly blamed local youth for the molestation. But then in the valley this is not news that most want to hear or believe. This does not help their cause or plans to mobilise locals to protest against the Army. So in no time the falsehood about an Army man being the real culprit was spread and the mother of the girl played her part to perfection by stating the girl was coerced in to making the statement but in reality it was an Army man who was involved and not any local boy. No one sought to find out how she came to that conclusion or what proof she had in making such an accusation. It may also be prudent to note that the girl in question was in protective police custody after the incident and therefore out of reach of anyone wanting to talk to her except her parents and some police personnel. It would have been next to impossible for anyone, more so from the Army, to meet her and exert any influence on her to make any specific statement. But then in the valley facts and truth seldom prevail, rumours and planted lies pass off as truth to help the cause of anti national elements who then mobilise local support for their cause to drum up anti India sentiment. The immediate fall out of this approach is anti security forces protests by local crowds while the instigators remain behind the scenes and out of harm’s way.

In the ensuing violence, sometimes the security forces are left with no option but to resort to firing. In Handwara locals’ gheroed an Army bunker (post) with few soldiers inside and set it on fire. Despite issuing warnings when the people refused to go away the soldiers had to open fire as a last resort. Yet many local leaders and even some arm chair analysts were of the opinion that the soldiers should have shown more restraint. Try and explain this logic of restraint to a handful of soldiers in a bunker that has been set on fire and surrounded by hundreds of local Kashmiri people screaming for vengeance for a crime that the soldiers never committed. In this case it is obvious that the soldiers opened fire only once their bunker was set on fire and not earlier when the mobs were all around them. If that is not restraint then the word probably needs another meaning. The world acknowledges the restraints and use of minimum force by Indian soldiers based on their high standards of training. But unfortunately knowledgeable Indians refuse to acknowledge this highly rated trait in the Indian soldier since Army bashing seems to be in fashion, particularly in the valley. It is to the credit of the soldier that he still does not fail the nation despite such apathy from various quarters.

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Why is it that the life of a soldier is never considered worth saving even when he is put to extreme danger for no fault of his as was in this case? But the life of a local man in the valley, who has resorted to mob violence at the behest of some anti national elements for an issue that is steeped in lies, is always very precious and security forces are expected to save that life even at the cost of their own? Compensations and public facilitations invariably follow as a matter of routine for such civilians, whatever be their credentials. Such warped logic only explains the difficult and brutal conditions under which security forces operate in the valley. Rest assured if a couple of army men were killed in that bunker that was set on fire, it would not have mattered to anyone except his immediate family and his army brotherhood. Locals would have celebrated it as a victory, politicians would not have given it as a second thought and the civilian administration would have just shrugged it off and gone their way. The fact that a murder had been committed by the locals for a charge against Army personnel that never existed would never have come up for discussion or for justice in courts. After all a soldier is an expendable commodity – a common belief even among some well known politicians.

Reportedly the girl in question on 18th April stated that she agreed with her mother and that no local boys were involved. If there was any coercion this is where the case would rest since the mother and others in her family were in a position to influence and coerce her as they had full access to her while she was in protective custody. But no such insinuation was made by anyone including the media because such a story would not sell or attract eyeballs on national television. The local MLA Mr Sajid Lone on television ducked all direct questions as most politicians do and refused to acknowledge the lies and falsehood that was being spread around. But then no one expected him to put his popularity and vote bank in the region at stake for the sake of being on the side of truth. Surely it would be naive to assume that Mr Lone was unaware on the 18th April that police was on the lookout for the two young culprits since a few hours after his TV appearance one of the youth was reported to have been arrested by the local police while search was on for other one.

Frankly it is time the Army did a rethink on its role and employment in the valley. Today Army is doing more policing and enforcement of law and order than fighting terrorists. Over the years the civil administration and police have pushed the Army to the forefront for most jobs that in actual practice they should be doing. If a mob collects it should be local police and District Magistrate who should be at the site. Why should the Army have to deal with it? But by making Army posts and bunkers in the middle of the towns and civilian areas the Army has been sucked in to such duties. It can be argued whether this was by design or default but either way it is not the role of the Army. Initial control of public violence has to be left to the civilian administration. Unless called for the Army is not supposed to get involved and when it does get involved it has to be in presence of the local District Magistrate and police authorities. Unfortunately by pushing the Army in the middle of civilian areas this procedure has been short circuited and it allows the civilian administration to conveniently keep away on many occasions. This dichotomy must be corrected and Army authorities need to be firm on this issue to ensure their role is not compromised. A serious review of their deployment in urban and other public areas of the valley needs to be done on priority.

It is common knowledge that the Army is not liked in the valley. Some locals even see it as an Army of occupation. It would do the Army’s image a lot of good to disengage from routine day to day confrontation with civilians and instead use its resources for only genuine anti terrorist activities. The experiment with Rashtriya Rifles (RR) too has not been very effective since RR is nothing but an extension of the Army since all officers and some men are deputed from the army. The Army as a rule should not depute its officers and men for internal duties that are carried out by any para military force or police. If it has to carry out duties in aid of civilians, it must go in as Army and not under any other identity. This will help it to retain its individuality, high standards of operational efficiency and exploitation of the rigorous training imparted for best results. The Army top brass needs to take a firm stand on this issue and no compromise should be made in this regard. Let the civilian administration do its job instead of passing the buck to the Army most of the time.

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As far as Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is concerned, the Army needs to impress on the civilian government that intervention by the Army as part of aid to civil power is the last resort for any government. In view of this the Army has no alternative but to be successful in any task allotted to it. Therefore AFSPA is the basic need based on the role and it should not be seen as a cover for unnecessary use of excessive force. The nation has to trust its forces, believe in their training and discipline that they would always act in the best interests of the nation. Use of minimum required force is the bedrock on which such operations are based. Past experience and record of the Army’s operations in such operations proves beyond doubt that our Army has always used restraint till the last, at times even at risk to its own men. Therefore the need for AFSPA should not be debateable irrespective of any political compulsions.

Lastly one wonders where are all the highly acclaimed social and human right activists who berate the security forces at the drop of a hat for the deemed atrocities that they commit on locals in the valley? Is setting of a bunker on fire by local mobs with soldiers inside not an atrocity? Is blaming the army for molestation without any proof not a crime against this singular and possibly the most trusted institution in the country? What about taking some action against the mother of the girl who wanted to implicate the Army men on false charges? What about seeking explanation from local civilian administration for allowing mob violence instead of preventing it? Finally who will identify and arrest the culprits from the mob that set fire to the bunker to kill the soldiers inside? Has the State government taken any initiative in this regard? Why are all the social activists and human right experts missing from the scene of action? The answer lies in the fact that for most such activists and their organisations it is all about money and money does not flow in their accounts if they bat for the security forces. Is it any wonder then that they are as silent today as the graves in the Kohima World War II cemetery?

This article will be incomplete without a word in praise for the girl in question who was molested. She deserves a salute from one and all for standing up for the truth. One can imagine the immense pressure that must have been brought on her to implicate the Army men but the fact that she withstood it speaks volumes for her courage and character. The nation must acknowledge this young girl’s role in this whole episode, particularly now that one of the real culprits has been arrested. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about her mother who cooked up her story and possibly went as per the bidding of those who wanted to fuel anti Army protests. The pity is she will not be answerable for her dishonest accusations. After all accountability in the valley is only limited to the security forces – all others including the civilian administration and political leadership have never been answerable.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

1 Comment

  • As for this too. Starting with “It was obvious so and so was the case” is not a great way to build a case! You know what? Get some imaginative people for your channel and have a debate. The same old, patriarchal, religio-orthodox, creativity-stifling, bigoted, hierarchial, nationalistic, prideful version of things so very prevalent in this country is getting bland and downright disgusting actually. Get a free mind. That might improve lives for everybody and make a better world!

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