A lot has been said and written about the use of a stone-pelter in Kashmir valley as a human shield by an army team a few weeks ago. Opinions are divided on whether he was right or wrong, though one would have to say that majority have approved the action taken by the young officer in a tough situation and only a few have condemned it. Frankly there is much more to this action than what meets the eye. The tying of a stone pelter in front of a jeep should not be seen as an act to protect Army personnel. Any such inference can only be described as myopic and motivated with the sole aim to present the Army in bad light. Unfortunately maligning the armed forces is on top of the agenda for many social activists, unscrupulous politicians and pro-terror groups in the valley – cost to the nation and morale of the army notwithstanding. The act in question has to be seen from many facets of military professionalism that includes military ethos, leadership, initiative, presence of mind, survival instinct, least collateral damage, courage, decision making and the will to succeed despite heavy odds.
First and foremost one has to understand that counter terrorism, unlike a conventional war, is a very difficult form of warfare. In conventional warfare the enemy is known and borders are clearly drawn. In counter terrorism and insurgency, particularly in one’s own back yard (in this case Kashmir valley), the enemy is not easily identifiable and there are no clear borders. The terrorist and his supporters have the benefit of merging with the local population thus making the task of forces very difficult. The unfortunate part is that most civilians tend to be sympathetic towards the terrorists or their known supporters. Kashmir valley is one such area where the Indian Army is engaged in counter terrorism warfare with its own people. In such a situation collateral damage is often unavoidable. Any review or assessment or post mortem of an army action in such a scenario must keep these basic facts in mind since they limit the choices available to a professional army. In colloquial terms within military circle it is termed as ‘fighting with one arm tied behind one’s back’. This sums up the limitations under which our military operates in counter terrorism operations in Kashmir valley.
The facts of the case are well known but it may be prudent to repeat the same in brief. A polling booth team comprising of civilian officials and police personnel in Budgam near Srinagar came under attack from a mob of about 900 stone-pelters. They sent an SOS for help and a quick reaction team (QRT) from the Amy responded to the call. The team comprising of only seventeen personnel was led by a young officer. The task for the team was very clear. It had to extricate the polling team from the mob fury while ensuring least loss of life, injury or other damage to the team as well as the mob. The safety of his own team, while paramount for the young officer, would never be put ahead of the safety of the polling team or the civilians who in this case were the stone pelting mob. This is the military ethos of Indian army and something that every man in uniform stands by. Is it any wonder then that India army has suffered such heavy casualties in Kashmir valley over the years? Given a free hand and a changed ethos the army would have certainly suffered far lesser casualties. But then Indian Army is known the world over for its humane and compassionate approach in such situations, at times even at the cost of casualties to its own.
Next is the aspect of leadership. This young officer from the Army possibly only took a few minutes to assess the situation and arrive at some very courageous decisions to resolve the problem. He knew he was outnumbered heavily by the stone pelting mob that could even have some armed terrorists. He realised he did not have much time to act before the mob got hold of the polling booth personnel that could result in many deaths and injuries. Most importantly he understood that use of force on his part by opening fire with arms at his disposal could only be counterproductive. The firing may kill or wound a few in the mob but that would only spur them further to finish what was on their mind with a greater vengeance. Such a situation could have resulted in scores of deaths apart from injuring many more. Therefore the young officer showed exemplary courage, initiative and presence of mind to handle the mob by tying one of their own in front of the jeep to make way for his team to reach the polling booth to rescue the personnel.
This bold move on part of the officer had all the desired results without causing any damage. The polling booth personnel were rescued, the mob was nonplussed and could not react, the operation finished in quick time, there was no collateral damage and last but not the least the officer also ensured safety of the troops under his command. Frankly could anyone ask for more? Such acts of courage and out of the box thinking are rare and come but once in a while. This is where the training of the Army came to the fore. The young officer and his team showed the entire nation why Indian army is considered one of the more professional armies in the world. The Indian Army should feel proud of the young officers it produces and the soldiers who put the officer’s plans into action in quick time without fear or worrying for their personal safety. The officer and his team deserve a salute and those who think otherwise should hang their head in shame, including a few who once wore the same uniform and have been tweeting all kinds of nonsense.
Collateral damage is one of the most dreaded fallouts in any counter terrorism or counter insurgency operation. No army and Indian Army in particular, likes to see damage or injury to its own fellow countrymen. The Indian army has always put special emphasis on this aspect while training its troops in counter terrorism operations. The above incident was tailor made for heavy collateral damage if the army team had gone about its job in a routine manner. No amount of training can equip any officer to come out with a tailor made solution for each situation that he confronts. Training only imparts the basics and confidence which in turn enables an officer to come out with plans that are best suited for a particular situation. The case in point is a prime example of this.
It may be prudent to focus a bit on the young officer who is at the centre of this controversy. When he took the decision to tie a stone pelter to the jeep, what would have been going on in his mind? One can be sure he knew that his action would come under very harsh scrutiny. He knew what he was doing was unconventional and not taught in any military school. Yet he went ahead without fear of how it may cost him personally. This is what true soldiers are made of. In the given situation he was convinced that what he planned to do was right and he went ahead without worrying for repercussions later. The end results proved beyond doubt that the officer was right in every way. This is leadership and patriotism of highest order and in times to come this will be a case study that will be taught in military schools to motivate future young leaders.
It was indeed very heartening to see Mr Mukul Rahtogi, Attorney General of India, putting up a spirited defence for the officer. Contrast this with Mr Farooq Abdulla’s conduct who used the incident to curry favour with the separatists apart from eulogising the stone-pelters with an eye on his election to the parliament from Srinagar constituency. It is indeed a pity that in the name of democracy the nation has to suffer such dubious leaders who have used and abused the system to remain in reckoning for decades. Has Mr Abdulla ever come out to pacify the mobs in Kashmir valley when situations have been on the boil and mobs have been screaming murder? Is it not a shame that these political leaders do not have the courage to face the people who they profess as their own? Why it is that at times like this he and his ilk remain inside their well guarded fortresses and issue anti-national statements against those who stand up to the terrorists and mobs who support them?
One sincerely hopes that the Army sees the incident in its correct perspective and does not buckle under any local pressure to implicate the young officer. It will be in fitness of things for the Army to commend the officer’s conduct publicly in the overall interest of the armed forces. Such an approach will go a long way in motivating army personnel who have to spend years in the valley in a hostile environment to fight an invisible enemy with one arm tied behind their back. Let us not forget that many of them will come back home only in a coffin.