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Monday, November 17, 2014

Is the army court’s verdict on the Machhil killings enough?

An army court in its judgment on the Machhil killings of three civilians has awarded life sentences to the army men involved, including the commanding officer of the unit. This is a praiseworthy verdict underscoring the army’s keenness in keeping itself free of such cases. This follows earlier army action against the likes of the infamous Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major who had faked military action to bid for medals. Since the Machhil killings were also similarly inspired, the recent action makes it clear that the army frowns upon such action.

... it is easy to explain away such cases as individuals taking short cuts. There is little reason consequently to pursue other more demeaning reasons that may, in the event, be more relevant. In fact the faking of encounters by the Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major are at best comical. The several hundreds of cases of unmarked graves in the Valley indicate that there is more to the permissive action regime prevalent in times of heightened counter insurgency than merely the pull of rewards. Even if some of those killed could be taken as victims of the dictum, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, at least a few of these killings can be attributed to psychopathic and others to ideological reasons.
The former may not be as troubling as the latter on account of the fewer numbers. The latter, killings done for ideological reasons, perhaps inspired by hyper-nationalism or misapplied religious zeal, are more dangerous since they paint a picture of an environment in which such ideology may have penetrated the service. It bears recall that the military intelligence officer Purohit, implicated in the Malegaon blasts, was posted in J&K, before he took his operation into central India. Even if he is dismissed as a lone wolf, these are dangers that the army needs to be cognizant of and warned against. With cultural nationalism now having gone mainstream, and if analysts are to be believed, the threat of resumption of insurgency in J&K not quite receded, there is scope for vigilance.
Secondly, military justice has been held in abeyance in graver cases. Three cases come readily to mind: the Malom killings of ten civilians being protested by Irom Sharmila over the past fifteen years; the possible rape and murder of Manorama Devi; and the infamous Pathribal killings in J&K.


While the army should not be held hostage in cases blown out of proportion as part of the propaganda war that is intrinsic to proxy war, where egregious violence is patent, it needs acting of its own accord and for reasons other than the internal good health of itself as an institution. Even in such cases the army’s reluctance to take action is sometimes evident, such as in the case of the boy burnt to death last month by unknown persons at the Hyderabad garrison of the army. It took the suicide of a soldier to put the needle of suspicion firmly on the army over its earlier premature and unnecessary denial.
Justice or politics?
Even in the Macchil case, unfortunately the credibility of military justice is such that the timing of the judgment in a four-year-old case suggests politics, given that J&K is set to go to the polls with both the parties in power in Srinagar and Delhi vying for the electorate. The former has already staked claim for the credit, the latter can be seen to be more subtle when this is taken in conjunction with the apology that the army has issued over the Chattargam killings.
Action does not get taken in the graver cases owing to ‘reasons of state’. 

While Nehru did call for self-restraint when he deployed the army in Nagaland in the mid-fifties, which is found reflected in the famous special order of the chief of army staff, there was no overseeing mechanism in place either then or later. An officer known for his integrity, Lt Gen Sardeshpande, recalls an army chief’s visit to his location while in command of a brigade in the north east. The visiting chief told him to keep a close eye on a village in his area of responsibility that the chief in his time in command over the area had had occasion to set fire to, twice over.
Structurally, the situation has not changed much since. The army answers to the defence ministry though internal security is a home ministry responsibility. For instance, in the case of the recent killings of two youth early this month in Chattargam, media informed us of the home ministry writing to the defence ministry, asking for details.

The cultural aspect is that those charged with ensuring a democratic regime is in place across India are let off for allowing a permissive regime on their watch. Those democratically accountable at best merely stand to lose their seats for unconnected reasons. By this yardstick, ‘we, the people’ are as much to blame.
Therefore, neither should the Machhil judgment blind one to the wider canvas in which justice is central to reconciliation, nor be allowed to paper over the other areas of justice denial that continues to place reconciliation out of reach.

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