Kashmir Times, 10 November 14
Lt Gen Hooda as a colonel attending the higher command course for upwardly mobile officers won the best dissertation prize. His abridged thesis, published in the journal of the College of Combat in January 2001, was titled, 'Ethics and Morality in the Military'. That when it came to the crunch in his command tenure of all troops in J&K, he has measured up to what he wrote must be applauded. In his accepting the responsibility for the killings of two youngsters at a check point in Chattargam, Kashmir, he has set the bar higher for an army that prides itself for its professionalism and integrity.
His elevation to high rank and his appointment as commander in chief in J&K bespeaks well of the army and its systems and processes. It is comforting to know that the army has within its ranks the likes of Hooda and also of the commanding general in the Valley, Saha, since it is no doubt that Hooda would be acting in consultation with the latter. These are not exceptions. They are among several thousand officers who over the years have rendered a signal contribution to Kashmir and Kashmiris, and at one remove to the nation.
That said, there is also a subset of officers who are differently moulded. They are also in sufficient numbers to qualify as a subculture able on occasion to set the army's moral compass. The film Haider bears testimony on that count. That they are not absent in the Valley is clear from the Chattargam episode in which apparently the lower rungs of the hierarchy attempted to paper over the killings citing a pre-existing terror alert of terrorists in a 'white car'. The police acting courageously, has debunked that. This subculture was inclined to sweep the blatant killings under the carpet. In earlier periods in Kashmir, they might well have succeeded owing to the sway of the negative subculture in the conducive environment of insurgency and counter insurgency.
As for the soldiers on duty at the check point, it would be unfair to make them scapegoats, even if the preliminary inquiry that prompted Hooda to take a stand points out that they made a 'mistake'. They did indeed make a fatal mistake, but there are mitigating facts. A car screech at a check point can trigger unpremeditated action with unforeseen consequence. Had the check point not been there, the tragedy would not have happened. The check point is there owing to the protracted conflict situation, exemplified by the AFSPA. Therefore, while not ruling out individual culpability, those responsible for inability to shift the situation from one of conflict to one of post conflict must be held equally accountable.
While fair to expect rules of engagement to hold since the situation is relatively stable and the army reportedly better trained, it also needs factoring in that the soldiers have no doubt been fed with the staple intelligence fare of dastardly terrorist actions imminent. ISIS related reports have surely permeated down the hierarchy and so has the need for greater alertness in light of upcoming elections. Also, they would likely have been told that the increased firing on the LC and rain wrought havoc on the LC fence has led to an increased induction of terrorists out to wreck the elections. Therefore, if the soldiers fired off their weapons in haste and fear, it is not quite a willful violation of rules of engagement, but due to a situation only 'waiting to happen'.
The fact that it is not otherwise - a Kashmir without AFSPA - is to be blamed on those in power over the past decade, both in Delhi and Srinagar. So even if the soldiers fired off the shots and Hooda is taking responsibility for this, the Congress and the NC respectively are not above blame. The parameters for removal of AFSPA have been there for most part for about a decade. Mr. Manmohan Singh, and the powers behind the chair, the two Gandhis, proved unmindful owing to improved security indices making it politically unnecessary to go further. Mr. Omar Abdullah preferred making noises against it rather than offering his resignation. In so far as the army's input has been against its removal, decision on AFSPA is a political prerogative. Therefore, it would not do to blame the jawans on the check point alone, even if they end up serving as unfortunate 'fall guys'.
Admittedly, the UPA was disadvantaged by the BJP on its flanks ever ready to call any thought of AFSPA removal as anti-national and typically 'soft' national security thinking on the Congress' part. Mr. Abdullah would also be right in claiming in his defence that his resignation would not have made a difference.
However, with the BJP in power in Delhi and set to take Srinagar in the reckoning of its chief Mr. Shah, is not impossible for AFSPA to get a relook. There are good political reasons for this. It can always be lifted over most places and can be reinstated when and where necessary. Internally, the BJP can profit by such a promise in the run up to elections as also from the fallout of lifting it if and when in power. It will mark out the BJP in Delhi, if not in Srinagar, as different from its predecessor. It will fulfill the promise embedded in Mr. Modi's Diwali foray into Kashmir. Externally, it will help prevent Kashmir serving as a continued attraction to jihadists from AfPak. It will set the stage for renewed engagement with Pakistan, one put off temporarily in August.
The military's input would likely have had a strategic logic. With the US departing Afghanistan, it needed the AFSPA as cover while it 'waited and watched' the outcome. To its credit, it appears from the Chattargam episode that it put in place rules of engagement suited for a restrained military, even if one empowered with AFSPA. The episode proves that 'zero collateral damage' is a fallacy. Therefore, it too can reappraise AFSPA that makes such incidents inevitable.
While strategic reasons determine the army's input, sociological considerations cannot be discounted altogether. The Chattargam episode makes it apparent that there are two subcultures within the army: one based on the professional military ethic and the other on a nationalist ethic. The latter could yet again dominate in case the Kashmir engagement continues under AFSPA and worsens among other reasons on that count. In such a case, Hooda's action could prove the last gasp of a rational military considering that a right wing dispensation is set for a long innings in Delhi.