In an interview, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has defended and praised Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi for his decision to tie a Kashmiri artisan to an army jeep as a human shield and parade him through several villages, as a warning to stone-pelters. By doing this, and by his implied support for the short-circuiting of the army’s internal due process vis a vis Major Gogoi’s actions — the army commended the major even as a court of inquiry was finalising its probe into the incident — General Rawat risks hurting the enormous institutional credibility of the force that he heads. It bears reiteration that Major Gogoi’s conduct was a violation of the constitutional promise of due process, and of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution for every citizen, and that it is the army’s duty to uphold both. But the army chief treads even further on dangerous ground.
“This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war… You fight a dirty war with innovations”, the general said. He went on to suggest that it would have been easier for the armed forces if the protestors were firing weapons instead of throwing stones: “Then I could do what I [want to do]”. General Rawat is understandably concerned about the difficult challenges that confront his men in Kashmir. But can he afford to lose sight of a fundamental distinction — between armed militants and civilian protestors? By not acknowledging or respecting the difference between the two, or suggesting that there is none, General Rawat could be accused of potentially redefining the army’s role and mandate in troubling ways, which could end up reducing the political space for manoeuvre in the Valley. Unwisely, he dismisses the possibilities of political engagement in Kashmir: “Has political initiative not been taken in the past? What was the result, you had Kargil…”. This last statement could also be read as a transgression into territory outside the army chief’s domain. General Rawat’s responsibility is to guard the nation’s physical frontiers from enemies; it is not to draw red lines for political actors in the system.
It is undeniable that the army has been thrust into a crisis in Kashmir not of its making, one that the political leadership should have taken the lead to resolve. In these circumstances, General Rawat must arguably aim to limit the fallout of the army’s exposure to what is primarily a political problem. His ill-judged statements, however, send out the impression that the army is fighting the people of Kashmir. This is particularly unfortunate given the fact that the Indian Army has done stellar work in its effort to build bonds with the people of Kashmir, through schools, sports activities and rescue operations during the 2014 flood, as well as this April, when the waters rose dangerously in some parts of the Valley. The chief of the Indian Army cannot sound like an angry retired prime time warrior. He must, at all times, acknowledge the responsibility — and the constraint — of his high office.