In the vitiated environment of Jammu and Kashmir, the death of innocents in cases of mistaken identity is always tragic, and when it is that of young people, it is even worse. No one can have two opinions on this. The issue becomes even more important because militancy has been on the wane for some time and such incidents have been occurring repeatedly over the last three or four years. Any incident in J&K evokes strong reaction in rest of the country, and this is usually based on emotion, prejudices and a lack of sufficient information. It is often the trigger for counter-reaction within J&K, which leads to further vitiation and snowballing negativity. That the regrettable incident has not brought forth spewing anger of the type witnessed in yester years on the streets of the Valley, especially the separatist and radical strongholds, even in election time, is a measure of the changing context.
This is about the unfortunate killing of two young boys and injuring of two others when they allegedly drove their Maruti 800 car through two mobile vehicle check-posts (MVCPs) a few kilometres south of Srinagar without stopping, and were shot at the third such check-post.
The army claims it had intelligence about the movement of terrorists in a vehicle, which is why it had set up MVCPs, and the failure to stop at not one, not two, but three such check-posts forced soldiers to take action by shooting at the car. Approximately 38 rounds of small arms were fired.
It is easy to take black and white positions on such cases. But understanding such incidents in the right context will prevent such occurrences in future. For the past few years, the situation in J&K has been transiting from a typical public order environment to a law and order one. The transition is not over and it usually takes an undefined period for such a phenomenon to occur. Public order situations are a threat to national security, many times defined as existential threats, and demand largescale presence of the regular army. The internal conflict ends when the situation has moved from public order to law and order, which demands mere police presence with occasional assistance from the army. The J&K situation confounds because it is more ambiguous than any internal conflict the Union of India has faced. External events play a major role and are not in control of the government; an adversary sponsors the internal conflict, which is dynamic and has seen troughs and crests. However, by 2008 or so, it was evident that the nature of the internal conflict had changed, and the return to a situation of law and order had commenced. No one could determine then, as today, as to what the final outcome of the transition would be, and when. There are signals one has to pick up and a trained military mind is quick to understand it. Fear of the olive green uniform usually dilutes, and the campaign becomes more difficult for the army to handle from the days when mistakes could be condoned and there was little accountability. While military intellectuals at senior levels understand this — as, no doubt, the excellent army commander of Northern Command and his worthy GOC 15 Corps do — the task of explaining this to the rank and file, mid-seniority officers and most importantly, to the level of unit commanders, is a real challenge. This is where leadership comes in. The military leadership has more on its plate in such situations because this is the ambiguity of low-intensity conflict no one understands — not the people of the state, not the troops and younger officers and definitely not the political leadership or the bureaucracy.
In February 2011, a young man was mistakenly gunned down by a squad of soldiers after he refused to stop on being challenged in the darkness. The rule position was clear; district collectors (DCs) were supposed to notify every three months that night movement by civilians could only be done with some positive indication and identification such as lanterns and torches to differentiate from militant movement. Despite repeated directions by the chief minister and DG police, DCs repeatedly failed to sensitise the people to the dangers of unidentified movement at night. The army regretted the incident but firmly held its ground that it followed the rules of engagement. A year later, an inhabitant of a village house reacted to the presence of a soldier just outside his door at night by throwing an object at him; the soldier fired back, killing the civilian instantly. These were regrettable incidents, and the army made no attempt to give the deceased any hint of a terrorist background, just like it has not this time, and offered its regrets with promised investigation and action against individuals.
Actions against soldiers will bring forth a dilution in the effectiveness of field operations. Should they be classified as “genuine mistakes” in good faith? In the ambiguous situation of transition from public order to law and order, these mistakes will continue, as neither the army nor the public can have control over every such occasion. This situation is set to last, with no certainty of an end. What is the answer?
There are only a few options. First, there has to be a system to inform the public of the imminent danger of various acts that it must determine through consultation with the police, elders and the youth. For long, there has been a pressing need for a public perception management programme. Second, local media should partner in this. The incongruity of certain acts by the public with the requirements of security of the army has to be driven home by repetitive actions, and only the army itself can do it with seriousness. Third, the political leadership and police can be of assistance. Fourth, the army’s policy forces a turnover of almost 50 per cent of its strength every year.
With the need to train and change mindsets there has to be a genuine change in attitude towards conflict and people. The hinterland units, the ones in sensitive areas, need special capsules, on repeat. Any amount of training will be too little; significantly, more training is needed as the situation moves towards law and order. Fifth, the nature of internal conflict has to be understood by the army in entirety. Ignorance can never be an excuse.
The lack of street turbulence, despite it being election time, should be an eye-opener on the dilution of the ability of the separatists to call the shots. The common Kashmiri is seeking a normal life; the army must ensure that this aspiration and moment are not lost through acts resulting from poor awareness, drills and training.
The writer is former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and fellow, Delhi Policy Group and Vivekananda International Foundation.