Discover more from ali’s version
Zadoora: Missing the Strategic Corporal
It is a measure of the Narendra Modi regime’s dominance over Kashmir that an incident with Strategic Corporal connotations escaped being one. The incident-that-wasn’t in question is that of an Army Major of 50 Rashtriya Rifles deployed in Kashmir harassing early morning prayer goers at a local mosque in Zadoora, Pulwama.
Apparently, he was training his outfit on conduct of operations when he was incensed with the call for prayer from the local mosque. Per allegations from leading regional politicians, he had hapless Kashmiri Muslims chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’. According to military ‘sources’ – putting out their version of the incident later – the chant was of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ instead.
Be that as it may, the Army reacted with a promise of action and has reportedly ‘shifted’ the officer – whatever that means. Perhaps an investigation is on and pending disciplinary action he has been attached to a different outfit.
The dust having settled, is there a case then to reflect on it any further? Would that amount to making a mountain out of a molehill? Was the major’s action an ‘aberration’ – the military’s favourite term to scuttle scrutiny? Or is it indicative of a turn the military is taking, albeit unwarily?
‘One swallow doesn’t a summer make’ is quite right. It needs to be appreciated that the others deployed – and there are hundreds of thousands – are not similarly embarked. It is for this reason that the incident stands out as an ‘aberration’, as the Army would have it. The Army has thus rightly taken it in stride and disposed it off. For now, knocking it off the headlines, with a follow through pending the usual legal merry-go-round. Stirring up the dust is unnecessary and to do so would invite a questioning of motives.
On the contrary, can this incident be taken as the tip of the iceberg? Is it being dressed down – Army sources only admit to villagers being forced to sloganeer only ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, as though that makes it acceptable? Does it not portend of worse to come, when Agniveers - coming of age in the Modi era - are operationalised?
If so, is its relegation from the national consciousness then not itself ‘motivated’ – to avoid drawing attention to a significant step – if not a leap – in the Army’s ethos?
The Human Shield episode
Admittedly, the Army has done a better job of it this time round than when it was confronted with infamous case of Major Leetul Gogoi. Gogoi was caught on camera taking a tussled-up Kashmiri for a ride on his jeep’s bonnet. He explained it was in self-defence from stone throwers, who – in his reasoning – could not then stone those on election duty he was escorting.
What he could not explain was why then did he proceed with the spectacle on a route winding over some 24 villages over the next couple of hours, well past the stone throwers presumably gathered in the initial part of his route? Why did he have time to stick notes on him threatening similar retribution on stone throwers? How was Farooq Ahmed Dar picked up when he denies being part of the stone throwing mob?
The problem was compounded by then Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, jumping to Gogoi’s defence, pinned him with an award, even as the inquiry progressed. Emboldened, Leetul Gogoi persisted in error, being caught – yet again on camera - with possibly a minor girl in a case of gender-based violence in conflict.
The case merited a dishonourable discharge from service and rigourous imprisonment. But having been feted by the Army Chief, no one in the chain of command had the gumption to put the officer in his place. He got away with a meaningless loss in seniority – testifying to the Army’s sharing the society’s dominant view on sexual predation – evident since the recently discontinued wrestlers’ protest.
So, do we have in the Army’s similarly underplaying of the case here, a Leetul Gogoi II? Is it risking creating clones of Leetul Gogoi for the future? How much is it deliberate – could they really want more Gogoi look-alikes?
How to handle Rambos
No doubt there is a need for Rambos in the ranks. It’s a counter insurgency (CI) common sense that an omelette cannot be made without breaking eggs. Proxy war and terrorism that attend insurgency necessitate kinetic operations resulting in ‘kills’. A certain breed of soldiers is better at delivering on this. Not all signing up to a soldierly life are equally competent on this score. Some compensate with soft skills which arguably serve CI purposes well, if not better.
If there are Rambos onboard, then the premium on the command element increases. They have to ride Rambos harder. It is certainly the case in insurgency, which, by definition, is ‘war among people’. People are our very own – so goes the theory anyway. Looking after their rights, safety and well-being is as much a command responsibility as leading troops.
If the Chetwode credo – that animates the Army officer corps - is any guide in a CI environment, people place above troops under command. Recall the first line has it that the nation comes first. A nation comprises its people. It places a duty to the troops under command next.
The term ‘Area of Responsibility’ in the CI lexicon encompasses human terrain on the CI grid. The Area’s physical form is important from an operational point of view, but its the people living there that are the Center of Gravity.
Client orientation – a required competency for command on the CI grid – involves viewing the locals as primary clients, among other clients as the supported State administration, local authorities and police.
By this yardstick, if Rambos overstep, then the client orientation of the command chain has to kick in, preserving their clients – the people – from egregious attention of Rambos on the rampage. By all means, Rambos can be vectored without qualm on terrorists and insurgents in bloody knock-down and drag-out firefights. However, if their ambit gets to include people then the chain of command must preemptively rein in would-be Rambos.
General Rawat’s enduring legacy is in damage done to the differentiation between insurgents and people by his inability to discriminate between the fish and the sea. As a former student of a United States’ military institution, he borrowed heavily on their concepts applied in their Forever Wars far from their shores.
Unable to whistle up tactics to take on stone throwers - though a supposed expert on CI to which is attributable his promotion - he extended the meaning of over ground workers to include stone throwers and threatened them with indeterminate consequences. How much his rewriting of the CI doctrine influences those on the CI Grid is moot.
By all accounts of military derring-do, it is easy to identify Rambos and nurture them. They are usually self-effacing and rise to the occasion only when an opportunity presents itself. The veteran consensus is that Rambos are more likely to be unassuming than flashy, modest rather than upstart braggarts. It is well recognized that there are more pretenders than Rambos. It’s a command knack to identify the genuine article and expose the inauthentic.
It was let on that General Rawat’s pinning a medal on Gogoi’s chest was not only for his innovating his way out of a tight corner but also for his exploits prior. Rawat’s faith is evident from Gogoi being put to directly talk to the media on his actions.
Granting the devil his due, even if we are to concede Gogoi was a potential Rambo – volunteering for a skirmish and leading from the front – he didn’t fit the bill at the crunch.
He claimed to be interfacing with an informant when caught on camera. It was a case of sexual exploitation in conflict of a vulnerable member of the Army’s primary client – people.
Was General Rawat then taken in? At best, it was rather incredulous of the General. At worst, Rawat was brazening his way out of a tight spot – the Army caught in the headlights with its narrative of people-centric operations and ethical conduct of operations about its ankles. Worse still is if the General was swayed by his Hindutva-appeasing mentors in the national security woodwork, espying a handle to demean Kashmiris.
That the command chain could not catch on is the lesser evil. The command chain believes in letting some have a looser rope, some they can use when needed. One such case is visible in the Amshipora murders.
The captain who killed three in a fake encounter claims to have been acting on orders. The Armed Forces Tribunal that let him off on bail has swallowed the story. Evidently, he was a Rambo being nursed, quite like a goat fattened for Eid.
The command chain – with the lower two levels likely complicit – perhaps believed that Captain Bhoopendra Singh had ‘it’ in him to up deliver bodies. Showing on the CI grid unfortunately continues to be body-count based. The confidential reporting season was on hand about then. The sector commander received a medal, curiously named Yudh Seva Medal.
The more significant implication
In the case here, the Army has been tightlipped. In due course this would-be Rambo could well be let off. Perpetrators have got away for worse; recall Pathribal and Machal. The danger is with eddies from the case having been tidied over, the Army might miss the greater evil.
By underplaying the chants – ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as against ‘Jai Shree Ram’ alleged by villagers – it is liable to miss the wood for the trees.
To it, the former should not merit the hullaballoo. But even that amounts to cultural insensitivity and violates client orientation expectations. In CI, the cultural domain is as significant as the terrain and demographic terrain. Respect for local sentiment is sine qua non of Winning Hearts and Minds – the leitmotif of CI doctrine.
Kashmir, being Muslim inhabited, has Islam as guiding light. Islam is uncompromising on the Oneness of God. To the extent Bharat Mata is symbolic of a goddess, it can only resonate partially with Muslims. They can concede that the land nurtures, but would have their reservations on its sacrality. They’d prefer to stop at Bharat ki Jai, which expresses much the same sentiment.
As for shouting out a ‘Jai Shree Ram’, that too shouldn’t necessarily be taken amiss by most. After all, if Ram is taken as a Hindu’s term for God, then the slogan is an equivalent of sorts of the Muslim’s ‘Allah o Akbar’. Its no one’s case that Victory (‘Jai’) could be for anyone but Allah’s or Ram’s – taken as terms for God.
The problem is that as of today the two terms are not readily interchangeable. When the Muslim already has a term for God, why should another be thrust?
In this case, though operating in Aid to Civil Authority and in an area declared ‘disturbed’ under the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act, there is no mandate for the Army to be thrusting absolutely anything on anyone. Hubris should not becloud this.
In the context of the times, the thrusting of ‘Mata’ and ‘Ram’ on Muslims has little to do with developing intercultural understanding but much to do with a wanton abuse of power. True for the Muslim in India today at the receiving end of a Hindutva-induced majoritarianism, it can only ring truer for the Kashmiri under the jackboot for some 30 years.
Don’t sleep with the enemy
Therefore, the Major’s action must be seen in context. It is of a piece with the happenings south of Pir Panjals. In the national hinterland, the forces at play within civil society are State-supported. Their hand in Kashmir stands exposed ever since the reduction of Article 370 to naught. But to see its eruption in uniform is - to put it mildly - stunning.
It is understandable for the Army to sweep the case under the carpet. After all, it would not want the case to sully the Mother-of-Democracy image of India that the Prime Minster Narendra Modi so assiduously conjured up at the White House the very same week in answering only the second untutored question he has faced from the press in nine years.
So long as the Army follows through internally on the implications is good enough. It must be alive to – and, if not already so, alerted to - these implications. That it has taken ‘swift action’ – appreciated even by skeptical regional politicos – is only good as a beginning. More is required of it, albeit off the radar screen.
Since an investigation is underway, it had better yield results. The Army must plough a lonely institutional furrow, holding fort for the straight and narrow. Even if it does not go public with it, it must within the Service disseminate information on the action taken. Deterrence is better than reacting a third time round later.
It must ascertain the extent the ills of society – communalism in this case - have penetrated into the Service. Admittedly, the Army is not an island. But then, its mandate requires it keep its distance from society. For instance, it cannot entertain Islamophobia when one of its preoccupations till late has been CI amidst Muslims.
It cannot even afford a ‘nationalist’ conception of patriotism. In light of its internal diversity somewhat reflective of diversity within the nation, it had better not buy into the right-wing ‘nationalism’. Majoritarianism – right-wing nationalism’s true face – is outside the pale.
For political purposes majoritarianism today privileges religion as its punching bag, to inveigle itself into the national imagination. Tomorrow - religion done with - it could be a disruptive referencing of ethnicity and language. We can see that in Manipur, Kuki’s being called a fifth column from Myanmar by the Hindutva-answering chief minister.
Obama inaccurately thinks Hindutva’s persecution of Muslims ‘pulls apart’ India. Muslims having an all-India spread are vulnerable everywhere. This accounts for lack of pushback such as seen on the streets of France today. This acceptance of the fait accompli will not be the case when majoritarianism bestirs ethnic subnationalism.
To the extent Hindutva surfaces within the Service, it is politicization - a sure-shot prelude to professional hara-kiri, reducing a once proud Army to a right-wing militia. The induction of Agniveers has the Army wrestle with a bad bargain. The very aim of its Hindutva minders is such relegation of the Army. The extent the Army falls short of Hindutva expectations is measure of success in its sternest test since Independence.
Consequently, the Army cannot be supping with the progenitors of India’s premier national security threat – Hindutva’s majoritarianism. Not only is its institutional integrity threatened but so is national security. By invisibilising the Strategic Corporal at Zadoora, the Indian Army risks missing implications that it must recognize and be seized with urgently.