By Karan Thapar
The force owns up to mistakes, but circumstances won’t permit Gen. Bipin Rawat to admit it this time.
It hurts to say it but it’s the sad truth: if today the army is embarrassed by the emerging outcome in the Farooq Ahmad Dar case, when an allegedly innocent Kashmiri voter was forcibly used as a human shield by Major Leetul Gogoi of the 53rd Rashtriya Rifles to deter stone-pelters and also teach them a lesson, the army has only itself to blame. Unfortunately, a fair part of that responsibility lies with the Army Chief himself.
A police inquiry interim report says Dar was subjected to “wrongful confinement”. It states “Dar cast his vote at a polling booth in his native village of Chill.” He was, therefore, what he claimed to be, a voter and not a stone-pelter.
The army, on the other hand, claimed he was “instigating a stone-pelting mob” and “could have been their ring leader.” He was said to be part of a group threatening the safety of election officials. However, the army had no answer to a critical question raised by Dar: “If I voted for democracy, why would I stop others from voting and pelt stones?”
Although the army appointed a court of inquiry the Army Chief, without awaiting its verdict, described the Major’s behaviour as “the right call”. He also proceeded to award Major Gogoi a commendation. This was deliberate defiance of the army’s own due process and a clear snub to the Kashmiri people but Gen. Rawat defended his decision whilst the government endorsed it.
In an interview to the Economic Times in May, Gen. Rawat said the award was “to ensure the confidence level of the officer and others operating in (a) similar environment.” As he elaborated: “The message is not for the people. I am concerned with my rank and file.” In other words, he was determined to defend ‘illegal’ acts for fear that if he did not the army’s morale could suffer. Worse, making a mockery of the court of inquiry, which he admitted “is for fact finding”, the Army Chief said “even if he (Major Gogoi) is found guilty of some lapse, no major action will be taken against him. I find no reason for major action to be taken against him.” Altogether this prioritized the army’s interests over Kashmiri human rights.
Speaking to PTI, Gen. Rawat went further. “This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It’s played in a dirty way.” This was his justification for what he called Major Gogoi’s “innovation”, when Dar was strapped to an army jeep as a human shield and paraded for five hours through the villages of Kashmir.
Not surprisingly, several people criticized the Army Chief. Even within the army, Gen. Rawat’s behaviour was considered controversial though the criticism was sotto voce and made behind closed doors. However, Lt. Gen. Panag, a former Northern Army Commander, was outspoken. In a series of tweets he said: “Whatever the provocation, the Indian army cannot take recourse to illegal acts.” Commenting on the commendation, Lt. Gen. Panag tweeted: “IA (Indian Army) traditions, ethos, rules and regs (regulations) swept away by the ‘mood of the nation’!” Gen. V. P. Malik, a former Chief, whilst defending Major Gogoi’s action added the Major must be warned against repeating it.
Now that the police inquiry interim report seems to undermine the Army Chief’s stand, we should ask what has become of the Army’s own court of inquiry? Did it complete its task? Has it submitted a report? And if it has, what’s become of it? Or, as many suspect, have Gen. Rawat’s comments and commendation made the inquiry infructuous?
The undeniable truth is that in this sad instance the army let itself down. As an army son I believe the army is fair, correct and unwaveringly committed to defending the rights of every Indian citizen. But that didn’t happen in this case. More importantly, I believe the army comprises the best of our nation because, beyond being brave warriors, its men can distinguish between right and wrong. When a soldier makes a mistake he doesn’t hesitate to admit it. Ultimately, this is what separates him from a civilian. Again, that didn’t happen in this case.
Finally, to those who claim criticizing the army is anti-national, let me point out the army doesn’t see itself as above the nation. When it’s erred, as it has in this case, it welcomes criticism. I have no doubt that’s also true of Gen. Rawat, even if circumstances won’t permit him to admit it.