Nobody in Kashmir expected India to punish or even reproach Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi for ordering the use of Farooq Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri civilian, as a human shield against a stone-throwing mob last month. After all, when the video of the civilian strapped to the hood of an army jeep and paraded through villages went viral, it evoked praise from the government and cheers from Indian right-wingers, who form the core of the support base of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, few expected Indian army chief Bipin Rawat to honor Gogoi with a commendation card for an act that was illegal and morally reprehensible.
It has triggered a tidal wave of anger among Kashmiris, who are already outraged by the Indian security forces’ brutal handling of stone-throwing protesters. It can be expected to provide a shot in the arm to a resurgent anti-India militancy in the strife-torn Kashmir Valley.
Gogoi claims that by using a human shield he had saved lives. Had he resorted to firing instead, there “would have been many casualties,” he said.
Gogoi’s use of a human shield and the army chief’s endorsement of this action could set a dangerous precedent
He has been praised for “using his wit instead of his weapons” and for his “unorthodox action” in an “irregular situation.” The army chief has been praised as well. By rewarding Gogoi’s action, he has sent out “a clear signal to the army rank and file to act boldly” like Gogoi. He has affirmed that the army leadership “stands solidly” behind such actions, Lt Gen Raj Kadyan, a former deputy chief of army staff, writes.
However, Gogoi’s use of a human shield and the army chief’s endorsement of this action could set a dangerous precedent. It could encourage more soldiers to ignore human rights, use civilians as human shields and resort to “innovative” means to deal with Kashmiris and other restive populations. It promises incentives to those who violate the law.
The use of human shields is a violation of the right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It is also a violation of the Geneva Conventions of which India is a signatory.
Of course, this is not the first time that India’s security forces have used civilians as human shields. This writer witnessed Kashmiri civilians being forced by Indian soldiers to clear roads of landmines in Kashmir’s Kupwara district in 2001. The civilians did not have protective gear and were being made to walk ahead of the army’s road-opening patrols.
Back then, the Indian authorities would simply deny that they were using civilians as shields in their fight against the militants. Then in the late 2000s, Indian leaders repeatedly said that India had “zero tolerance” for extra-judicial violence in its conflict zones. There were a few instances of soldiers being court-martialed for such violence.
But today, India is brazenly praising its soldiers, honoring them and even encouraging them to use civilians as human shields. It is part of the BJP government’s muscular-nationalist approach to dealing with Kashmiri alienation from the Indian state.
The Kashmir Valley, which is the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan in their dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, has been in the grip of a powerful insurgency since 1989. It was civilians who bore the brunt of the violence unleashed by the Indian forces and Pakistan-backed militants in the roughly three decades since. It prompted Kashmiris to believe that both sides were interested only in the territory of Kashmir and not in the welfare of its people.
Such perceptions are likely to have been confirmed by the army chief openly honoring the use of Kashmiri civilians as shields.