Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Problems with Human Shields and Collective Punishment

(Initially published on News4Masses.com)
One day, my daughter who was then studying in fourth or fifth standard was very upset when she came back from her school. When I probed the reason, she said her physical education teacher had beaten her along with all other children of her class. I tried to defend the teacher by saying that the children must have done something very mischievous to make the teacher punish all students. But she was not convinced. She said only a couple of boys had made noise in the class for which the teacher punished the entire class. She also told me that this particular teacher was in the habit of handing over mass punishment, irrespective of who was at fault.

I then pacified my daughter by promising to intervene if the teacher repeated such an act, any time in the future.  It had taken only a couple of days before I was forced to act on my promise.  The same teacher repeated the mass punishment, this time for something done at the playground by one or two children.

I then wrote a letter, addressed to the Principal of the school explaining why it is not right to punish innocent children for the mistake of one or two of them. It is for the teacher to find out who is at fault before handing out the corporal punishment. If that is not done, the children will lose track of any differentiation between a right behavior and wrong behavior and get confused between rewards and punishments. If you have to undergo the punishment, irrespective of your innocence, you are likely to end up taking up those mistakes. I warned the school that if the concerned teacher repeats the act and subject my daughter to such physical punishment, I would be constrained to initiate legal proceedings against the teacher and school.  Needless to say, the teacher concerned was duly warned by the management and the habit of mass punishment came to an end.

I was reminded of this incident when I got to read some comments by the Chief of the Army (CAS), defending the use of a human shield by an Army team, in the state of Kashmir. The incidence in which a Kashmiri man was tied to the bonnet of an Army Jeep, to avoid the agitators from throwing stones at the Army team that was on its way to save the polling staff from any potential attack, was commended by the CAS as an innovative way to counter the dirty war. The CAS did not stop at merely defending such an act but awarded the officer involved with a commendation.

There are a lot of people who support the act of the officer concerned and the CAS defending and awarding the officer. There is also an equally strong view that the practice of using a human shield is against all the principles of an honourable fighting force like Indian Army and only goes to show the military of the country in a poor light. 

The purpose of this article is not to judge the act of the officer concerned. A commander has to take instant decisions in the face of hostility. While there are certain basic principles that the officer should ideally keep in mind, at times s/he may be forced to use out of the box thinking to overcome a difficult situation. Therefore, it will not be right for a person sitting far away from the theatre to say an act was needed or not.

In this article, I would like to look at the desirability of such a public defending or awarding the officer concerned. Some people say that the CAS did the right thing as he has to keep up the morale of his men. However, there are many issues with that line of thinking.

Any act, which is a war crime under the international laws, or a crime under the national laws, does not cease to be so even if it was resorted to under exceptional circumstances.  When such circumstances itself is a matter of inquiry, it is not right for the authorities to defend or condone such an illegal act.  That will amount to prejudging, or trying to influence the inquiry process. The exceptional circumstances may reduce the gravity of a crime, but the crime remains one. When the establishment decides to commend or award the perpetrators of such acts, it is like legitimizing an illegal or improper act.  We have just witnessed when the Indian Army as an institution decided to go against the Indian Constitution, Indian criminal laws, the Army Act, and its own standard operating procedures! When such disregard for the written rules is allowed, the consequences can be disastrous.

Secondly, in this particular instance, the victim has claimed that he was an innocent man who was out to cast his vote in the bye-election that was being held on that fateful day.  The polling percentage in that bye-election was only 7%. It is very easy to counter check the veracity of the man’s claim of being a voter, by merely looking at the votes polled. Despite that possibility, I have not heard anybody claiming that the victim had lied about casting his vote. When a man defied the threats and chose to cast his vote, the Indian state should have provided him all the support. Instead, an arm of the state stands accused of abducting him and using him as a human shield. Is that the way we are going to ensure the allegiance of more and more Kashmiris to the cause of Indian state?

Thirdly, what if the stone pelters were more hardliners and out of the box thinkers than our Army? What if they decided that their cause was more important than any one individual and pelted stones at the man and killed him? Would the Commander concerned or the CAS have assumed accountability for such an event?

Fourthly, if the victim himself was a stone pelter (as claimed by the officer concerned and a section of the media) why was he not arrested and prosecuted for that offense? Why was he let off after being used as a human shield?

Fifthly, what is the difference between a terrorist force and an armed force? Can the armed forces resort to any method in the name of innovation and dirty war? Can the Army forget that its objective is to keep the Kashmir and Kashmiris on the side of India and not to eliminate or subjugate them? Should Army seek fear from the citizens (as alluded by the CAS) or should it seek goodwill from the people?

Many people are supporting the act of the Army because it happened in Kashmir and the victim is a Kashmiri. Consider the outrage if a human shield was used by the Police forces in, say Kolkata, Bangalore, or Delhi. Even better, consider the victim tied to the bonnet of Army Jeep is any 'one of us' or 'one of our own'? 

Kashmir is a troubled area. A lot of Kashmiris are agitating against the Indian state and indulging in stone pelting. Does that make it right for the security forces to treat all Kashmiris as enemies of India (note that even enemies have rights under Geneva Convention) and treat them with no respect for their rights? Is it a policy of the current government to treat all Kashmiris as hostile and subject them to punishments like using them as human shields?

Whether an innocent child in the school or an innocent citizen in Kashmir, we cannot subject them to collective punishments for the crimes done by others. Can we hold the entire people of states in which the recent lynching of human beings took place (the number of such states is increasing), and punish them all for the murders? 

What differentiates good from the bad (and teachers from bullies or soldiers from mercenaries) is adherence to the rules of the game. Deviations may happen at times, but the deviations are to be treated as such and discouraged, and not given any exalted status.


Self-respect is a basic requirement for any human being. The victim, in this case, was subjected to unreasonable dangers and extreme humiliation. Can we reasonably expect this victim (or his near and dear) to love or respect our Army or the state, anymore? Fear, I am afraid, is not a long-term weapon!