City City Bang Bang, Columns

The burden of restraint?

Being a soldier in Kashmir cannot be easy. Putting oneself in the shoes of Major Gogoi is not a simple thing to do, but it is something at we must attempt to do before taking a position on the issue. He was escorting some election officials through a hostile violent stone pelting crowd and had to balance his primary role- that of providing safe passage to the people in his care- with ensuring that he navigated the civilian crowd with the greatest restraint that he could muster.

The problem with mass protest movements like the ones we see in Kashmir are that they involve all shades of protesters- from violent extremists, angry students to mothers and children. Had the people been wielding guns, as Gen Bipin Rawat stated, things would have been clearer- the Army could have unhesitatingly used force. Stones are neither harmless nor are they lethal, at least in most cases- a barrage of stones can cause enormous injury and damage, and eventually there is no telling how violent a frenzied crowd can become. Major Gogoi had to balance these factors on the spot and make a call. His ‘innovative’ choice of tying an alleged protestor to the jeep was admittedly not part of the protocol of professional armies, but in the moment it saved lives- not only those of the officials and soldiers but almost certainly those of the protesters.

The criticism that this move has attracted needs to take this on board; looked at from the perspective of military personnel, conflict zones such as Kashmir do not lend themselves to simplistic formulations, and the right and wrong trade places more often than we would like. Being charged with the responsibility of keeping order in a state where the population is overwhelmingly opposed to the law and order machinery is a high wire exercise that frays the temperament of anybody, and most soldiers are young kids barely in their twenties.

While Maj Gogoi’s actions in the moment are possible to understand, the same is not true for all that has followed. Doubling down on what was possibly a one-off gambit used by an individual officer and elevating it to the status of an official doctrine might signal the government’s resolve to not back down in the valley, but it raises many complex questions about the code of conduct that a professional army should follow.

Using presence of mind in a tight situation is one thing but celebrating it and legitimizing it as a military tactic is quite another. Taking the tied man to 9 villages after having navigated the angry crowd converted a desperate life-saving measure into a legitimate military tactic. There is a difference between the codes of conduct of a professional army and others, and this exists not because of any softness, or a desire to be gentlemanly, but because of hard-headed practical reasons. Innovations by definition require flexibility and loose boundaries, and these are difficult to define or regulate particularly in a high pressure situation.

The right to use human shields could extend much further tomorrow. As an extreme example, what is to prevent the kidnapping of innocents, maybe even women and children and using them as bargaining chips? After all, militants and terrorists often do the same, so why not our soldiers? indeed, the same principle applies to the police- what if they took steps of this kind in controlling angry crowds?

In this case too, there are many questions about whether the ‘stone pelter’ chosen was indeed one, and regardless of whether an unrelated bystander was picked up or not, it is inevitable that such questions will arise if actions of this kind are taken. In the heat of the moment, a soldier may not be best placed to make precise judgments, and he would need to make a call based on imperfect information. Legitimizing this kind of action in a systemic sense is an invitation to some gross miscarriages of justice.

Being a professional soldier is a genuinely difficult task, which is why most of us do not even entertain that idea. The willingness to give up one’s life on the basis of a command that one has no control over in the name of one’s country is an extraordinarily brave thing to do. An institution like the army needs to manage contradictory impulses really well. It has access to an enormous amount of force, which it must use in a tightly controlled and directed way. It calls for an equal willingness to give and take lives. It needs to draw sharp lines between human beings deemed enemies and those understood as friends, and tread the grey areas between the two delicately. A country must keep its army strong just as it needs to keep it disciplined and compliant.

Which is why the Army marries great power with even greater restraint. It follows rules obsessively and values discipline above all. It cannot give itself the freedom to make up rules as it goes along- overtly it needs to act in an orderly and predictable way- only then can it use the power it possesses in the most useful way possible. The difference between a militia and the military is precisely this.

Short-sighted support for action, however useful that action might have been in one context, paves the way for long-term loss of discipline and self-respect. The Army is proud because it follows traditions, obeys rules and lives by an exacting code of conduct- and it is proud because these are extremely difficult things to do.

A responsible state cannot let the Army dilute these principles because of popular anger and a desire to hit back at those who it disagrees with. The Army cannot pay the price for our nationalism with its honour and self-respect. Popular sentiment outside the Valley might back the need for such unconventional actions, but sometimes wisdom lies in acknowledging the popular without acceding to it.