In a first of its kind occurrence, the Indian Army broke past precedence and its usual norms of low profile media approach by asking Major Leetul Gogoi of 53 Rashtriya Rifles to transparently state his point of view on the national television. The officer had been accused of using unethical means to rescue some trapped election officials and policemen from a polling booth in Budgam district during the Srinagar by-election on April 9 this year. The ethical aspect of his action had become a contentious affair since he tied a local Kashmiri civilian to the bonnet of an army jeep to ward off potential stone throwers while carrying out the rescue act.
Both issues are now in question: the act itself and now the award of the Army Chief’s Commendation to him for this act or what is purportedly being projected, for his overall achievements in counter-terror operations. The young Major confidently faced the cameras and mikes to present his side of the story which was clearly that he had responded to an SOS call from the ITBP and J&K policemen to rescue the trapped officials from the polling booth in Utligam village since they were surrounded by a stone-pelting mob which could well have lynched them. On reaching near the area, he was obstructed from moving ahead with his quick reaction team (QRT) by the stone pelters. This prompted the Major to get the nearest available Kashmiri, tie him to the bonnet of his jeep and use him as a ‘human shield’ to get his QRT through and perform what is now termed as a ‘heroic act’.
The contentious part which many, including senior Army officers and human rights activists, find objectionable is the supposed use of a human shield. I have often explained that in hybrid conflicts absolutism is the last thing one should ever expect. There will occasions and situations in which no norms, standard operating procedures or sometimes even ethics apply, as long as the action can be suitably justified to be within the limits of decent human behaviour and does not involve any harm to anyone. In the instant case, the only major harm seems to have been to the dignity of Farooq Dar, the Kashmiri citizen, who was tied to the jeep. When analysing proportionately—the gain from the act in terms of the number of lives saved against the loss of dignity of one individual—Gogoi’s action can obviously be fully justified. The issue is one of perception and the Army is one organisation which respects the power of perception. It has worked hard against all challenges to maintain a reasonably flawless record and is respected for its fairness and respect for human rights, except by those whose job it is to throw up everything Indian as distasteful. It realises the power of communication in such an environment and treats the people of J&K as the centre of gravity in the hybrid conflict.
The video of Major Gogoi’s action and now the upfront justification on national television by him have been used and continue to be used for propaganda purposes by the adversaries. There is no denying the fact that Pakistan and the separatists have been able to drive negative passion among the Kashmiris whose very hearts the Army is attempting to win by considering them the centre of gravity.
These are the paradoxes of hybrid conflict where ‘gain some, lose some’ is a daily occurrence and a virtual norm. That is the reason why I stated at the beginning that there is nothing such as absolutism in such conflicts. Most actions and responses are based on the nature of the provocation and the developing situation. The Army may have locally suffered some loss in positive perception. It must continue to manage local perception through positive actions as it has always been doing.
As regards the award of the Army Chief’s Commendation Card, there is some perception that it was premature and could have awaited the occasion of Independence Day when such awards are announced. However, it should be known that the Army Chief is empowered to award his commendation on the spot if an act of gallantry or distinguished service comes to his notice in course of his field visits. The Army Chief has made it known that it is his beholden responsibility to ensure the high motivation of his force and, therefore, decorating a deserving officer falls within that ambit. The larger perception issues within his own force have also been taken into consideration while taking that decision. The judgment of head of an organisation such as the Army has obviously been based on prudent balance of all factors in this complex case.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps