Should be made irrelevant to career growth
The first time is always difficult. Once you get over the first hump, it gets easier thereafter. It is a like tasting blood. The middle level army officer posted in south Kashmir who said this perhaps didn’t mean it literally. But since the context of the conversation was killing terrorists in Kashmir, one could not be sure. A few years ago, one human rights activist, the kinds who are constantly accused by the security forces of being sympathisers of the terrorists or the militants, said that the job of the police is not to kill who it suspects of being terrorists or Maoists. Police’ mandate is to arrest them so that the law of the land can take its course. Once you start killing people on suspicion you become a terrorist yourself. When this conversation took place, I had reservations about this hands-off-trigger attitude. After all, when you are fighting a terrorist, he is not going to extent the same courtesy to you. Besides, in the immediate aftermath of the Kargil war and amidst reports of torture the Indian soldiers suffered at the hands of Pakistan’s Mujahideens and our terrorists, one went with the ground swell that terrorists deserve no mercy. Collateral damage, the term made famous by the Americans, was also understood in the same context. Sure, some innocent blood is bound to spill when you are fighting an elusive and merciless enemy who hides among the innocents. The sentiments that our security personnel, read the army, (certainly not the police who have always been reviled as incompetent, bribe-taking slobs) are noble men, always ready to lay their lives for us ungrateful people, brook no argument. However, talking with that middle-level army officer led to some uncomfortable introspection.
Since FORCE covers Kashmir quite a bit, we have had many opportunities of sifting through photographs that our photographer sends us of various incidents, including ambushes. One kind of photograph which recurs quite frequently is of soldiers posing with the bodies of slained terrorists, some of them quite grotesque with body parts or clothes ripped off. We have avoided using such photographs because I find them both disturbing and worrying for two reasons, one, they dehumanize the dead, and two they desensitise the living. At such times, I have never thought that the dead could possibly be innocent farmers or carpenters, who have left behind elderly parents, a widow and a few children. My worry has always been for our noble soldiers and what such desensitisation would do to them. When they kill and pose with the dead, or mark an entry like ‘20 so far’ in their diaries what does it do to them. Do they remain kind, affable, good-humoured and upright men, or a part of them dies every time they kill?
I always dismissed my concern as stupid sentimentality. Soldiers are tough, they are born to kill. But in this season of fake killings, I am not so sure any longer. Despite my reservations of dehumanisation and desensitisation, I can still accept that to some extent it is legitimate to kill terrorists, or to use a new phrase that is being bandied about, ‘put them out of circulation’, but why would anybody want to kill an innocent man, not in cross-firing, not collateral damage, but deliberately, in cold blood, knowing fully well that the poor soul would leave behind a family with no support system. The reason is simple: despite high-falutin terminology, the fact remains that for the men in uniform, whether olive green or khaki, at the end of the day it is the number in the diary, ‘20 so far’ which will bring in the medals and commendations. A senior police officer in Srinagar recently told FORCE that killing has its own importance and that he can never tell his men not to kill. It is good for the morale of the troops and it is a reasonable way for career advancement. When your annual report card is made nobody has time to see whether you have been honest or whether people in your area were happy with your tenure. It is less cumbersome and time-consuming to rate your success on the basis of the number of people you lobbed off. So when you do not find the real terrorists or criminals, you manufacturer them. Dead, after all, don’t talk. And despite the real concern about the mental and emotional health of those who kill innocents to advance their career, the fact remains that such killings will continue to happen till they are made not worth the effort.
It is not enough that exemplary punishment is given if the guilty are caught; it will only teach the future perpetrators to cover their tracks. The better way would be to make killing irrelevant to one’s career growth. Better still, let killing be a negative. Before any killing is credited into an officer’s account, an independent enquiry should establish the circumstances of the incident and why the guilty could not be taken alive. Not that motive cannot be attributed and weapons not planted, but at least if the security personnel know that killing will not help their career, they will be less inclined to look for innocent scapegoats.