The importance of perception management
In a conflict situation, perception is always more important than facts. There is nothing sacrosanct about facts as they can be both manipulated and concealed. Hence, it is important to take what the general public believes seriously, as against what the state thinks it should believe. While this should apply to the whole of India, it is particularly important in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, which suffer from a sense of disconnect from the rest of India. Yet, for inexplicable reasons, the Indian government has never understood the importance of perception and carries on with its business of governance or non-governance without a care about how people perceive its actions or non-actions.
For example, in Kashmir, in the nearly two decades of violence, the popular perception among the people is that thousands of young men have disappeared over the years. Most of them were tortured and killed by the assortment of security personnel. This is the perception of the people, which independent human rights bodies and concerned citizens try to support by a plethora of example and incidents.
As opposed to this, the government of India states as fact that no records of human rights’ offences were kept between 1989 and 1994, which were the darkest years of insurgency. However, since then there have been 1,122 allegations of human rights violation against the security forces (including the army, paramilitary and the police) of which only 32 were found to be genuine. This incredulous claim was made in the middle of May by the ministry of home affairs in response to a right to information petition. Interestingly, nearly a year ago, in an interview to FORCE, the army’s deputy director general for public information had said that, “Since 1994, there have been 1,200 charges of human rights violations against the army, of which 1,146 have been investigated and 56 are currently under investigation. 1,094 cases were found to be baseless and in the remaining 54, which were found to be true, punitive action has been taken.” Considering that even the army would be underplaying allegations of violations against it, the ministry’s claim is even beyond incredulity. Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between what the government wants to project as fact and what people believe as truth. And given that the organs of the government itself are not unanimous about the propaganda figure they want to put out, it is obvious who the people would believe.
On our recent visit to Kashmir a few weeks ago, fake killings at Handwara were the talking point in all public places, whether the waiting lounge of a politician or restaurants. The discussion always concluded with the assertion that one will never know the extent of the fake killings and the guilty will eventually be reinstated and posted out after the current furore is over. And though the incident is almost seven years old, in most discussions, the Chittisingpora massacre of the Sikhs always creep in, with many people saying that it was carried out at the behest of the government to discredit the militants. Whatever the truth may be, a large number of Kashmiris believe this. To buttress their argument they hark back to the 1993 killings of 60 civilians by the BSF in and around Bijbehara, even though the government asserts that the guilty personnel were punished. The general perception is that nobody was punished and the BSF personnel were posted to other location after a cooling off period.
When we went to meet the former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in his official resident on Gupkar Road in Srinagar, a local accompanying us remarked that thousands of innocent young Kashmiri lay buried under the house. In the early Nineties, this house used to be the interrogation centre for the security forces. Even today, middle aged Kashmiris shudder at the thought of the interrogation centre. Our local guide said, “I was brought here twice, but on both occasion, despite the torture I managed to escape alive. I was fortunate to know some senior army officers who put in a word for me. Otherwise, it was unthinkable for a person to come out alive.” Even if the person was found to be innocent? “But who is an innocent person?” he countered. “If your neighbour or your relative had crossed the border, you were presumed to be complicit and probably you were because you would not want to report your relative.”
When these people are told that there were only 32 incidents of human rights violation in the last 12 years, it is anybody’s guess how they will respond to this. Despite the official claim, both by the government and the army that the guilty were always punished, there are few people who believe that because it is not enough that the guilty are punished, it is important that they are seen to be punished. This is the reason why it is also important that army violators be prosecuted by civil authorities and not by the army, because even when exemplary action is taken against its personnel it does not convey a sense of justice to the victims. The army claims that it has prosecuted guilty personnel in 54 instances, how many of these punishments have made to the news pages.