ON JULY 15, foreign minister S. M. Krishna will leave for Islamabad for bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart. Krishna says he is going for talks that will “ bring our two countries closer together. Let us hope that our efforts will be fruitful”. Back in Islamabad, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Krishna’s host, says Pakistan will raise the issue of “ human rights violations and army excesses” in Kashmir. If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this is it. But leave that aside for a moment. On an average, about 50 security personnel die every month fighting enemies who draw their inspiration from abroad and within.
And this figure does not include the alarming recent rise in deaths of the paramilitary personnel at the hands of the Maoists and other insurgents. In the last 15 years, more than 10,300 security personnel have been killed by terrorists, but their martyrdom is soon forgotten.
On the other hand, a single case of human rights violation by the army is “ breaking news” for days together on TV and fodder for writers. The situation is so shameful that a couple of months ago, the Supreme Court chided the government for treating armymen like “ beggars”.
The apex court was referring to the pitiable emoluments and pensions of the brave men in uniform who routinely lay down their lives so that we can live, but the honourable judges may well have been talking about their morale.
The armed might of any nation is meant to defend the country against threats, both internal and external. Our services personnel have time and again showed their power and responsibility while dealing with enemies within or outside and, barring a few aberrations, have never exceeded the briefs given to them and have always accepted the supremacy of civil authority. There are inbuilt systems like the courtmartial to deal with the errant. Unfortunately, a section of the civil society and the political leadership is now beginning to question its mission and doubt its integrity, leading to demoralisation.
Cases are sought to be reopened and decorated officers dread the ignominy of facing trial years after retirement and being stripped of gallantry medals in front of their grandchildren. There seems to be a motivated and preposterous vilification campaign against the army as a congenital violator of human rights and not fit to settle civilian problems. Worse is the hypocrisy. Nobody A. K. Antony seems to bat an eyelid when troops are rushed to quell violence in Gujarat but they all baulk when it comes to sending the same men to Kashmir or to the Maoist- infested areas.
What all this leads to is confusion at the political level which percolates down to the services. Home minister P. Chidambaram wants the army’s help to flush out and, if necessary, liquidate the Maoists. But votebank watchers in the ruling dispensation have nightmares of impending human rights violations but overlook the fact that there is a Human Rights Commission and similar outfits in every state for redressal.
The cabinet is divided on the question of sending in the army to trouble spots. Chidambaram wants to rope in the army to take on the Maoists alongside the police and central paramilitary forces, but defence minister A. K. Antony has reservations and says his men should be used as the last resort. The home minister wants army help to demine forested areas infested by the Maoists to carry out surgical strikes and wants Indian Air Force helicopters to be deployed for logistical purposes. Antony says nothing doing and the majority view is with him.
I am therefore not surprised that after a recent fiery and heated cabinet meeting, Chidambaram came out and told the media that he had only a “ limited mandate” from the cabinet to fight Left- wing extremism.
Admittedly, the use of the army should be a last resort but as far as Kashmir and the Maoists go, we crossed that point a long time ago. The army’s role shouldn’t be a subject of controversy.
It is accountable to the system and its intervention should be based on need and not on politics.
The brave soldiers fight in some of the most dangerous theatres of war and the political establishment must take its eyes off the votebank and let the boys do their job. Those who attack the soldiers do no more than shame themselves.