What Indians should know about war before demanding a military-crackdown in Kashmir

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Sections of India’s middle and upper classes seem increasingly drawn to the idea of using state violence to sort out political questions. This is expressed in many ways. Chander Prakash Ganga, J&K’s industries and commerce minister from the BJP, says that stone pelting youth in the Valley “are traitors” and that the “bullet is the only remedy for them”. Social media is rife with calls for ruthless action after 25 CRPF personnel were killed in Chhattisgarh on April 24.

State violence as a solution appeals to sections that have an uncomplicated, black and white view of the world. They do not look at social conflict in the context of history or as consequences of acts of State but view problems essentially as the fault of other countries or groups. They tend to believe that unflinching use of armed force is the hallmark of political leadership. The irony, of course, is that these sections professes a love for militarised methods without perhaps being acquainted with the experience of armed conflict and war. In other words, this cohort is happy to volunteer other people for violent quick fixes without understanding how conflict brutalises both the civilian and the soldier.

There are reasons for this. For years, people have been exposed to the view that unrest in Kashmir, tribal India and the Northeast are purely the fault of Pakistan, human rights activists and insurgent groups respectively – without much reference to the possibility that flawed state policies over decades has bred alienation. Such charged nationalist narratives often lead to calls for harsher methods without considering how such measures affect the ordinary civilian and soldier. The fact that people relate to the military purely through the lens of heroism also obscures its understanding of the lives of security forces. For instance, television channels show soldiers braving the chill of Siachen. Reporters interview families of security forces killed in encounters in Kashmir. These glimpses are compelling but only tell a part of the story. They don’t capture what soldiers experience when fighting war on the border or countering insurgencies within.

Thousands of soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been fighting insurgency in Kashmir for over 28 years and it is striking that we do not have a culture of recording their experience in ways that inform public debate on security policy. One estimate suggests that over 44,200 people have died in Kashmir since 1988, including 6,286 personnel from security forces. India is believed to have maintained about half a million security forces in Kashmir for years – but why are there hardly any accounts of soldiers about the insurgency, either through interviews, articles or books?

Think of it: Thousands of soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been fighting insurgency in Kashmir for over 28 years and it is striking that we do not have a culture of recording their experience in ways that inform public debate on security policy. One estimate suggests that over 44,200 people have died in Kashmir since 1988, including 6,286 personnel from security forces. India is believed to have maintained about half a million security forces in Kashmir for years – but why are there hardly any accounts of soldiers about the insurgency, either through interviews, articles or books? Why is it that defence publications and websites major on combat strategy and have very little on personal experiences of warfare? What do Indian army soldiers and CRPF personnel, many of whom come from marginal backgrounds themselves, really think about Kashmiris and Delhi’s policies? Is there any ethnographic research that addresses these issues? What do families of soldiers think about the ultimate price they have paid when the conflict seems unending? What do soldiers think about confronting civilian protestors with live ammunition?

We don’t have such research because secrecy rules prevent scholarly access and, consequently, people do not get to ask questions that complicate our understanding of conflict. We don’t have war memoirs of the kind Western soldiers and policymakers produce on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan for instance, which can provide political support from within the establishment for positions that align with anti-war, human rights critiques as in the West.

We don’t have such research because secrecy rules prevent scholarly access and, consequently, people do not get to ask questions that complicate our understanding of conflict. We don’t have war memoirs of the kind Western soldiers and policymakers produce on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan for instance, which can provide political support from within the establishment for positions that align with anti-war, human rights critiques as in the West. There is clearly a narrative vacuum and the bureaucratic silencing of soldiers has real policy implications because hawkish elites have moved into spaces where contrarian voices might have been – and framed the debate entirely on realist lines where the fates of soldiers and civilians are discussed in bloodless, strategic terms. This ends up creating a public consciousness that is favourably predisposed to militarised solutions – and when a middle class is hitching its fortunes to a frenzied, majoritarian nationalism, as is happening now, then that militarism has a particularly nasty edge that adversely affects Kashmiris and other dissenting groups.

It is under such conditions when soldiers are scared for their lives or see their friends die that they are prone to resort to ghastly violence. Not all of it linked to battle conditions; there are also clear directives in war to kill as many of the enemy as possible – as that is effectively the only measure of success in guerrilla warfare. The fact that such warfare is waged among civilians sets the stage for more moral trauma for soldiers. Caputo writes of marines stunned that they have killed combatants as young as themselves, of not being able to understand how they can shoot someone in the head or torch an entire village. There is also inevitable hazard of watching grievous injuries to friends, limbs hanging on by shards of flesh, windpipes being flooded by blood, exit wounds at the back large enough to fit fists and the “look of separation” in the eyes of those “alone in the world of the badly wounded”. Caputo also has an unforgettable description of handling dead bodies that have been mutilated in battle.

Thousands of Kashmiri civilians have died over the years; the shooting and blinding of citizens in the Valley is getting increasingly normalised.

All this takes its toll on soldiers. Caputo himself developed “a tendency to fall into black, gloomy moods and then to explode out of them in fits of bitterness and rage”. The point to underscore here is that sending security forces out to take lives is an act of profound moral responsibility which cannot be taken lightly. Thousands of Kashmiri civilians have died over the years; the shooting and blinding of citizens in the Valley is getting increasingly normalised. In Manipur, citizens are, on the Supreme Court’s orders, trying to compile evidence for extra-judicial killings of 1,528 people by security forces. Politicians cannot continue to pursue policies that brutalise civilians and dehumanise soldiers. Of course, a country must defend its borders and take security seriously but leaders should be judged not by their readiness to deploy (ultimately ineffective) force on their citizens but for their ability to create conditions where soldiers and civilians do not live with deep psychological burdens. This is the reason why sensible generals urge governments to find political solutions, saying their job is only to create military conditions for them. Implicit in this is a recognition that stalemates and internal wars of attrition have scarring effects on security forces (and civilians). Politicians must know that they are in the business of enabling human flourishing. Pandering to violent sentiments in the name of nationalism lets soldiers and civilians down.

It is time now for Indians to listen to the suffering and stories of soldiers and place it alongside the suffering and stories of countless civilians who find themselves in conflict zones. We need a more compelling picture of the totality of violence rather than simple media spin and armchair hate and anger.

The Article First Appeared In The Hindustan Times

 

 

 

 

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