Encounter Killings          

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Raj Rao

THIS week saw the death of both a soldier and a militant in Pulwama, which has somehow become synonymous with killings. It began with news about the presence of militants in Kamrazipora, which led the forces to scout the area. An exchange of fire ensued, in which the soldier, Sowar Jilajeet Singh Yadav, lost his life. But a militant was also killed in the encounter. Search operations in the fruit orchard in which the militants hid, continued for the next few days. Colonel Rajesh Kalia, the Indian Army’s Public Relations Officer, told journalists that an AK 47 rifle, grenades, pouches and other ammunition were recovered during the search.

The incident reminded me of what happened in Srinagar on 1st July, when a 60-year-old man who was driving with his four-year-old grandson was pulled out of his car and shot dead, allegedly by security forces. We who securely live in mainland India were moved to tears by images of the little boy innocently sitting on his grandfather’s corpse, which went viral on social media. How long will such atrocities go on in Jammu & Kashmir, we asked ourselves.

Just a week before the July incident, a 62-year-old father and his 32-year-old son in Tamil Nadu were arrested, tortured and brutally killed in custody by policemen for keeping their mobile store open well beyond the stipulated hours during the coronavirus lockdown. However, in this case a Tamil Nadu court held the cops guilty on the basis of autopsy reports, and ordered their arrest. Later, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court asked the CBI to investigate the case. Only last week, we heard that the CBI has charge-sheeted the nine policemen guilty of the heinous crime. They have been booked for murder, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence.

The way I see it, it is one set of rules that prevails in Jammu & Kashmir, and another in the rest of India. The difference of course is that in Tamil Nadu it was the police who were the culprits, while in Srinagar it is often the army.

Now the army, as everyone knows, enjoys impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). According to this act, no soldier can be tried for anything without the express sanction of the home ministry. And soldiers are blue-eyed boys of the home ministry.

News channels that favour the government always claim that civilians aren’t killed by the army but by militants; they are frequently killed in the crossfire that occurs when militants attack soldiers. However, many of us think otherwise. It isn’t unusual for the government to invariably put the blame on militants and Naxalites, whether in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere. Besides, militants, to the government’s way of thinking, are outlaws. If they kill, they are only acting in character. Soldiers, on the other hand, aren’t outlaws. They are supposed to safeguard our lives.

The army has a dubious track record when it comes to opening fire on civilians. Only last month, they beat up two journalists, again in Pulwama. One of them, Faisal Bashir, was a freelance journalist, while the other, Kamran Yousuf, was a photo-journalist employed by a news portal. Yousuf’s camera, it is said, was damaged in the scuffle.

A human rights violation is a human rights violation, regardless of who commits it. It thus comes as a welcome change when we hear that the army has finally initiated disciplinary action against its soldiers for firing upon and killing three civilians in the name of encounters in Shopian district on 18 July, a little over a fortnight after the Srinagar incident.  The civilians were casual labourers from Rajouri in their twenties; they had gone to Shopian two days earlier. The army admitted for the first time that in killing the young men, its troops “exceeded” powers vested in them by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It is hoped that such punitive action taken by the army will serve as a deterrent to trigger-happy men in uniform in the future.

I have friends in Jammu & Kashmir who have been victims of the army’s brutality. There are instances when soldiers have actually entered and killed civilians in their own homes! Bollywood films like Uri: The Surgical Strike have valorised and glamorized the army more than is required, and have prevented us from seeing that army men may have their dark side too.

It is about time that the government takes a fresh look at AFSPA and reviews its validity. A law that gives soldiers unregulated power to shoot and kill with impunity, all in the name of “aiding civil power” violates the Fundamental Rights granted to citizens by Article 19 of the Constitution. It is also contrary to the spirit of the welfare state. Soldiers must not get away with the impression that they have the licence to rape, torture and kill civilians without the fear of being court-martialled. Unfortunately, they have been doing this for decades in all the so-called “troubled” regions of the country.

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