The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is the site of one of the region’s longest ongoing conflicts and is fraught with issues that complicate ideas of sovereignty, nationhood, patriotism, and identity in India. The Kashmir crisis presents near irreconcilable conundrums for conflict resolution. What makes the situation worse on the ground, however, is the steady increase in militarization of both the state and the people and the resultant rise in violence. Most recently, the use of a human shield by Indian forces has stirred a debate on appropriate military actions in the context of an armed conflict.
The recent by-elections in Kashmir faced a call for boycott from separatist groups and pro-Independence activists within the state who resent the Indian government’s approach towards the region. In the tense atmosphere surrounding the election, voter turnouts had been at a low as a result of a multiplicity of factors from indifference to fear of harm. With clashes from both ends, the polling booths had been fraught with the possibility of violence, and some had appealed to the armed forces for protection. However the method used to ensure this in the Budgum area of the state took a dark form. A young man was tied to the front of an army vehicle, allegedly to keep stone-pelters at bay, while passing through central Kashmir to provide security to the polling staff.
This man effectively served as a human shield and, in a viral video that sparked outrage on social media, he is seen bound while voices in the background appear to scream the threat that this is the fate that other stone-pelters may face. Later identified as Farooq Ahmad Dar, a 26-year-old shawl weaver, the video implies that he was a member of the mobs that attempted to resort to violence in the wake of the elections.
In his own statements, however, Farooq Dar has declared that he is neither a separatist nor a person who called for a boycott. Instead, he says that he voted in the election. He maintains that he was on his way to a funeral proceeding when he was apprehended by the army, accused of being a troublemaker, and beaten until unconscious before being paraded through multiple villages as a warning symbol. The video, which was extensively shared on social media, saw severe condemnation by politicians in Kashmir and demands for an inquiry. The police filed a case against the army unit, and Army spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia subsequently confirmed that the video’s contents are being verified and investigated.
The conversation on social media against this move in the week that followed expressed horror at the absence of clear political condemnation of such a move. There was additionally widespread outrage at the absence of official anger on this particular issue, while other issues of human rights abuse at far less severe scales face reprimand. There is also a significant strand of conversation, however, that, while not outright supporting the move, alleges that it was not worthy of condemnation if more people were saved by this process.
The Army’s own response has been similar, even while some individual members of the armed forces have spoken out against it. The narrative it takes indicates that the threat a potential stone-pelter faced was negligible when compared to the duty of the army toward the frightened polling officials – weaving this into a strategic tactic that the military was forced to use to minimize harm. Other views in support of such moves similarly imply that no tangible hurt came out of it, only an intangible assault upon the dignity of the young man.
What these opinions fail to take into account are the very implications of using a human shield and the message that such a move sends out when implemented by the security forces who take primary charge of defense of civilians. As some members of the Indian media have strongly pointed out, the use of human shields in armed conflict is tantamount to a war crime and against international standards of combat and the Geneva Conventions. Tactics like this fail to respect the personhood of the so-called human shield and dehumanize them into an instrument of war.
The idea that the Army is primarily a body that protects civilians is further integral to this issue. If the most important defense force fails to see an individual as worthy of protection, does that then imply that this person is unworthy of security? Or does it perhaps imply that there is a hierarchy of personhood that the Army follows, which ranks this individual below others? Those using a utilitarian argument justified this move on grounds of the greater good still do not tell us the metrics by which this individual may have been chosen for the sacrificial altar. Does that fact that in every instance where rights are violated in the Valley involves the sacrifice of a certain peoples not matter in this context? At which point does it stop being a strategic move and start being recognized as consistent and systemic assault upon a population?
The question of representation is also of relevance here. If the Indian army bears stewardship rights over the Indian population, does the same not extend to the Kashmiri population, which the state is intent on calling its own? Would the very individuals who defend this move continue to defend it if the army implemented it in a zone were sovereignty was less of an issue?
Finally, the debate has also devolved into questions of who the human shield really was and how new such a move is. The sanctioned probe into the matter will look into questions of what really prompted this move as it has been established that the breach has occurred. This begs an answer to the question of what circumstance would allow a population to deem such a move as acceptable? Even if, amidst the conflictive accounts of the incident, it is established beyond all reasonable doubt that Dar intended to be disruptive an pelt stones, should the Indian population condone a move to directly place an unarmed individual in potential harm’s way?
Activists have suggested that this is hardly the first instance of the army using a human shield and that this is merely the first time it has received an amplified response through social media. While this statement lacks official corroboration, it still provides food for thought. The biggest response to such an accusation has been that the separatists in Kashmir have in the past used children as shields as well. Since when and under which circumstances does a nation stand for one wrong to counter another? And if top officials are willing to let this one go by, they might not be admitting to the precedent-setting nature of such a move, but are certainly willing to set a precedent.
A report from the probe is expected by May 15. And it will determine not just what kind of blurry moral lines the Army is willing to traverse, but also crystallize their implicit attitudes to an increasingly frustrated and tortured region.