Shopian ‘encounter’ shows why Army officers need ethics training for troops in conflict zones

The Army has admitted fault in the recent killing of three Kashmiri youth in Amshipora in a fake encounter and is working towards ensuring justice.

The chargesheet against an Army Captain for killing three innocent Kashmiri youth in Shopian’s Amshipora village in July last year has again opened up the debate on moral dilemmas in counter-insurgency operations, and ethics around armed forces deployed in active conflict zones.

In the last three decades of proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, the Army has faltered only a few times. In the Shopian case, the Indian Army has openly admitted to their mistake in the fake encounter and is working towards bringing the guilty to justice. However, a case like this does call to question the moral and ethical values of the most respected organisation of the country. The details of the entire episode are very disturbing, and the culpability of a very small rogue element within the Army is discerned quite clearly.

Moral dilemmas

Insurgency is a ‘dirty’ war and an army trained and equipped to fight the enemy in conventional spaces finds it quite difficult to adjust to this new role. An enemy soldier is easy to fight across the identified border, but fighting in the hinterland against an insurgent/terrorist is not easy. Moral dilemmas sometimes overpower the thinking and decision-making ability of military leaders. While the motivation for young leaders may be recognition and awards, much more may be at stake for seniors.

Contact with terrorists takes place after weeks of hard work. It takes months of painstaking work to cultivate actionable intelligence. The liberty to fire the first shot is almost every time with the terrorist, who can see the Army closing in while the latter is still groping in relative darkness on the identity of the target.

In most cases, when the terrorist fires shots with an AK-47, the chances of the Army suffering casualties are very high. Now the biggest dilemma in the heat of the moment is how much fire power to use? In many cases, there are men, women, and children in proximity. The leader, in such moments, has a huge burden of ensuring safety not only of his own troops but also of civilians. The shame of losing a soldier and not being able to hunt down the terrorist is huge. It hangs over the mind and psyche of an officer leading the operation for very long.

The officer has to very quickly take many difficult decisions, which are related to collateral damage, the safety of people, and property. Any reckless action at this stage can turn into a very ugly situation. An officer’s dilemma is to cordon off the target area, move all non-combatants to safety, and deploy his men in order to be able to fight. At this stage, the number of terrorists and their ability to start a protracted gun fight is also not known. At times, religious places are also used as a hideout, and this becomes an almost no-go situation because of the extreme sensitivities involved. Many operations have lasted for several days just because of this reason. There is always the fear that things can get out of control and radical elements could use it to fan communal hatred.

Another huge dilemma is to identify actual terrorists, their sympathisers and over ground workers (OGWs). Add to this, the pressure to perform from higher headquarters. Is ensuring peace and normality enough in a given area of responsibility, or do results need to be exhibited? What is the parameter to judge performance in such operational spaces? Sooner or later the ‘numbers game’ comes into account. While the senior leadership openly speaks against this, you still hear units and subunits being judged on this basis. Peer pressure and the desire to prove your worth also puts an additional burden. Directly or indirectly, almost all cases of fake or staged encounters are a result of the numbers game.

A dangerous game of sources and informers

Active insurgency is a cat-and-mouse game between security forces on the one hand and terrorists on the other. Getting actionable intelligence that leads to elimination or neutralisation of terrorists is often a result of cultivating good sources, which is a very difficult task. Not everyone has the patience and guile to do so. It’s an open secret in Kashmir that being a ‘source’ is a cottage industry. Money is the biggest motivator to turn into an informer. Many survive this deadly, high-risk game by playing on both sides.

In the recent Shopian case and the Machil encounter in 2010, the officers who carried out the fake encounters may have been guided by sheer greed of their sources/informers. Invariably, innocent individuals from other parts of Kashmir were picked up and killed in mistaken identity.

The mindset of being an intelligence-based informer has many dimensions. First, to be recruited, a person has to be motivated enough to give information about terrorists. Once the person knows about the location and confirms the same, relaying this information to the handler is also not easy. The other major moral dilemma faced by the source is being labeled a traitor by his own community — the risk is very high for them and their family. Once exposed, they can be certain it could potentially result in death by torture. Many young men have died brutal deaths once they were exposed. Hence, their identity and survival are of utmost importance. Nobody understands this more than the junior leaders involved in actual close combat with terrorists.

Ethics and values

The Indian Army can be proud of its track record in upholding human rights in the Valley, in spite of the very violent situations they sometimes have to encounter. But when an aberration does take place, the role of the leader becomes very important. What motivates someone to resort to doing something so unethical? The honour code of the Army, combined with the Ten Commandments of the Army Chief, are loud and clear. These guidelines are explicit in regards to what ethical conduct should be, and in times of dilemma can help guide a vacillating mind. Do we need institutional training in ethics so that cases like Amshipora do not take place? What about cultural and religious training for all troops being inducted in conflict zones? The Army needs to take a closer look at this and also conduct a fact-finding study to identify reasons for including ethics training at its Corps Battle Schools.

In the garb of organisational goals, sometimes there’s a tendency to further own goals. Many times, excesses take place when an individual officer is very keen to demonstrate his professional achievement. Such people, even if they are a small minority, do exist in all organisations including the Army and state police. Sometimes the lines blur between saving lives and using undue force. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) cannot be made for each situation, because circumstances are fluid and very confusing during live firing. While operational situations may demand taking bold and aggressive decisions, at no stage should human values be subverted during counter-insurgency. The risks of going wrong are too high, a mistake by a young officer or a soldier may turn back the clock of peace and communal harmony.

Emphasis on good military conduct

Mistakes happen but they need to be accepted upfront. In spite of best efforts, sometimes innocent lives are lost due to cross fire and people get caught in this vertex of violence. In such situations, people do understand and cooperate with local police and the Army, however, what becomes unethical is staging an operation with ulterior motives. Honest mistakes are always condoned. The virtues of honesty, ethical behaviour, moral courage, and thus, good military conduct need to be emphasised.

Maintaining cordial relations with locals is equally important — this is part of WHAM (Winning Hearts and Minds) campaign in Kashmir. During times of crisis, the same people turn out to be moral shields, since they are good judges of the character of the local commander.

For an Army fighting a proxy war being waged by the Pakistan state, the Indian Army can justifiably be proud of its track record of the last three decades. To its credit, the leadership at all levels has always come out of its moral dilemmas with ethical and moral values intact.

The author has been involved in fighting insurgency in South Kashmir successfully on both fronts, winning hearts and minds as also the elimination of entire tanzeem/ groups of Lashkar e Taiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen (LeT, HUJI and HM). He was one of the pioneers in the conduct of Small Team Operations. Views are personal.



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