A furious set of artillery exchanges, followed by release of competitive videos, set off another round of threats and counter threats between the Indian and Pakistani military on Tuesday, May 23. In the morning the directorate of public information of the Indian Army released videos of Pakistani posts being destroyed by artillery fire. A few hours later, the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Public Relations released its own set of videos claiming similar destruction on the Indian side.
While the date of the artillery action was not clear, military officials in India claimed that these “punitive actions” were carried out in retaliation to the beheading of an Indian soldier and a Border Security Force constable earlier, as well as Pakistan’s continued efforts to abet infiltration by militants. However, most military officials also stressed that this kind of an artillery action was quite routine, and did not inflict much damage, since most posts on the Pakistani side were abandoned.
The artillery barrage comes at a time when the bilateral ceasefire on the Line of Control, established in November 2003, seems to be virtually over. Ever since the “surgical strikes” carried out by Indian Special Forces last year, the Indian government has been stressing on “overwhelming response” to any act of terror or attack by Pakistan.
However, the “overwhelming response” seems to have diminishing returns. Post the strike on Uri, which claimed the lives of 19 Indian Army soldiers, militants have continued to cross over and strike routinely at military targets. Every attack has yielded significant costs on the Indian Army, with nearly no loss to the Pakistani military. “In an asymmetric war, the Pakistanis send across some trained militants. India responds conventionally. Naturally, they hold the initiative,” a senior army officer based in the Kashmir Valley said.
The news of the artillery exchange also comes a day after the Indian Army announced the award of a Chief of Army Staff commendation card to Major Leetul Gogoi, the officer who had earlier been at the centre of a controversy ever since a video with a man strapped to the bonnet of his jeep in Jammu and Kashmir came to light on April 14.
In an unexpected move, on Tuesday, May 23, Gogoi appeared in front of the media to make a five-minute statement and then walked off, leaving behind a trail of several unanswered questions. While the incident has sparked off a complex debate, it is bound to impact the ongoing violence and protests in the state with the onset of summer.
Indeed, Gogoi’s appearance before TV cameras capped a series of fairly curious set of unprecedented moves that included announcement of a commendation card for Gogoi and release of videos of cross-LoC “punitive assault”.
The government regulations are very clear that promotions and awards are to be held in abeyance in the event of a pending inquiry against a serving official. By announcing a commendation card even while the Court of Inquiry was yet to formally submit its report the government made it clear that this was a political decision. The award to Major Gogoi for his contribution to counter insurgency duties in Kashmir also came with the official statement that his action to use a human shield was taken into consideration as well. If Major Gogoi was looking for validation, then it came from no less that the army chief, who told the Economic Times:
“A court of inquiry is for fact finding. It finds a person guilty/not guilty. The present court of inquiry will come to its conclusion but what I have learnt is that he has not committed an offence that will necessitate disciplinary action. On the face of it, even if he is found guilty of some lapse, no major action will be taken against him. I find no reason for major action to be taken against him.”
But other officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity said this award has now thrown the validity of the Court of Inquiry into jeopardy. “If a CoI is pending, then this award prejudices that process gravely. No convening officer or the CoI will dare to take on the army chief,” a senior military official familiar with the army’s rules and regulations told Scroll.in.
While there is discernible support amongst the officers for Gogoi’s actions, some of them also expressed worry that such a decision to overlook precedence and service rules could have only been taken by the political leadership.
“Clearly, this was a message being sent to those creating unrest in the Kashmir Valley, and was a political decision rather than a military one,” the officer, who did not want to be identified, said. The army chief, however, said it was to ensure that the rank and file were kept motivated.
“The message is to the rank and file of the Army operating in a difficult environment in the Valley. The Army has a responsibility to ensure violence comes down and peace prevails. This officer acted in a particular manner, where only someone on site could have taken a call. Under the circumstances, he took the right call. To ensure the confidence level of the officer and others operating in similar environment, he was, therefore, conferred with the award. The message is not for the people. I am concerned with my rank and file. When they are motivated they will take action and will not let the situation spiral out of control.”
The five-minute statement by Major Gogoi to TV cameras is also quite unprecedented. An officer facing a Court of Inquiry has never been seen on TV. However, the army’s top brass was clearly keen to field Gogoi to speak about his actions on national TV channels.
Curiously, during his five-minute statement to the media, Gogoi also made a startling claim. He said that Farooq Ahmad Dar, the man who was used as a “human shield”, was one of the instigators of stone pelting on that day. But if Gogoi is to be believed, then the police should have filed a case against Dar after he was released by the military. However, no such case was registered against Dar, who has maintained that he had stepped out to vote in the bye-polls on that day.
Incidentally, Gogoi, who sparked off this furious debate with his decision to use Dar as a “human shield”, originally joined the army as a soldier. His is one of the rare cases of using the Army’s internal promotion scheme that allows exceptional soldiers with “Officer-Like Qualities” to apply and if successful, be commissioned as an officer. Gogoi was commissioned into the Army Service Corps, a support arm of the military, but is doing a field tenure with the 53rd battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles in Kashmir.
While the award of the COAS commendation card to Gogoi has received much support from serving officers, this has also led to some confusion amongst them. The use of a “human shield” is expressly forbidden by army regulations and also goes against the code of conduct of counter-insurgency operations.
While there is broad agreement among serving officers that Gogoi was tactically sound, the move is also viewed as one that will only lead to more violence in the coming days. The ceasefire between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control, which was established in November 2003, is virtually over. This has given the Pakistanis an excuse to push through more militants every time they open fire on Indian posts.
But the bigger worry, according to intelligence and police sources in the state, is the nearly 300% spike in recruitment into militant groups. While the Kashmir Valley used to be dominated by foreign militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, both Pakistan-based groups, this trend has changed for the first time in over a decade.
The local, homegrown outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen, has seen a major spurt in recruitment, and the death of Burhan Wani, one of its commanders, has added to the spurt. With the army rewarding Gogoi in what is viewed as a clear violation of the law, it is feared among security agencies that this will propel fresh recruitment and violence in the coming days.