Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
Chancellor, Central University Kashmir
Both of us (writers of this article) were targets of messages laced with scorn on Twitter recently when we steadfastly opposed the circulation of an image of a civilian clicking a picture with the corpse of a terrorist in the backdrop, and also of what seemed like the dragging of bodies of the same terrorist just after an operation.
To put the record straight, the first picture was utterly detestable and the second was perhaps articulated out of context after the culmination of a military operation, subsequent to which the body of the terrorist had been tied by a rope and flipped to ensure the disposal of explosive which could put troops to risk. On opposition to the circulation of the pictures, we were, inter alia, informed by self-declared experts that the dragging of the body was a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in counterinsurgency operations and also that terrorists deserved no mercy. Of course, the commentators forgot in the bargain, that firstly, the picture was not that of the actual SOP being carried out, since the same is carried out by a rope at least 30 ft long, and secondly, a body ceases to be that of an enemy or a terrorist and is never mistreated, unless we are competing in barbarism with our neighbour. Needless to state, in this case too, the body may not have been mistreated, but the presence of civilians with cameras in such a zone is worrisome.
Why should such pictures not be circulated? If we dig deep into the issue, such actions can have deleterious repercussions. To begin with, they are bound to be used by inimical elements to spread misinformation about our forces, thereby depicting them in less than favourable light. Let us not forget that these are times of psychological operations, where messing with the minds of people and injecting hatred is a more potent tool than the gun. We just cannot afford to be an enabling device for the enemy in this dastardly environment. Such pictures, especially the one with a civilian with a corpse, can also lead to a vicious tit-for-tat cycle of violence with brutal photographs and videos being circulated, which has been seen elsewhere in the world, and is best avoided.
On the dignity of bodies of terrorists, many have responded with the oft-repeated refrain that ‘terrorists have no human rights’. This is a dangerous proposition. ‘Human rights’ is not a dirty word. It regulates our existence and acts as a shield towards the misuse of power by any person in authority. What we have always clamoured for, however, is a balance and equal respect for the rights of the men and women in uniform. Had there been an absence of rule of law, the logic professed for terrorists could well be extended to any criminal or perceived criminal, thereby justifying mob mentality. In fact, the Indian Army was one of the first armies to have incorporated rights training and monitoring and it would also be in the fitness of things if the military, institutionally rising above any popular sentiment, corrects the perception on social media when it threatens our basic ethos.
The Army has always guarded against desecration of bodies. An apt example is of Kargil, wherein, in the middle of the battle, the bodies of the enemy were not only handed over to Pakistan, but also saluted by our troops. True, those were bodies of enemy combatants and a direct parallel with terrorists may not be apposite, however, let us not forget that this happened despite the most unsoldierly conduct on the body of the late Captain Saurabh Kalia. Some provided examples to us how other nations dealt with such situations. But it may come as a surprise to many that most democracies are very sensitive to this subject. Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea by the Americans and mistreatment of bodies is akin to a war crime for them. Contrary to popular perception, Israel absolutely forbids disrespect to bodies and professes very strict rules of engagement, including prohibition of the use of human shields and maltreatment of bodies, which were banned by its apex court and dutifully followed by the Israel defence forces. In Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Africa, maltreatment of bodies is a war crime. Many other African states, which have faced gruesome ethnic violence, now provide for the protection of bodies.
The battle zone is not mathematical. There would be a variety of situations that would require split-second decisions. Therefore, imposing a zero-error environment might result in inhibiting the initiative of troops. However, there are aspects where there is no compromise. The true mettle of a soldier only comes to the fore under stressful situations, where he or she must not stray from military values. While the Indian Army would be ruthless in its operations thwarting terrorism, it would also be the most correct in following the rule of law, the laid-down procedures, including respect to the dead.
The scrupulous adherence to these ingrained principles is why the Indian Army has retained its reputation. Unnecessary chest-thumping on social media by seemingly bloodthirsty warriors, who have not gone beyond video games in real life, militates against the ethos of our military, and would continue to be treated with the contempt it deserves.
Despite extreme provocations, we cannot be like the other side and that is the reason why our Army retains its moral edge, and continues to prevail.
Co-authored by Major Navdeep Singh (Retd.)
Founding President, Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association