The aftermath of the incident in South Kashmir, where a civilian was tied in front of an Army vehicle to protect the polling staff from a large stone-throwing crowd, has been discussed threadbare, and is being continually attended to by an over-enthusiastic media. As stated by the officer leading the Army detachment, the move exhibited innovation and initiative in a dire situation, despite its oblique connotations. The obvious alternatives may have been worse and heart-rending. Rules of engagement too are not handcuffs, but handrails, guidelines that allow for zero-hour initiatives within the laid down realms of use of minimal force, safety to lives and avoidance of collateral damage, and larger response to human rights considerations. Ideally, the situation and the response must not be replicated.

However, mention must be made here of the security forces’ response to the stone-pelters at the location of a terrorist incident. Responding to the call of inimical parties, stone-pelters deny the security forces any room to manoeuvre during counter-terrorist operations. Thus, these stone-pelters act as accessories or accomplices to the terrorists by being present at the location of a terrorist-crime site and by acting in a disruptive manner. As accessories, they have knowledge that crime is being committed, but by their actions they help and encourage the principals—that is the terrorists. When these accessories resort to such disruption, the security forces need to act against them in a manner “similar” to how they would act against the principals. In fact, these accessories are generally termed as over-ground-workers of the terrorists. After all, the security forces cannot equate the stone-pelters’ “protest” with a political agitation, say at Jantar Mantar. Of course, targeted fire from the terrorists and multi-directional stone-pelting are two diverse areas. So, mindful of human rights, attempts must be made, initially, to remove the stone-pelters from the site of counter-terror operations and ensure that they do not come in harm’s way. However, within the norms, rules and commandments, accessories to terror need to be seen similarly. The principals and their accessories are partners in conspiracy, voicing political discontent through radicalisation and through the use of force, which can be contested only through the use of force—firm yet minimal.

Experts, analysts, commentators, academics, veterans and politicians have, of late, been making a cacophony by siding with one or another viewpoint. Media channels and social-media too have been affecting society at large and the serving security community on the matter. 

Armies the world over prefer to combat adversary armies, than terrorists embedded in a semi-radicalised civilian population. Any army’s, including Indian Army’s, raison d’ etre is closing-in, dislocating and destroying adversaries. Any engagement where traditional borders do not exist, where every operation has the likelihood of involving civilian population, how so much small, is an aversion in a democratic dispensation. In a counter-terrorist environment, the aim is to isolate the terrorists, while segregating and protecting the civilian population. Such situations lead to interactions between the society and the soldier and puts societal pressures on the polity. 

In combating terrorism abetted by a proxy war, as the one in Kashmir, where control in the use of force is of paramount consideration, there cannot be any victors. In India, the situation is no longer akin to the insurgencies of the 1960s and 1970s, where the lack of information in the drawing rooms did not put any pressures of democracy on the polity. The soldier and his leader are not divorced from reality. They are in touch with society through friends, family and social media. For the security forces—who are a part and parcel of the democratic dispensation and society at large—any recognition of their life threatening ventures is oxygen. However, the constant journalistic probing, the loud and brash electronic media debating operations incessantly, the polarisation of public opinion, the evident radicalisation, strain the state agencies. The arm-chair debates on television affect the soldiers, with many of the “analysts” and “commentators” using pejorative language and mannerisms. 

Such sensationalism can have dire consequences. It may well carry forward to the next day’s security operations and may lead to hesitations. Any hesitation at zero-time in combat, any anxiety about the acrimony an action will generate, will embolden the terrorist organisations and their kin, who are always on the lookout for signs of weakness. Inimical elements do not miss to spot our internal dissensions and hesitations. In fact, they seek to use these to inflict higher casualties on the security forces. In time, this may lead to loss of initiative, motivation, morale, and inculcate a defensive mindset in our forces.

In this context, there is a lot to “learn” from the dignified debate post the Manchester and London Bridge/Borough Market attacks. Such debates must have strengthened the hands of those involved in combating terrorism incessantly.

It is the state that gives a task to the security forces, which the latter complete within the rules. The state, the society and the soldier (contextually also the policeman) are intertwined inexorably. The soldier deserves support and consideration. To do their task, soldiers draw strength from the society and the state. 

On their part, the security forces, with a wealth of experience behind them, must rely on time-tested methodologies—innovations, if any, will be explicable as exceptions, and not a rule. The security forces must also learn the nuances of the electronically charged environment and adjust to the occasional critique from the serving or the veterans, without any hyper-reaction.

Rakesh Sharma is a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army

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