Lt General Harcharanjit Singh Panag, retired from the Indian Army, has been in the news since he tweeted,”image of a ‘stone pelter’ tied in front of a jeep as a ‘human shield’,will 4 ever haunt the Indian Army & the nation!” This let the trolls out and the General was abused and questioned on the social media, with motives being hurled.
In an interview published by The Citizen, he speaks about the underlying thought behind the tweet. Upon asking, “Is he deterred by the viciousness of the attack?”, he laughed with a “no question of it.”
The interview moved from the tweet, to the Indian Army, to inevitably Jammu and Kashmir.
Q. What provoked that tweet?
(Laughs) Well the Indian army has been conducting counter insurgency campaigns right from 1956– Nagaland, then Mizoram, North East—and since 1989-1990 in Jammu and Kashmir. What distinguishes the Army’s counterinsurgency approach vis a vis all the other armies of the world is that we follow the law of the land. Of course we have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to protect us but we follow the law of the land. We are the only Army in the world which has been successful in containing insurgency. Mizoram is a classic example. Nagaland–I am talking of the first Nagaland Accord…Manipur… And even in Jammu and Kashmir the situation was brought under control by 2010 and still remains under control. We have followed Army rules and regulations, and when there have been complaints, there have been investigations and over a 100 officers and other ranks have been court martialled and punished for violations.
But this image of a man tied in front of a vehicle not only presented a pathetic image of the treatment of civilians, but also it is a defining image, as defining as some of the images of the Vietnam war. And it is for the whole world to see. I would say that this image will be at the centre of the conscience of the international community and the Indian public. That is why it was so disturbing to me. For the first time I am seeing such a blatant example of human rights violation…
Q. Did you expect this huge response to the one tweet, a lot of it anti- of course?
Let me put it this way when you are on social media, particularly Twitter on which i have been active for some years, it becomes a no hold barred kind of response, a twitter war starts, this is my 10th or 12th twitter war.
Also a lot of people with extreme right views are now active on the social media, they have very extreme views on nationalism and also they have placed the army at the centre stage of defining nationalism, as to what nationalism in their view is . Anything you say against the Indian army is also seen as a criticism of nationalism, and of the country. So this is a very discernible trend I have noticed and consequently even a person like me who has spent 40 years in the Army, in an Army command, also operated in Jammu and Kashmir, comes in their line of fire. For example any suggestion you make which is critical—even of reforms in the ordinary conventional functioning of the Army– is seized upon by the right wing supporters and it becomes a kind of confrontation. And that is how it is.
Q. How do you define nationalism as a soldier?
The Indian Army is a patriotic institution. The word nationalism has got a different connotation and I would say that it really does not apply to the armed forces. The Armed Forces are very patriotic, we adhere to the Indian Constitution, what is enshrined in the Constitution.
Q. What do you feel about the increasing trend to deploy the Army in situations within the country?
Earlier it was generally believed the armed forces are for foiling external aggression. And to tackle insurgency they would come for a short while and go back. And as the state police failed to handle the situation, the Army was brought in more and more, but the understanding was that the Army would be there for a short while. But what happened, as in Jammu and Kashmir and the North east also, although elections were held and governments came to power in the state, at no time were we able to define a military end state, or for that matter a political end state.
.So since the military end state was not defined it seemed to continue for ever. The military is there and we feel that if the military is removed the state will go back to bad times. This hampers the civilian government from functioning, it also creates another authority that is prevailing in a state, and the impact of the long term presence of the Army in a state is resented by the people. And instead of poor administration and the poor policing earning the ire of the people, it is the Indian Army that faces the ire, and this I feel is the biggest harm that has been done to the image of the Army.
But having said this, I must also say the entire spectre of conflict has undergone a change and there is an overlap taking place all the time. The term that has now become popular now is hybrid warfare, that every war will involve all these things simultaneously. So a situation like Kashmir may have an insurgency, may have a civil disobedience dimension, mass agitations and also an element of conventional war. So if it is going to be hybrid warfare then I suppose there is no option but for the Army to remain involved, and also to learn the nuances and master these. In Jammu and Kashmir, if not be design, then at least our functional approach we have learnt this and are prepared to deal with the hybrid nature of the conflict.
Q. Has the Indian Army been impacted by politicisation like many other institutions?
We are probably a real reflection of our Constitution. I have never felt that within the army there is any kind of discrimination in terms of race, colour, caste, religion.We respect and honour all. In every organisation there are imperfections, but these have been aberrations. Army has been free of all this. The Army has never involved itself in the politics of the country, except for voting, we remain aloof.
Q. So how do you see Jammu and Kashmir panning out? There are always two angles to conflict –one is the military angle, one is the political angle. All conflict, all insurgencies are fought for a political gain, both by the state but also the insurgents. For of course different motives. The state wants to establish its supremacy and ensure the well being of the people; the insurgents want to gain control. The general public is caught in a bind, it has a sentiment against the government for past issues because of which the insurgency started in the first place; at the same time it wants stability, a normal life, want to raise children, well being
The second part is the military aspect, the terrorists fight the military to bring it down to convince the people that they call the shots. The state strategy is to protect the population, finish the insurgents and bring back normalcy.
Although there has been a see saw, the militants have lost the military battle. They first lost it by 1995 and when the Pakistani terrorists came in, it picked up, it peaked in 2003 and thereafter there was a decline. The military battle has been won by the state and the military strategy has been eminently successful. Counter insurgency has been very effective, and can be even further improved with ease.
Where we have failed and where the terrorists have made significant reach is in the political battle, more so from 2010 after the Machil incident. 110 boys were killed in protests in that year, and the public discourse started moving towards the terrorists. Maybe it was that the public had invested in insurgency over the years and suffered, and suddenly realised nothing much has been achieved. And of course the controllers of the insurgency, be it the terrorist leaders or Pakistan that is a main player, changed tactics to mass agitations, intifada kind of tactics, action, reaction.
This happens when there is a political vacuum. And this has been filled by the terrorists, by the insurgents. They have taken the initiative. We only relied upon elections, and we felt that the regional political parties will manage. But such a corrupt state, the democratic governments of the state have not been able to deliver on stability or on good governance. So much money has been sent to Kashmir but the situation is worse than the so called bimaru states of India.
That is why we need a political initiative from the centre like that taken by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later Dr Manmohan Singh. This led to ten years of peace, till 2013. There is a requirement for the centre to step in. I still think all has not been lost. Although political statements have been made the government has not made a single statement that counters the existing policies that successive Indian governments have followed. The government has so far adhered to that.
A political initiative from the very top can check the situation. But the political vacuum must be filled and we have to hold talks with the stakeholders. I am a firm believer that Pakistan is not a stakeholder in Kashmir and talks with Pakistan must be stopped. Every time we say Pakistan is to blame means that Pakistan has greater control on Kashmir than we do, that we cannot control Jammu and Kashmir.
Stick to the rule that talks will be within the Constitution. Sky’s the limit, please define your sky.
Jammu and Kashmir police is the best force in the state after the Army. Despite all the problems the police has remained steadfast, it has never rebelled, it has never done anything wrong. It is very efficient, it is the mainstay of the counterinsurgency campaign. I am of the view that when the situation is calmer— we could have done this in 2010, in 2013 also, but the situation is volatile so a little later, we must remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from parts, 10-15 km belt or even 20 km belt along the Line of Control is where AFSPA should apply.
Thereafter as we progressively applied it, we must progressively lift it. Army must focus on counter infiltration, 70 per cent of the force should be put in counter infiltration posture, and keep a reserve of 30 per cent. Counter insurgency in the Valley should be given to the Jammu and Kashmir police and the Central Reserve Police.We can easily raise additional battalions. This was done in Punjab, the police took charge, the rest is history.