On 31 December 2020, the Indian Army appointed Major General Gautam Chauhan as the first head of its newly created human rights Additional Directorate General. Chauhan will function as Additional Director General under the Vice Chief of Army Staff. The Army has a stellar record in upholding human rights, and with this appointment, it is reiterating its commitment to bring in transparency and a more focussed approach towards investigating cases of human rights violation.
An Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of SSP/SP rank will also serve on deputation with the additional directorate.
In a related development, on 1 January 2021, the Army set up a feedback and grievance helpline number – 9484101010 – in the Kashmir Valley under the 15 Corps. It is presumed that it will allow people to report cases of human rights violation.
The detailed charter, organisation and functions of the Additional Directorate General (Human Rights) have not yet been spelt out. This will be the real challenge because the existing system of investigation and disciplinary action with respect to human rights violations suffers from serious flaws that have put a question mark over its credibility.
The existing system
Any army that adopts a laissez faire approach towards human rights violation in counter insurgencies does so at its own peril and invariably comes to grief. The defeat of US and Pakistan militaries in Vietnam and East Pakistan are classic examples.
The Indian Army doctrinally, and based on its 65 years of experience of fighting insurgencies in the northeast, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, is committed to upholding human rights and conducting people-friendly operations against the terrorists. Even while conducting counter-terrorist operations, it adheres to the law of the land and international conventions. It understands that in an insurgency, the people are the centre of gravity. Nothing alienates them more than human rights violations, which bring the Army down to the level of terrorists. What, then, is the problem? Why is there a question mark on the stellar reputation of the Army with respect to upholding human rights.
The Army has elaborate rules, regulations and laws, supported by command guidance to deal with human rights violations. It is the relative failure to enforce these and the systemic collapse of checks and balances that result in indiscipline and extreme violations.
This is due to a convoluted sense of nationalism since 2014, safeguarding honour/reputation or notching it up through successes/awards, and for the sake of “soldiers’ morale”. The desire to protect unit/regiment/formation/personal reputation leads to cover-up/condoning of violations. Conversely, the zeal to notch up the same through successes and decorations leads to rogue actions. With respect to Jammu and Kashmir, due to religious factor, neo nationalism makes no distinction between terrorists and protesting masses. This thinking seems to have creeped into the Army. Rogue actions have been lauded and awarded. The pattern is predictable to a fault — denial, obfuscation, delay, opacity of investigations and shelter of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Internal corrective mechanisms have been diluted to the point of becoming dysfunctional.
The killing of three innocent labourers in Shopian on 18 July by Captain Bhupinder Singh, 62 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), is a case in point. This was a straight up rogue action, which his superior commanders failed to distinguish, something that is hard to believe. Each operation is analysed in detail at higher headquarters (HQ) right up to HQ Northern Command. Given their vast experience, commanders can easily assess if any wrongdoing has taken place. The inference has horrendous implications – the hierarchy has become complicit by design or due to incompetence. Yet, only Captain Bhupender Singh is being charged along with two civilians. In my view, disciplinary/administrative action is warranted against Commanding Officer 62 RR, Commander 12 Sector RR, and General Officer Commanding Victor Force.
It is pertinent to mention that very rarely does the army unilaterally order investigations into alleged violations. Most cases have been exposed by the media or through police investigations. Even in such cases, investigations are carried out “in house” on the orders of the Force HQ or at times by the Corps HQ.
And so, the credibility of the investigation is suspect. If that is not enough, the conduct of the court martial is very shoddy due to an inefficient Judge Advocate General’s Corps branch and a sympathetic court comprising “brother officers”. The verdict of the court martial even in high-profile cases fails to withstand the scrutiny of the Armed Forces Tribunal and the Supreme Court. Even the Supreme Court was misinformed to order the Court Martial (which was time barred under the Army Act 1950) of accused in Dangari fake encounter to facilitate their future acquittal.
Additional Director General (HR) must be made autonomous
Keeping in view the complex shortcomings of the existing system of investigations and prosecution in cases of human rights violation, Additional Director General (HR) must head an autonomous organisation with similarly empowered representatives up to Corps and Force level. If this does not happen, the post will merely become an adjunct of the system whose holder will merely warm the chair in Army HQ.
The investigators under Maj. Gen. Gautam Chauhan must be qualified to carry out legally sustainable investigations and prosecution. He must have the powers to order independent investigations. The armed forces also need to overhaul the Judge Advocate General’s Branch, which uses its expertise these days more for internal squabbles than for enforcement of military law.
Last but not the least, the Army must introspect and reform its leadership. It is a cause of serious worry if the commanders lack the moral courage to adhere to and enforce rules, regulations and law. The very need to create a human rights Additional Directorate General reflects poorly on the leadership standards prevailing in the Army.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.