The only thing worse than the lack of a political strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir is the violation of human rights by security forces. The Shopian encounter of 18 July is a case in point — the much-publicised killing of three ‘terrorists’ turned out to be an alleged cold-blooded murder of three labourers from Rajouri district.
That one of our best Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units — the 62 RR — was involved in the alleged fake encounter raises very disturbing questions about the approach of the security forces towards upholding human rights in the Valley. The conduct of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police, which under a political government, would conduct an independent inquiry in similar suspicious cases, is also under the scanner. The military hierarchy, instead of acting as a watchdog for human rights, too, seems to have become complicit.
In the wee hours of 18 July 2020, three ‘terrorists’ were killed in Amshipora village of Shopian district in J&K by a joint team of 62 RR, J&K Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Much was made of this encounter and the Commander of the 12 Sector RR personally briefed the press and gave graphic details of the encounter. For long, Shopian has been the hub of terrorism in J&K and 62 RR has been at the forefront to tackle it. More than once the unit has received the honour of a Unit Citation from the Chief of the Army Staff and GOC-in-C, Northern Command, for its commendable counter-terrorist operations.
But three weeks later, the ‘surgical encounter’ fell apart when a missing persons FIR was lodged in Rajouri district. As per media reports, it was in fact a “fake encounter”. Three unemployed labourers who had come to Shopian from Rajouri for work had been allegedly killed in cold blood, in a virtual repeat of the Machil fake encounter of 2010. The Army was forced to order an inquiry and, on 18 September, curiously stated that during the encounter in Amshipora “powers vested under the AFSPA 1990 were exceeded”. Recording of summary of evidence in the case is underway, after which, a court martial of the perpetrators is likely to be held.
A rogue action
My assessment is that it was most likely a rogue act, done at unit or company level, in pursuit of decorations and unit reputation.
The labourers were staying in a rented house that was a short distance from one of the bases of 62 RR in village Chowgam. The unit/sub unit would have got the intelligence about the arrival and location of the labourers from Rajouri through its informers. I would not rule out the possibility of the informers misleading the troops, too, to get monetary rewards. However, troops are well aware of such dubious actions of the informers and are supposed to verify the information. Apparently, on 18 July night, the victims were taken to Amshipora, 11 km away from Chowgam where they were allegedly killed in a staged encounter. Weapons seem to have been planted and ‘recovered’ from the encounter site.
Villagers said that they heard the first shot around 1 am on 18 July. Then, around 2 am, two more gunshots were fired. Around 7 am, they heard a loud bang and some shots being fired. This version contrasts with the statement of the Commander of 12 Sector RR, who said that a heavy exchange of fire took place. The stage management of the operation and the post-encounter narrative indicates that it was not a case of mistaken identity. Against the standard procedure, the J&K Police and CRPF were not part of the operation. As per the Commander’s version, they joined the operation later and kept the stone pelters at bay. The villagers do not mention any stone-pelting. As per my assessment, the J&K Police and CRPF were not part of the operation. However, they kept silent to share the laurels.
After an encounter is over, a post-mortem is carried out at unit level to learn lessons. At higher headquarters, the commanders are briefed about the operation. Given their immense experience, from the circumstances, Commanders at brigade level and above can easily assess whether any wrongdoing has taken place to merit investigations. In this case, they failed in their duty and jumped on the bandwagon to showcase the ‘good work’—another successful encounter in their formation.
As an Army Commander, my staff and I remained very alert about human rights violations or errors of judgement that required investigations. On more than one occasion, as an Army Commander, I intervened to stop a cover-up, accept the rogue action and ensure disciplinary action.
A major setback in J&K
Due to neo-nationalism dominating the minds of the public and the media, this case has not received the attention it deserves. In my view, it is a major setback for J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha who has been making a sincere effort to reach out to the people. More so, when the ‘innocent’ victims were from Rajouri district, which, along with the adjoining district of Punch, has seen little or no terrorist violence for more than a decade.
It would be prudent on part of Manoj Sinha to ensure that the police investigates all encounters — as was done under political governments — to rule out any wrongdoings. There are Supreme Court directives that say all deaths, including those in encounters in insurgency areas, must be investigated by the police. In this case, despite suspicious circumstances, the police, rather than act as watchdog, became complicit and did not investigate.
This encounter is also a blot on the reputation of our Army. This kind of blatant rogue action will reinforce the negative perceptions of the people about the Army and the central government. It will give impetus to the propaganda of the terrorists and Pakistan.
Take the case to logical conclusion
Our Army has a stellar reputation for conducting model, people-friendly counter-insurgency campaigns. That one of its best units has perpetrated a rogue action of this nature indicates that something is seriously wrong. I keep my fingers crossed and hope that it is an isolated incident, and not an accepted norm.
The Army must ensure that the case is taken to its logical conclusion. The ambiguous statement — “powers vested under the AFSPA 1990 were exceeded”— does not inspire confidence. The AFSPA covers only lawful and good faith actions. In this case, the act does not apply at all. The perpetrators should be tried for murder under Section 69 of the Army Act, read in conjunction with Section 302 of the IPC.
The court martial must be methodically carried out, so that it withstands legal scrutiny by the Armed Forces Tribunal and the Supreme Court. This case must not go the Machil way, in which the sentence of the accused was suspended by the Armed Forces Tribunal. We also have the example of procedural violations in the Dangari Court Martial, which are likely to allow the accused to go scot free despite the stiff sentence awarded. It would be prudent for the Army to formally give the progress of the case to the media and the families, to inspire confidence.
Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has understood the gravity of the case and intervened to assure the people that justice will be done. He travelled by road for 6 hours and walked 4 km to reach Tarkasi village in Rajouri district and convey his condolences to the families of the victims. This is the first time such an action has been taken by a governor.
In another first, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has intervened in the case. Manoj Sinha, while on his visit to Tarkasi, said, “I visited the families. I have expressed my sympathies (to them). I have assured them that the Prime Minister of India has asked me to convey to the families that there will be justice and they will be taken care of.”
This case is a litmus test for the Narendra Modi government. Take it to its logical conclusion and let it be the beginning of the long-awaited political initiative to win the hearts and minds of the people of J&K to resolve the problem.
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.