An army court in its judgment on the Machhil killings of three civilians has awarded life sentences to the army men involved, including the commanding officer of the unit. This is a praiseworthy verdict underscoring the army’s keenness in keeping itself free of such cases. This follows earlier army action against the likes of the infamous Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major who had faked military action to bid for medals. Since the Machhil killings were also similarly inspired, the recent action makes it clear that the army frowns upon such action.

However once appreciation of the army’s action is done with, the shortfalls in the military justice system need to be noted alongside. Firstly, news commentary accompanying information on the judgment suggests that the officers and soldiers succumbed to temptation stemming from the ‘rewards’ on offer for troops and units performing ‘well’ in counter-insurgency. These rewards include good performance reports for individuals and units, medals, perks accompanying medals and unit citations. Those who benefit perhaps continue within the army. For instance, an officer let off in the Pathribal case retired at major general rank.

Secondly, it is easy to explain away such cases as individuals taking short cuts. There is little reason consequently to pursue other more demeaning reasons that may, in the event, be more relevant. In fact the faking of encounters by the Ketchup Colonel and Siachen Major are at best comical. The several hundreds of cases of unmarked graves in the Valley indicate that there is more to the permissive action regime prevalent in times of heightened counter insurgency than merely the pull of rewards. Even if some of those killed could be taken as victims of the dictum, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, at least a few of these killings can be attributed to psychopathic and others to ideological reasons.

The former may not be as troubling as the latter on account of the fewer numbers. The latter, killings done for ideological reasons, perhaps inspired by hyper-nationalism or misapplied religious zeal, are more dangerous since they paint a picture of an environment in which such ideology may have penetrated the service. It bears recall that the military intelligence officer Purohit, implicated in the Malegaon blasts, was posted in J&K, before he took his operation into central India. Even if he is dismissed as a lone wolf, these are dangers that the army needs to be cognizant of and warned against. With cultural nationalism now having gone mainstream, and if analysts are to be believed, the threat of resumption of insurgency in J&K not quite receded, there is scope for vigilance.

Secondly, military justice has been held in abeyance in graver cases. Three cases come readily to mind: the Malom killings of ten civilians being protested by Irom Sharmila over the past fifteen years; the possible rape and murder of Manorama Devi; and the infamous Pathribal killings in J&K.

In the Malom killings of people waiting at a bus stop in the vicinity of firing, the military insists it was fired on first. In the case of Manorama Devi, it is possible that those who carried out the murder were acting on illegitimate orders since Manorama was alleged to have been involved in insurgent activities. Even though they took their brief too far by allegedly carrying out a sexual assault alongside, the army protected them.

As for the Pathribal incident, it is linked to the Chittisingpora killings of Sikhs. Again those involved were likely acting on orders and therefore the army court this year chose to let them off for want of evidence.

While the army should not be held hostage in cases blown out of proportion as part of the propaganda war that is intrinsic to proxy war, where egregious violence is patent, it needs acting of its own accord and for reasons other than the internal good health of itself as an institution. Even in such cases the army’s reluctance to take action is sometimes evident, such as in the case of the boy burnt to death last month by unknown persons at the Hyderabad garrison of the army. It took the suicide of a soldier to put the needle of suspicion firmly on the army over its earlier premature and unnecessary denial.

Justice or politics?

Even in the Macchil case, unfortunately the credibility of military justice is such that the timing of the judgment in a four-year-old case suggests politics, given that J&K is set to go to the polls with both the parties in power in Srinagar and Delhi vying for the electorate. The former has already staked claim for the credit, the latter can be seen to be more subtle when this is taken in conjunction with the apology that the army has issued over the Chattargam killings.

Action does not get taken in the graver cases owing to ‘reasons of state’. In such cases it is only fair to take action against perpetrators if such action takes within its dragnet the bigger fish alongside. Those culpable in the higher rungs are seldom held accountable. The wheels of justice continue to turn ineffectually in regard to the 1984 and 2002 pogroms. It would not do merely to trace command responsibility only within the uniformed service. To the political level can be attributed negligence in exercise of control.

While Nehru did call for self-restraint when he deployed the army in Nagaland in the mid-fifties, which is found reflected in the famous special order of the chief of army staff, there was no overseeing mechanism in place either then or later. An officer known for his integrity, Lt Gen Sardeshpande, recalls an army chief’s visit to his location while in command of a brigade in the north east. The visiting chief told him to keep a close eye on a village in his area of responsibility that the chief in his time in command over the area had had occasion to set fire to, twice over.

Structurally, the situation has not changed much since. The army answers to the defence ministry though internal security is a home ministry responsibility. For instance, in the case of the recent killings of two youth early this month in Chattargam, media informed us of the home ministry writing to the defence ministry, asking for details.

If Section 6 of AFSPA is to be applied (the corresponding Section 7 in case of the AFSPA in J&K), it is the home ministry that waives protection against prosecution. For this, it has to have the facts from the defence ministry. The defence ministry invariably applies the ‘good faith’ principle as cover, leaving the home ministry no one to proceed against even if it wishes too.

The cultural aspect is that those charged with ensuring a democratic regime is in place across India are let off for allowing a permissive regime on their watch. Those democratically accountable at best merely stand to lose their seats for unconnected reasons. By this yardstick, ‘we, the people’ are as much to blame.

Therefore, neither should the Machhil judgment blind one to the wider canvas in which justice is central to reconciliation, nor be allowed to paper over the other areas of justice denial that continues to place reconciliation out of reach.