A senior BSF officer's arrest in J&K for the killing of a youth poses new challenges. Officers and men need to be told that the government and the force would take care of them only as long as they are sensitive to human rights.

The arrest of Border Security Force Commandant R.K. Birdi in Jammu and Kashmir for allegedly ordering the shooting of a 16-year-old Kashmiri should send shock waves across the ranks in that critical paramilitary force. K.F. Rustamji, the legendary founder of the BSF, was a dynamic and respected policeman who built the BSF brick by brick and paved the way for it to become the premier ally of the Army that it is today in defending the Indo-Pakistan border. (It was just the other day that I was reviewing for The Hindu a diary he left behind.)

Ironically, Rustamji was the father of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India. Two articles he wrote in 1979 in a national daily formed the substance of the first petition of this genre: it drew the Supreme Court's attention to the miserable plight of undertrials in Karnataka and Bihar and ensured the release of nearly 40,000 prisoners languishing in Indian jails. This he did in his role as a member of the first National Police Commission (NPC) set up in 1977. He was known for his ethical principles and respect for human rights. He should be turning in his grave as a single BSF officer's misconduct and total insensitivity have brought ignominy to the organisation.

From what has been reported on the incident of February 5, 2010, Birdi's action was utterly impulsive and thoughtless. He was a total stranger to his victim, Zahid Farook Shah, a high school student. He did not therefore have any motive for the killing. (When the case against Birdi ultimately goes to court, this factor of an absence of mens rea could weigh in the mind of the judge while awarding the sentence, once other facts establish Birdi's guilt.) That there was no motive does not by itself take the sting out of an otherwise horrific act. It will also be poor consolation to the distraught parents.

These are the basic facts of the episode. Birdi and his fellow-BSF men of a battalion posted in J&K were travelling in a convoy one evening to their camp in Shalimar. On their way, they were confronted by a jeering group of youth returning from a rain-abandoned cricket match in Nishat, on the outskirts of Srinagar. Birdi, who was in civilian clothes, was so provoked by their behaviour that he jumped out of his vehicle, seized a weapon from one of the patrol party accompanying him and waved it at the boys to intimidate them. When this possibly did not work, Birdi ordered one of his jawans, Constable Lakhwinder Singh, to open fire at them. One of the two rounds fired by Lakhwinder from his AK-47 rifle killed Zahid.

The incident naturally led to a public uproar. An internal enquiry clearly pointed to misconduct. Lakhwinder was arrested on February 10. This did not assuage public opinion, as rumours were swirling that he was forced by his Commandant to open fire. Sensing the public mood, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took up the matter with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram during his recent visit to the State. The State Special Investigation Team concluded, following severe questioning of Lakhwinder Singh and his colleagues, that Commandant Birdi was the principal culprit. He was also found guilty of fudging official records in an amateurish attempt to save himself. His subsequent suspension was a logical outcome. Birdi was handed over to the SIT and has since been remanded to custody.

The Nishat incident is significant. First, it highlights the might of public opinion against the highhandedness of security forces. The BSF is not part of the conventional police force. Also it operates in extremely tension-ridden areas close to the international border. These are at best extenuating circumstances which do not at all dilute the responsibility and accountability of its members. They are basically ‘public servants', with only limited immunity from the law of the land even when they function in a disturbed area like J&K.

The stern action against Birdi sends out a warning to all policemen that, irrespective of their rank or the degree of hardship of their physical location, outrageous behaviour of the kind indulged in by Commandant Birdi against innocent civilians will not be condoned. One must compliment the firmness of Mr. Chidambaram and the doggedness of Mr. Abdullah in pursuing the legitimate complaint against a misbehaving Central force. Fortunately, the Centre-State divide and the crass politics that clouds many public security issues were not allowed to come in the way of delivering justice to a family that was blighted by the tragedy. Kudos are also due to the BSF leadership for being honest in its internal enquiry. This, again, is an example that should be emulated by other forces whenever a human rights violation is reported. These are times of transparency when a cover-up of a misdeed is not only not possible but is stupid and dangerous.

Having said this, we must ask ourselves why Birdi acted as recklessly as he did. First, I would like to have more information on his past. Has he come to adverse attention for erratic and impulsive behaviour earlier? If he had been reported against in the past, what did his supervisors do to discipline or counsel him? More important, what did his men in the battalion think of him? Without answers to these vital questions, we cannot fathom why he reacted so brutally to a most minor slight by a bunch of youngsters.

Let us not forget that life in the BSF — for that matter in most of the paramilitary forces — is tough. Men are posted in inhospitable places for long spells, away from their families. The sheer loneliness and physical hardship could kill the soul. A number of imaginative measures are being taken to reduce the intensity of the pain of separation from families.

The fact, however, is that ultimately, for one in a stressful profession like the police, nothing compensates for a wholesome life with one's wife and children. Whether Birdi was indeed a victim of suppressed emotions, only his close associates could tell. The history of the armed forces the world over carries many tales of recklessness by serving soldiers, and Birdi's is one of them.

The remedy lies somewhat in better person-management. To an outsider this may seem too naïve and fundamental. But it is hardly so. Mr. Chidambaram is a man of bright ideas and with tremendous faith in modern management practices. This combination can bring about a transformation in the way forces like the BSF are recruited and administered. That may not be a guarantee against officers like Birdi getting into senior positions in the future, where they can cause havoc. But then, there is no other way we can attempt to build sensitivity into the minds of the men in uniform who, because of the harsh environs in which they operate, have a short fuse that could blow at the slightest provocation.

Finally, one theory that will quickly circulate among many is that actions such as the arrest of a Battalion Commander could demoralise the men in the lower formations and make them ineffective and supine in the field. This is a legitimate fear that cannot be wished away. It is clear to everyone that Birdi's arrest was not a case of capricious administrative action fuelled by politics. It now requires adroit communication skills to convince the grassroots personnel of the BSF that they have nothing to worry as long as their conduct is civilised and in the interests of the nation.

It is not the freedom to respond to enemy fire that is now being sought to be curtailed. What is being stifled is unwarranted aggression against a civilian community which, at its worst, is misguided by the enemy. As long as the essence of this message percolates down the line through imaginative communication channels, there is little to fear in terms of loss of morale in the BSF's lower echelons. I am confident this will be taken care of, because the BSF has excellent men at the top, chosen on merit and not on extraneous considerations. It is gratifying that the force retains its professional élan despite an extremely difficult and contentious charter in J&K. More than that, it has not yet been politicised.

(The writer is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)

More In: Lead | Opinion