There are two issues that are pertinent about the commendation awarded to Major Leetul Gogoi of the Army’s 53 Rashtriya Rifles. The first relates to the timing — it was conferred on him by Army chief General Bipin Rawat before a Court of Inquiry has concluded its probe into his role in the use of a human shield during the Srinagar Lok Sabha election on April 9. Without casting any doubt whatsoever about Major Gogoi’s “sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations”, it is impossible but to conclude that the timing of the award sends a truly unfortunate message, one that risks a loss of public confidence in the Court of Inquiry, ordered by the Army itself. Since the Major was being probed for a possible transgression in an area plagued by insurgency, wouldn’t the commendation be regarded as a tacit approval of his action? The second issue relates to the circumstances in which Major Gogoi resorted to the use of a human shield, something that he admitted to doing a day after news of the commendation broke. Many of the specifics relating to this are irrelevant insofar as they do not constitute a justification for tying someone to the bonnet of a jeep and driving him through the street as a deterrent to stone-pelting. For instance, the discussion on whether Farooq Ahmad Dar was instigating a group to throw stones (as Major Gogoi states) or whether he was merely a bystander who was out to exercise his franchise (as Mr. Dar says) cannot cloud the larger issue — the impropriety of the Indian Army using someone as a human shield.
The Indian Army prides itself on a long and honourable tradition in guarding the Republic; indeed, it operates in places such as Kashmir in extremely trying circumstances that risk life and limb. But surely it must accept that the rules of conduct for men in uniform must be adhered to, despite the difficulties in doing so in the conduct of what is clearly an asymmetric engagement. If the use of human shields has been declared a war crime by the Geneva Conventions and opposed for the same reason in both “international and non-international conflicts” by organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, it is because such acts put people at risk and constitute a gross human rights violation. It is no accident that the use of such shields has been perfected by terrorist organisations, ranging from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to the Islamic State. It could be argued that in the fog of operations, some improvisation in standard operating procedures is inevitable. But the use of a human shield, in this instance of a civilian, can hardly be justified on this ground, because it militates against the basic principles that govern the rules of conduct in war and war-like situations. It would have been proper if this incident was met with stern disapproval rather than being exploited, as it has been in some hyper-nationalistic quarters, to reinforce an us-versus-them binary and pit the security forces against the Kashmiri street.