Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shocked the army, and possibly alienated it seriously, wit h his statement in Srinagar on Monday that under his Bharatiya Janata Party government "for the first time in 30 years, the army admitted its mistake".
Already junior field commanders were simmering at the restraints placed on them by top generals in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In a furious WhatsApp message that whizzed through army networks, junior officers blamed the deaths of eight soldiers in a militant strike near Uri on last Friday on tight operational restraints that were allegedly blunting the combat edge of front line units.
The perception that unit and sub-unit commanders' hands are tied is rooted in two recent events. The first is the public admission (referred to by the prime minister) by Lieutenant General D S Hooda, the army's top general in J&K, that soldiers at an army checkpoint made a mistake in shooting dead two Kashmiri boys on November 3 after their car ran an army check post near C hhattergam village in south Kashmir. An immediate court of inquiry swiftly found nine soldiers culpable and further disciplinary action will follow. The second event on November 15 was the awarding of life sentences by a court martial to five soldiers, including two officers, for cold-bloodedly murdering three innocent Kashmiri men who were cynically labelled terrorists. This will only be reinforced by the prime minister's ill-advised statement.
In fact, while these events sent a powerful message through the army, there is nothing to support the allegation that soldiers unnecessarily died in the Uri attack because sentries hesitated to shoot at the militants as they approached the army post. The army rightly insists that soldiers manning a vehicle check post on a busy public road in broad daylight should be restrained in opening fire, even when suspicious behaviour is observed. Yet no commander has, or would, demand restraint from a sentry a t an isolated post near the Line of Control when he sees figures approaching him during a night curfew. Army media managers have been active on social media, highlighting this crucial difference.
Even so, this has highlighted crucial issues for the army. The first is the contradiction between the generals' insistence, on the one hand, that the army must operate with restraint, winning over the populace by avoiding collateral damage; while, on the other hand, demanding a high operational tempo, with the performance of field commanders measured largely in the currency of militants killed. Junior officers are confused and angered by irreconcilable demands for both "kills" and winning hearts and minds.
There is also contradiction between demanding a soft touch from the field while simultaneously professing that the army cannot operate without the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This act, which allows even non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion, was designed for mass insurrection where public order evaporates. To insist upon it in today's Kashmir sends a confusing message to the front lines: "If you shoot the wrong person or destroy the wrong house, you are protected against the criminal justice system and the law of the land. But nevertheless, we will court martial you under military law."
The bull that nobody wants to take by the horns is the reality that as long as Kashmir remains a battleground between two opposing sets of heavily armed men, with both sets wary of being attacked any moment, errors like the one at Chhattergam will take place. No army conducts a serious counter-insurgency campaign in a heavily populated area without collateral damage. Mistakes will have to be condoned, or else transform the army's mission to armed policing.
If the generals were really serious about eliminating collateral damage, they would think seriously about lifting the AFSPA from select areas. This would break a negative spiral by boosting public confidence in a positive future; reduce support for armed militancy; and create a climate for progressive demilitarisation - which is the best way to diminish the possibility of damaging errors by the security forces. Operational errors cannot be eliminated by orders from headquarters.
Even as the generals have ignored the possibilities of this virtuous spiral, New Delhi has failed to understand that hard men with guns cannot manage Kashmir forever. The army can only create the security environment for a political settlement, something that it has already done several times at enormous cost. Yet each time the opportunity has been squandered through political lassitude; and instead of transforming the Kashmir narrative into a peace dialogue, it has reverted to accusations of human rights violations, fue lled by incidents like Machhil and Chhattergam. The army's convoluted attempt to retain both the AFSPA and restraint stems from its recognition that while minimising the possibility of collateral damage, it must retain legal cover in case Kashmir goes up in flames.
Thirdly, this has underlined the need for the military to come to terms with social media like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, which will inevitably become forums for the voices of junior ranks. The army's top command has long been blessed with a rank and file that keeps its opinions to itself. Today, the anonymity of social media has given a voice to even the most supine juniors. These voices will be increasingly heard over social media, unless the army transforms its deeply unequal and hierarchical relationship structures into ones that cater for the expression of dissent over issues like operational restraint. With few signs of democratisation, the army's media managers need to reflect on how they will manage anonymous dissent. The reflexive urge to restrict social media is unlikely to succeed. Only a vibrant internal discourse that allows a frank exchange of views and an outlet for grievances will prevent those from being increasingly leaked into the public space. Today the junior officers are venting angst; tomorrow it will be the increasingly tech-savvy rank and file.