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Macchil Verdict: Reading Between the Lines

Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 25, 2014

    On November 13, 2014, the verdict on the Macchil fake encounter case was announced. Five of the accused, including the commanding officer of the battalion involved in the killing were sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence is being seen as a landmark judgement by the General Court Martial (GCM), after the army took over the case for trial by a military court.

    The verdict comes within days of the Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, acknowledging a mistake, when two young Kashmiri boys were shot while they tried to rush past a vehicle check post, despite being challenged, in a commendable display of high moral standing. While the two incidents might be seen as distinct and without any linkage, yet a closer look indicates a pattern which needs to be discerned and analysed.

    The exemplary punishment by the GCM, is a clear acknowledgement of the wrongdoing by a group of individuals, who took law into their hands and shed blood for personal benefit. The reprehensible crime is clearly an act of commission, which indicates the wilful desire of the officers and men to commit the crime. On the other hand, the action at the check post, according to available media reports, is an act of omission, as a result of the failure to follow laid down rules of engagement. However, there is a common thread, which binds these two incidents together. And that is the decision of the army to acknowledge the mistakes and simultaneously attempt to punish the guilty through a fair and expeditious judicial process.

    This raises three issues which need to be placed in perspective in the backdrop of this differentiation. First, the role of honours and awards in such crimes, second, the impact of punishment on the morale of troops who undertake a challenging responsibility and last, its impact on the population of the disturbed area at large.

    Honours and awards have always been a source of motivation, pride and contributor to morale. A small piece of ribbon achieves more than the combined wealth that a soldier earns in his service life. This works well against an external adversary, with a clear distinction between friend and foe. However, these lines tend to get blurred in operations fought on one’s own soil and amongst one’s own people. The dichotomy of the situation is further accentuated in the absence of clear victory and defeat. Despite this contradiction, there was a need to motivate men, under conditions which were often far worse than a short war over 14 or 21 days. This becomes all the more difficult, given the harsh and unfair judgement of a section of population, which remains sympathetic to the perpetuators of violence. The painted walls of Chennai railway station are a case in point, which read IPKF as “Innocent People Killing Force” and the posters in Kashmir which said, “Indian Dogs Go Home.” This led to adoption of innovative methods like unit citations, besides other individual gallantry awards to motivate soldiers, who saw themselves fight a thankless conflict. However, the system of honours and awards carried within its ambit the seeds of potential abuse, since it was linked with the killing of terrorists. The Macchil case is a dark example of this craving for individual and collective glory.

    The easiest solution to the challenge of fake encounters for awards would be to abolish them. However, this would be a case of missing the woods for the trees. The strength of the army, amongst other factors, flows from the intimate understanding and knowledge of commanders of their men and units. Therefore, if officers up the chain of command are held equally accountable for such acts, there is little scope for recurrence of such incidents.

    Holding the guilty to account is often confused as being detrimental to troop’s morale. Nothing can be further from reality. The morale of a soldier or a battalion is likely to be hit harder in case honours are bestowed upon perpetuators of crime, which incidentally is always known by word of mouth within the army. Therefore, the only reason for continuing to accept such cases is personal advancement, unlike the myth of morale which is often used as a red herring.

    This also highlights the role of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is seen as the legal shield for protecting the army. The law merely aims to achieve two objectives. First, protection of personnel against legal victimisation, which is often experienced through filing of false cases, thereby, affecting the ability of a force to operate. While doing so, its unwritten sentiment also differentiates between acts of omission and commission. Second, it provides operational flexibility to function under the peculiar conditions prevalent in disturbed areas. The law does not condone acts of commission, done in the pursuit of personal advancement, as is evident from the accompanying do’s and don’ts, as well as the rules of engagement in a given area. The speedy actions of the army in the two cases will go a long way negating the accusation that justice cannot be delivered by the men in uniform. Therefore, the focus of attention must remain on the implementation process of the law, which makes the difference between delivery and miscarriage of justice.

    If the intended aim of deploying a force in a disturbed area is to defeat terrorism and not merely to kill terrorists, as is widely acknowledged, then it is the people of the region who must remain the centre of gravity. The two cases, may well have added to the sense of alienation in the valley. However, the moral courage of the highest military commander in the state to acknowledge the mistake and ensure that justice is delivered, has undoubtedly minimised it. These unfortunate incidents should therefore be minimised and whenever they do occur, justice must be delivered to limit its negative fallout.

    These incidents have a larger lesson for not only the army, but all uniformed forces involved in counter terrorist operations under challenging and trying conditions. First, the force must differentiate between genuine mistakes and wilful crime. Second, delivery of justice in a fair and transparent manner is a major factor in winning over the alienated population. It is also important to simultaneously ensure that this information is widely disseminated through both traditional and new media. The psychological campaign that accompanies military operations has an important role to play. The two cases highlighted here, will go a long way in achieving these objectives.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India