On human shields and questions that won’t go away

Violence is an inventive phenomenon. The very staging of violence often turns the spectacle into a morality play where the act of violence is interrogated from many sides. The Major Leetul Gogoi episode where he used a human shield raises such questions. In fact, it reminded me of an episode I once read in a famous spy novel. The encounter is between a senior CIA agent and a Japanese military hero, now captive in defeat. The CIA agent asks him, “Are you a soldier?” The Japanese denies it and adds, “No a warrior.” Two radical histories separate the words. A warrior follows a code of conduct, a way of life, pursues a vocation, an almost ritual calling. Today’s soldier does a job, follows at the most a profession. The ritual proscriptions that haunt a soldier are minimal. It is this question of what is acceptable in a decent society that becomes a matter of debate.

As it happened

Major Gogoi claims he was escorting election officials in line of duty in Kashmir’s Budgam district when they were surrounded by a group of stone-pelters. In an attempt to protect them, he caught a young man, tied him to the jeep, and used him as a human shield to make their way out. The way of telling this story becomes a question of competing narratives embedded in different value frameworks.


The commendation: On award to Major Leetul Gogoi


There is first what I call the patriotic or jingoist framework, which sees the soldier as a patriotic bulwark of security, operating in the line of duty. There is an attempt to congratulate the soldier for his act of innovation. People feel that this is what one should expect from a soldier. In fact, Major Gogoi becomes the archetypal Indian Soldier and the body shield a dispensable instrument of his actions. Third, the shield, Farooq Ahmad Dar, is not seen as a person with rights, a legal voter who has just asserted his duties as a citizen by voting, but as a protester, a trouble-maker, creating chaos. Fourth, those protesting against the act are seen as seditious peaceniks. It is odd that the word peacenik is used in such a derogatory sense as if it is a pursuit of a sordid trade called peace. A hysteria of hyper-loyalty surrounds the event. Worse, a cost-benefit analysis is implicit with Major Gogoi’s defenders claiming that there were no casualties. What is clear is Mr. Dar is an instrumental object for military use. Inherently, this injustifies the means, and if the means work, there should be no further question of doubt about ends. There is also a hint that as a Kashmiri, Mr. Dar is not quite the ideal citizen. Implicit is a message that ‘lesser’ citizens can be treated in a ‘lesser’ way. There are dispensable, disposable and eventually forgettable.

The text and the context

The Gogoi incident needs to be placed within a text, a context and even within the wider pretexts of interpretation. It is not an isolated incident but part of a deep ecology of violence that the Army has perpetrated. The first memory that comes is of the protests against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA.

There is a deeper substrate of anxiety that we must explore. The history of the body and the fate of the Indian body between market and state has not been studied systematically. The scandal of body shields joins the longer list of controversies around body trade, trafficking, rape, torture, displacement, bonded labour, where the vulnerability and the fragility of the body are played out. Sadly, the history of the Indian state is a history of the brutalisation of the body, whether it is Manipur, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir or Naxalbari. The violence quotient of words such as nationalism or patriotism needs to be estimated. When concepts kill, they can no longer be treated antiseptically.

The incident of the body shield has to be seen symbolically. The body and attitudes towards the body affect the quality of decency and welfare of the body politic. This is why the body needs a cover of the sacred and the sacramental to protect the vulnerability of the body. Rights as a concept needs some notion of the sacred to protect the body. The sanctity of the body guarantees the sanctity of the person, and both are integral to a theory of citizenship in any democracy. It is not a question of body counts but the singular integrity of the body that is at stake in a democracy. A body is not for use as cannon fodder. The victim tied to the jeep was almost objectified as a lesser citizen, and as a citizen he was treated as less than human; his body could be instrumentalised. Mr. Dar for that period is less than a person. His life is meaningless as a non-person, he can be humiliated, treated with indifference. He is not even granted a voice because his space of protest has been appropriated by jingoists. Mr. Dar becomes an exhibit, an object, even gradually a lesson to stone-pelters.

There are moral and legal questions which are unanswered. First, do the Geneva Conventions or even the code of the Indian Army allow the use of civilian shields for war? The obscenity of modern violence is that it is erasing the boundaries that surround civilian life and the distinction between civilian and soldier that any decent society should follow. Rather than guaranteeing the sanctity of a person, fundamental rights are more and more seen as a temporary entitlement, to be withdrawn at the flimsiest notice. The fragile nature of the person in a modern state and codes of conduct it required to create an ecology of guarantees are critical here. The sadness is that when the controversy was taking place, the circle of jingoism around state and Army was arguing that words such as nation, duty, patriotism are words that create huge areas of permissible violence. Ethics lose to strategy and cost-benefit as the ends justify the means.

Lost for answers

There are questions here that the Army must answer. In reducing Mr. Dar to be being treated thus, did Major Gogoi cross an ethical line? Does not that line, the line of decency, have to be maintained and reiterated at all times for the integrity of the Army to be emphasised? Dignity is universal. We objected when Pakistan mutilated the bodies of our soldiers. There is an obscenity here as in Mr. Dar’s case. By honouring Major Gogoi, even as a Court of Inquiry hears the case, the Army creates a copycat syndrome which adds to the obscenity and brutality of the event. Minimally, the Army could have reprimanded him. By turning him to a folk hero prematurely, the Army has displayed its contempt for the human body and for the institutional rules of democracy. If Kashmir is a battle of hearts and minds, by honouring Major Gogoi the Army has shown where it stands.

Finally, the very debate on the Gogoi episode shows the weakness of ethical debate in India. There is a sense of instrumentalism, a hagiography of machismo and violence that our society cannot afford. A moment of doubt, even the body language of apology might have altered the meaning of the event, instead of thickening the forces of unreason and hate on both sides. One wishes a Gandhi had been present to untangle the narrative into its ethical possibilities.


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