The sight of the army chief-designate Lt. General J J Singh shedding tears talking about unnecessary suffering in Kashmir in a televised interview before assuming his new role was heartening. Again in his first public statement on becoming the Chief of army Staff (COAS), General Singh suggested a range of systems that would be set in place to make the army more accountable on the ground, particularly during counter-insurgency operations (CI Ops).

Judging by the buzz the General's statements seem to have caused in the various officers institutes all over the country - one characterisation of it was 'immature and irresponsible' - it is unlikely that his views are shared widely in the army. The challenge before the COAS is clear - institutionalizing a culture where human rights are not seen as adversarial to the army. This will not be easy. The short-lived success of the army's goodwill initiative in the Ladakh region (Operation Sadabhavana) epitomizes the problems ahead. Pushed largely by one senior officer, the process was relegated to the backburner soon after his departure from Leh. In that sense, as good as it may be to have a progressive COAS; this cannot replace systematic and institutional change in the army.

Human rights violations, unfortunately, continue to be reported regularly, leading one to believe these are systemic and institutional. Even in situations where the protection of special legislation (e.g. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act) may be available, the current practices of the army are unlikely to pass the required threshold of international humanitarian law. In cases where action on complaints is taken, the focus remains on the individual violators; no examination is made to ask if the violations are institutionalized in the de-facto operating procedures of the army. This is necessary, because some standard operation procedures - e.g. 'taking no prisoners' in fire-fights in Counter-Intelligence Operations (CI Ops), and the use of torture to extract information - inherently lend themselves to rights violations.

Some developments in international criminal law have focused on the idea of command responsibility, and these may be important in the years ahead. Senior officers up the line have been occassionally - but not often enough - held liable for systemic violations. The trials of some former generals of the Indonesian army for acts in East Timor and of a number of senior military officials by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are further evidence of increasing pressure internationally. The US example, where senior officers implicated in the Abu Gharib prison scandal went unpunished, reminds us that such ideas of higher responsibility are still incomplete, however.

Understanding the role of the Army

The standard argument in army circles continues to remain focused on efficiency and the national interest. According to this view, it is necessary to be ruthless with militant elements because the justice system is too slow and inefficient, and also that India cannot afford the luxury of high regard for human rights when dealing with those who threaten the nation's integrity. But is this a correct understanding of the role of the armed forces in zones of internal conflict? Does 'aiding the civil authority' require the army to use the means it does, or does it mis-understand its role? Can the national interest allow commanders to ignore the Army Doctrine or constitutional rights of the citizens?

General Singh can begin with the Manorama rape-and-murder case; open up this investigation and ask the difficult questions.
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Part 1 of the Army Doctrine recognizes that the role of the Army in low intensity conflicts is "conflict management, not conflict resolution". However the army's peculiar brand of nationalism and its in-built regimental discipline fuses together to create a situation where the top brass lays down aims larger than those assigned to it by the law (i.e. ending the insurgency rather than containing it to enable a political process to resolve the issue). More unfortunate is the impact such a mis-understanding of its role has at the level of Corps, Division and Brigade level decision making. Here the broad aim of ending the insurgency gets translated to 'take no prisoners' and exterminating the 'Anti-national Elements' - terminology not without political significance.

Most CI Ops are conducted at the Battalion and lower level and it is at this level that efficiency is understood solely by the body count or 'kills'. Not only does this lead to the Siachen-type fake-killing situations, but more worryingly it also leads to killing of 'suspected' ANEs in fake encounters and the subsequent planting of weapons on them.

We have heard the army talking about 'winning the hearts and minds' of the people ad nauseum. Translating this from words to action remains General Singh's toughest challenge. The ways ahead are clear - revisit operating procedures in CI ops, include civil society representatives in investigations, make court martials more accessible, make statistics and details on previous convictions available, and - most importantly - do not cover up! To put it simply while hauling up individual violators, clean up the system inside! The armed forces must first build the trust of the people whose hearts and minds it is trying to win, and such trust cannot be won if the deviants within the armed forces are not quickly brought to trial and punished. People do not respond to words alone, they will judge the army - or any other institution - by its deeds.

The Manorama rape and murder is still fresh. The army's poor handling of the issue remains another fresh blot. Could this incident have taken place without the knowledge of the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Assam Rifles battalion? Those who understand the functioning of an infantry battalion find it unlikely that the CO would have had no knowledge of the murder. And if he did know, that raises other questions - why did the army Brigade, Division, Corps and Command cover this matter up? Perhaps this is where General Singh can begin: open up this investigation and ask these and other difficult questions.

This action will not make him popular amongst his own, but then neither have his initial public statements. Gen Singh's tears have ensured a fine start but whether these were merely politically correct statements and opportune tears brought about by the pressure of the human rights lobby, only time can tell! Gen. Singh has raised the expectations, and he will be judged not only by his conduct, but how the army he leads responds to his suggestions and reforms itself in the years ahead.