Of Army and the Local perception: Mapping the Social Image in Kashmir – Adfar Shah

The Kashmiri identity still continues to be like the gown of a poor man that needs to be mended without delay as the patches of pain and misery have been bombarding the common collective consciousness since decades now. The question amid this whole disarray and incessant turbulence is whether army as a credible institution of the nation has lived up to the mirror image of goodwill ambassadors especially in the conflict zones like Kashmir or merely proved a tool of the repressive state apparatus? Has the army ever tried to or evaluated its total intervention and assessed the positive impact of its social interventions? Has it tried to study or gauged the local perception or impact about all its good will programmes? I am unsure.

 Despite of the fact that conflict is purely political, finding answer to,  have the men in uniform ever treated the turmoil hit masses especially the Northeast and Kashmiri people as the people of their own country or their own public or have been dealing with them merely with an ‘enemy’ perception, is a question for both people and the army.

Since 1989, when the armed conflict started, there has been every attempt to alienate Kashmiris from the time and space. In the dark heartlessness of flying bullets, the general name given to all belted forces by locals is Bharti Fouj/military/security forces and the second general name is ‘Army’. Though security forces consist of various agencies like army, state police, CRPF, BSF and others but people (Kashmiris) simply address all with one collective/common name as army (the greatest burden of and credibility challenge to army itself).This is perhaps because the oppressed feel hardly interested in classifying the oppressors (as a majority of masses still assume of these security forces).

Though Army runs a chain of public (Awam) welfare programmes but has hardly been openly/widely lauded or hailed ever for any of their social work/people’s welfare related interventions. If the Army continues to be known for anything (infamously), it is still fear, encounters and the never ending dichotomy between them (fouj) and the civilians. The question is, are they (the men in uniform) merely the unkind/men with impunity or something beyond that too? The army launched Sadbhavana (Goodwill) in 1998 as the programme of total empowerment and emancipation of the local. It started from the perceptional change to people’s welfare and comfort. But has Sadbhavana been really a successful community initiative is a curious question, still not reviewed practically. Also who have really benefitted from such welfare schemes and what has been the final gain and fallout, needs to be studied too and understood in a proper perspective. This is worthy of mention that the army has been successful to launch its set of local welfare programmes via sadbhavana itself by taking the less exposed masses to more exposure and broader outlook by arranging all India tours (watan ki saer),etc,. They have also been trying hard to show the beautiful picture of India (incredible India) to young vulnerable minds/ students and elders; however the fact remains that they do not reap much out of it simply because the India that they display in the field (Kashmir) is commonly perceived as oppressive, repressive and undemocratic. Locals perceive of India as the India of arms and ammunition, encounters, unaccounted tortures, killings and endless pain that actually belittles the beautiful image of the country. The Army runs a chain of goodwill schools (army run educational institutions) and certain other mass friendly initiatives too but fails to gain the public appreciation/contentment to the extent it deserves, purely because it does not make enough efforts for measuring and assessing the impact and hardly investigates about the rapport amid all these welfare programmes. Undeniably, the education they deliver in the goodwill schools is a quality and according to the local sensitivities but, in the overall picture the Army seems to have failed (or never bothered) to measure the impact of this education and other Sadhbhavana initiatives on peoples’ perceptions. Neither has any NGO or social organization bothered to look at this and advise the Army. Army helps locals in emergencies of all kinds (as very appropriately being displayed in flood ravaged Uttrakhand) but has the local perceptions about them been ever measured or investigated by them, is a question to the Army itself? Does Army around the country, especially in conflict zones, assume evaluation of its social initiatives for granted or, does they take these initiatives simply as National duty? Also is it aware that people (who benefit from their work and assistance) will hardly recognize or hail them simply because of the enemy perception. Or does the army take the local perception about its social responsibilities for-granted or does army contribute in local welfare simply for gaining field rapport and that is why, without any care for evaluation, assessment and impact?

This goes without saying that army in Kashmir still carries many labels and in the era of human rights and values it needs a rethink on the type and magnitude of its social activities, interactions, listening against them by people without any bias or anger, meeting the people and knowing what better they can do to heal the wounds of innocent masses caught in the bloody conflict since decades. In the era of proactive respect for human rights and values, the Army urgently needs to do a rethink on their professional conduct and their interactions with society at large. The sense of accountability and justice has to be ensured right from the North East to Kashmir and justice has to be delivered from Manipuri girl, Thangjam Manorama rape case (July, 2004) to Kashmiri Asiya-Neelofar double rape and murder case (May, 2009), though the fact remains that army has tried its best to maintain the accountability of its men and done prompt action in certain cases of aberration (in Kashmir, Major Rehman’s instant court martial in 2004-5), however still much is expected like restoring the people’s belief in army’s accountability and justice for common man.

Also measuring the impact and perception of Awam about all its Awam centered programmes is essential, measuring and evaluating the education they provide in their goodwill schools and the relief they provide post accidents/ disasters is also important. The situation right now seems that either they have failed to institutionalize the public centered philosophy (like Hasnain’s Heart doctrine) or they deliberately avoid periodic review and measurement of their impact, work, outreach and social image.

 In 2013, fact remains that, despite numerous changes in ‘soldier’s mindset’ and a resultant favourable swing in public perception, a lot still needs to be done for peace to settle-in in the long-term.  Army’s idea of knowing the local environment and ground reality may actually still be an illusion.

Stephen Hawking rightly says, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

The fact remains that men in uniform continue to lack a substantial understanding of the local ethos. They need much more foot work to reach out to the public and be involved in social activities and responsibilities. This is a professional demand from the situation as soldiers are not supposed to fight only a definite enemy every time, in a fourth-generation war situation like in today’s era. They have to focus as much on the unsaid, unwritten and unseen part of the situation and who can do this better than well-educated military leaders. Army waging a fourth-generation war today, has to empower its soldiers with these soft skill. It is not the enemy they are trying to defeat, but the Awaam they are aiming to win over.One last advice to the belted forces to address their ‘enemy’ perception of the Awaam.

Undoubtedly, in this fast changing and dynamic situation, the space is up for competition. The Army’s proactive outreach into the social field will be perceived as a threat by the political leadership, as it was during General Hasnain’s outstanding tenure in the valley. The Army must know how to manage this and yet not take a backseat as it did during the months following the exit of General Hasnain-commonly known as ‘The People’s General’ now.

Last Word

The question is do army’s welfare programmes really make any difference especially in the areas where high enemy perception for army prevails? Even if it makes, is it acknowledged by the benefitting masses and if not why? Also are army’s social welfare programmes really the programmes for practical emancipation and empowerment of people especially in the conflict hit zones? Do these welfare programmes change the mindset or not when people see the same army killing people in the name of collateral damage/mistake, needs to be given a serious thought. Lastly, if the army runs its social welfare initiatives, does it bother to have an independent and objective evaluation of their programmes by neutral agencies so that to see their actual success, impact, output and utility of all their public centered programmes? Just foiling the infiltration bids on LoC is not enough but rethinking about the role played and mistakes committed in the past (still committing) is also important. Also valuing human life and safeguarding the common man must be the top priority of armed forces in the holistic country rather than a displaying a big brotherly attitude. They must remember that a single mistake by them takes the valley back to 15 years or even more and liquidates their whole dedicated and sincere social welfare and service to Awaam.

(Adfar Shah is a Doctoral Scholar of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, Central University, New Delhi. Author is a Kashmiri and has a profound interest in Military Sociology.  Mail at adfer.syed@gmail.com).

One comment

  1. Jamuna /

    Adfar Shah has raised a moot point. Kudos to him for this article.

    The Army in Kashmir (the Army in particular) must undertake an assessment of the impact of the Sadhbhavna programme. Should the Army continue to engage areas that have shown appreciation for the programmes or should they seek to engage the ‘disenchanted’ areas, at the expense of the former? The Sadhbhavna programmes seem to have some positive impact in a very cynical, forever grasping population which seems to forever bearing the burden of being Kashmiris. This when their land is protected from ownership by all non-Kashmiris while they themselves can own property in rest of India. Army Goodwill schools have a long waiting list and are a preferred option for school education for the very same children whose siblings are not prevented from engaging in stone pelting.

    The Army is deployed because there is an adverse situation and have to undertake activities and actions that are adverse in nature. Despite that the Army, in its Rules of Engagement, insist that weapons can only be fired in response to being fired upon and not unilaterally. How many Army men have lost their lives because they have opted to follow these orders both in letter and spirit. I wonder if the Army maintains such statistics and how do senior commanders prevail upon the men in the front to adhere to these instructions.

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