If you've been on social media in the last few days, or watched news on television, you may have come across a disturbing video being played over and over again, of a man tied to the bonnet of what looks like an army jeep as the vehicle makes its way through a street in Jammu and Kashmir's Budgam district.
The video has sparked wide-scale consternation among Kashmir observers and planted doubts about the efficacy and ethical standards being followed by the armed forces of the world's largest democracy in one of the most restive areas of the subcontinent. The army unit involved in this has been identified as the 53 Rashtriya Rifles, a highly trained team specialising in counter-insurgency operations.
The man on the bonnet is Farooq Ahmad Dar, a resident of Khag Tehsil of Budgam district, who was on his way to his sister's house, after casting his vote in the recent bypolls, when he was picked up by the army and reportedly used as human shield to help them navigate a swarm of stone-pelters. In itself, it's an act that violates the Geneva Convention, dehumanises Kashmiri locals trapped in a conflict zone, and has a massive potential to further radicalise a section of youths already resentful of the army's presence in the state.
Indian security personnel have come under heavy stone-pelting time and again from local youths and have retaliated with pellet guns, blinding and maiming many. It's a deep and vicious cycle of violence rooted in decades of othering a community caught between India and Pakistan's geo-political game of chess.
Since the video surfaced, a rapid polarisation of opinion has spread on the social networks and exposed the empty platitudes of a section of chest-thumping and flag-waving nationalists, who hold the army above all else but fall short when the narrative does not fit their agenda.
Take the example of Lt General Harcharanjit Singh Panag, a highly decorated retired officer of the Northern and Central Command who has actually served in Jammu and Kashmir.
"Image of a 'stone pelter' tied in front of a jeep as a 'human shield', will 4 ever haunt the Indian Army&the nation (sic)," Panag had tweeted after seeing the video. At that time, Dar's identity was not established. And as is the case on Twitter, he was quickly branded as a stone-pelter and the army's action profusely praised by a section of journalists, celebrities and other users as the "proper" way to deal with violent, local uprisings.
No sooner than Panag's tweet landed on people's timeline, Mumbai singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya, known for his abusive trolling, jumped into the debate with an especially foul comment.
Not only did Bhattacharya call Panag a Pakistan supporter, but opined that the veteran of decades of conflict-posting should be beaten, kicked and humiliated on the streets of Kashmir to make him realise what the army faces everyday. His reaction would have been downright ludicrous — for Panag, the army, and for anyone with even the slightest bit of common sense — had Bhattacharya's tweet not found resonance with many users, some openly and proudly affiliated to the rightwing ideology.
When Panag's son Sherbir countered Bhattacharya, the trolls hit back with abuses, some casting aspersions on Lt Gen Panag's awards.
Despite the tremendous pushback against the singer for his distasteful tweet, including a delightful challenge by the retired Lt Gen himself to take him on "even at his age", it's clear that the deep empathy Indians claim to profess for their armed forces rings hollow when it comes to unpopular opinion from those who are part of the same forces.
At the time of India's surgical strike on Pakistan last year, war-mongers clashed everyday with peaceniks professing restraint. Even today, debates on Twitter are reduced to mere whatabouttery involving the jawans serving at the border. When the army is put under scrutiny for allegedly using a human shield, a practice looked upon by the international community as a war crime, there are those who argue back with, "But what about the army who are being pelted with stones?" It's a line of reasoning some that even senior journalists resort to to excuse horrific acts and equate the actions of lawbreakers and renegades with that of a territorial army.
It's a peculiar double standard that allegations of the army being served pitiful food in the barracks do not evoke the same degree of public outrage and sympathy as the romantic image of a jawan risking his life in a hostile terrain to defend the honour of the country. It's a dichotomy when the jawan is pulled into every argument as the foot soldier of patriotism, when there's negligible debate online about the controversial one rank one pension (OROP) scheme.
It's a peculiar double standard that allegations of the army being served pitiful food in the barracks do not evoke the same degree of public outrage and sympathy as the romantic image of a jawan risking his life in a hostile terrain to defend the honour of the country.
As a result, we find Lt Gen Panag being abused as an "AAPtard", a word BJP supporters have coined for those supporting the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), negating his long years of service. On the one hand Indians want to save Kulbhushan Jadhav from the kangaroo court of justice in Pakistan, and yet, on the other hand, they insist that their own security personnel must shoot dead the Kashmiris who revolt against the army.
"The 2014 general elections witnessed unprecedented images of invoking the 'soldier' as part of political muscularity, decisiveness and patriotism," writes Bhopinder Singh, a former Lieutenant-Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. "[The military] rightfully swears to the Constitution of India and not to any political party, person or religion — though this has not stopped the barrage of abusers who invoke the 'soldier' to peddle their own political wares."
The abuse Panag faced proves that the soldier as a leitmotif of patriotism is a tempting figure to embrace. But for ultra-nationalists, this is acceptable only when he is also politically aligned with them and stripped off any independent point of view.
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