Immediately after the Indian army paraded a Kashmiri civilian as a human shield in poll-bound Budgam province, scores of retired military men in Delhi studios justified the move on the lines of condemned Israeli treatment to Palestinian protesters. But are the military vets only reaffirming what otherwise is being long practiced in Kashmir?
Images broadcasted from New Delhi’s virtual war studios on April 9, 2017 were of the war crime scene on display. In the loop, was played a grainy footage of man in Budgam—tied to a military jeep as a human shield—as a “national” spectacle to a cheering audience. The usual studio shrill failed no less this time, to catch the patriotic pitch, otherwise an unabashed veneer of prime-time alleged news shows these days.
Assisting the anchors in hymning the tunes, military veterans had their moniker ‘don’t you discourage the morale of Indian army’ stroke geared up: “If Israel can use human shields to effectively deal with stone pelters in Gaza and West Bank, why cant we?”
That evening, most military vets spoke on these lines—unwittingly underlining some hurriedly prepared defense script. But while busy waging the studio war, the exes of Indian army conveniently skipped mentioning: how Zionist tactics have long found roots in Kashmir.
Delhi’s Kashmir handling, akin to Tel Aviv’s Palestine dealing had long linked the two Muslim majority regions with a political umbilical cord. One such dealing is using locals as human shields. In both the regions, where the conflict dates back to the late 1940s, armed forces have reportedly used unarmed civilians to safeguard military installations, to push inside buildings, to check for booby traps or militants, to walk ahead of the armed soldiers, and to inspect suspicious objects for explosives.
At the height of the militancy in Kashmir in 1992, an insurgent hotbed Batamaloo had a visitor. Then a no-go zone for forces, the locality welcomed a lady officer by downing its shop shutters, one by one. What otherwise was dismissed as a panic public posturing by the marching woman officer was a well-established insurgent strategy in place.
Downing of shutters and ensued metal clattering would be a signal to the insurgents operating inside that a threat was on its way. The message mobilised the rebel footfall down in the maze-like alleys of a staunchly anti-India neighborhood of Srinagar.
That day, as the witnesses now reveal, that threat happened to a Rani—the lady officer, new to the place and apparently high on adrenaline for taking a casual walk in a park. But the moment she saw the gun-cocked insurgents staring at her from sand pickets, she ran and entered the house, which happened to be a well-established militant hideout.
“Moments later, she came out forcing the family’s daughters as human shields,” says Javed Bhat, one of the traders who downed his shop-shutter that day. “On the street, she yelled, ‘I will slit their throats, if you dare to train those guns at me!’ This made many militants smile, who let her go unscathed from the locality.” The daughters shortly returned to their families.
Some fifteen years later, something very similar unfolded in Palestine.
In Mar 2007, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) raided the West Bank town of Nablus, a militant stronghold akin to Batamaloo of the early nineties. Unlike the military Rani of yore, the IDF was tipped off about militant presence in the area by the B’Tselem group, which monitors Israeli actions in the occupied territory.
During the raid, the soldiers came under fire and entered the house of an 11-year-old Palestinian girl Jihan Daadush. When they came out, they used the minor girl as a human shield against the militants, akin to the Batamaloo daughters.
Such resemblances only make people to blurt: “Conflicts share their own disputed DNAs.”
But long before being woken up by Batamaloo and Nablus, the world had denounced the using of women as human shields and dismissed the action as a Nazi military practice. (It was during the Wola massacre—on 7th August 1944—that the Nazis forced civilian women onto their armored vehicles as human shields to enhance their effectiveness.) This deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking has been categorised as the war crime by the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
When the same “war crime” unfolded in Kashmir’s suburbs in 1998, it went on to change a baker’s life forever.
It was the third day of the holy Ramadhan, and the newly-wed Omar Bhat was fasting. He saw a counter-insurgent group led by soldiers and cops surrounding a residential house in his neighbourhood where five militants were hiding.
Amid fireworks, sudden knocks appeared on this man’s door. His mother answered the “grave” call and saw the gun-toting cops calling out her son. “Those were the STF [the dreaded Special Task Force raised to go after the insurgents in Kashmir] guys,” says Bhat. “I was taken out on what I presumed was a crackdown.” He was wrong.
No sooner did he step out, he was tasked along with his four neighbours to convince the militants to surrender. In other words, they were turned into human shields—or the Neighbour procedure, as Israeli soldiers euphemistically call it in Palestine.
“Humne ne Kalima padha, aur andar chale gaye [We recited prayers and went inside],” says Bhat, recalling every possible detail, as if the event stands engraved on his mind. “The guerrillas declined to talk to us—civilians—ruling out surrender and sent a word for the enemy outside: Tell them to come inside.”
By 2’o clock in the night, Bhat and others had made seven rounds, inside and back out—but every time, the guerrillas refused to surrender. It took Bhat years to understand how those armed rebels behaved like that aged Libyan rebel chief, Omar al- Mukhtar, whose last words before being executed by the Italian authorities in 1931 were no different: “We don’t surrender. We either win or die.”
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Bhat and his neighbours were handed live mines, and were asked to keep them inside. “We were helpless,” he says. “We had no choice but to follow the orders. We went inside with the mines and told the rebels that the forces have given us these mines to keep them there. They told us to keep them and go back out.”
At the crack of dawn, the entire Qamarwari shook with an ear-splattering blast. Later the five insurgents were retrieved dead from the residential rubble.
That “longest night” might be years behind him now, but Bhat is still wondering how he came out alive from the deadly dragnet. “Bullets were continuously flying around us,” he says. “We had heard about the human shields dying in other cases. How did the five of us survive, we do not know.” Behind this disbelief are deadly instances like that of a Shopian cleric, who came out in smithereens when sent with mines as human shield to convince militants to surrender.
But what happened at Qamarwari was earlier done and demonstrated by the Israeli army against Palestinian militants, way back in 1982 when the Lebanon War was still raging on.
Israeli forces had surrounded the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon. Inside, the “Soldiers of Allah” militants were being wooed to surrender by the neighbors turned human shields. Even after making multiple rounds, the human shields told IDF: “These militants are driven by Victory or Death motto.” Israel then flew a team of psychologists to deal with the reluctant rebels. They advised to organise a bigger delegation. When even that failed, the militants met the Qamarwari fate.
These operations overlap, and apparently blur a line of distinction between Indian and Israeli armies. But unlike the Israeli defense officials—admitting the usage of civilians as human shields—no such admission had come from the Indian army — until Budgam happened.
On April 9, 2017, the world saw the proof for the first time when a 26-year-old man was tied to an army jeep to dissuade protesters from hurling stones at a column of Indian troops moving through a village.
The ruling BJP stood by its army, with its members threatening a country-wide agitation if any action was taken against the erring military Major, identified as Major Leetul Gogoi. Even the Attorney General of India, Mukul Rohatgi backed the army’s move — already defended by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav: “everything is fair in love and war.”
Despite this ultra–nationalistic defense, comparisons were being drawn between the Budgam weaver and a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammed Badwan. In 2004, that boy was photographed tied to an Israeli police vehicle in the West Bank village of Biddu, when used as a shield to deter stone-throwing protesters.
Indian army however maintains that its soldiers operate in accordance with the rules and do the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat.
“But human shields are nothing new to Kashmir,” says Engineer Rasheed, a lawmaker who keeps questioning the army’s conduct in Kashmir. “Such incidents have been happening in the Kashmir Valley and major parts of Jammu including the Chenab Valley right from 1989.” But now, thanks to social media, he says, “the black face of Indian democracy and the claims of the Indian army being a so called disciplined army have been exposed.”
In his native Mawar hamlet nestled in thick woods of Langate, Rasheed recalls how he was used as a human shield in June 2005 along with four other villagers.
“Two militants were engaged in an encounter with the army when we were dragged out of our houses, and for 27 hours, a light machine gun was kept on my shoulder,” he says. “In those times, some five hundred people used to go before the ROP [Road Opening Party] as human shields, and ensure that the army convoy passes safely. Then they were asked to cordon the army camps and protect it.”
Every day eight men were asked to report to the nearest point on the road, Rasheed continues. “This applied to every village, where every household was supposed to give one human shield, as a routine to protect the army camps for 24 hours. This has also happened in my constituency where I have myself guarded camps for more than 400 days. This was the reason that I gave up my government job and contested elections. Even the state intelligence chief has authenticated my claims. My case is pending with the State Human Rights Commission, which unfortunately is a toothless tiger.”
Even Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti admitted last year during her August 15 speech about how Kashmiris were used as human shields during anti-militancy operations in Kashmir.
“Thing is,” says Ali Mohammad Sagar, NC general secretary, “such incidents have happened on both sides. But whether done by militants or army, such actions are condemnable and instances of the autocratic rule.”
But as many military veterans continue to justify the otherwise condemned Zionist tactic in Kashmir, one retired Lieutenant General Harcharanjit Singh Panag tweeted that the image of a human shield will forever “haunt the Indian Army and the nation”.
The comment of 1971 war vet was enough to tag him as a “Pakistan Agent” and a “Khalistani”. Interestingly though, among the trolls, were those — followed on social networking site by none other than the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.