Friday, 25 January 2013

Collateral Damage..

Just finished watching the first Season of ` Homeland’.

An established terrorist Abu Nazir is holed up in the mountains of Northern Iraq, in a compound with hundred odd kids. He is a high value target, posing a clear and imminent threat to the United States, and his location has been positively identified. The discussion at CIA HQ Langley on how to take him down is animated. A ground attack is ruled out as being too dangerous. A drone strike would entail considerable collateral damage – 100 odd kids in this case.

The dilemma is genuine. Finally, the Vice President speaks up. “If Abu Nazir chooses to shelter behind children”, he says, “it is HE who’s putting them at risk, not us!”

He picks up the phone, and orders the drone strike. 83 children, including Abu Nazir’s own ten year old son Issa, are killed in the strike. Abu Nazir himself escapes. Looking at the carnage, he is overwhelmed. “And they call us terrorists!” he mutters.

Got me thinking. What would I have done in their place? Drone strikes kill hundres of innocents – women and children - in Pakistan. Israeli air strikes kill Palestinian children by the scores.

Are such attacks justifiable in the interest of the ` larger good’? If Abu Nazir had been killed in the strike, would his death have saved thousands of lives? If so, would the deaths of the 83 children have been justified?

A related question. In order to extract information from a suspect - information that may potentially save many lives - is torture (ok, enhanced interrogation techniques) justified?  This, I feel, is less of an existential dilemma than the above. I would have no compunction in resorting to these methods, quite simply because I believe that since terrorists are not humans, they deserve no compassion or human rights consideration.

The old adage of `one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter’ is just so much bullshit. If there was one positive fallout from 9/11, it is that the use of terror as a political weapon was no longer justifiable. A suicide bomb does not distinguish between caste, creed, gender and age.

Deployed on Counter Insurgency operations in Nagaland, we were appalled when the insurgents we captured at considerable risk to our own life and limb, were freed by the courts in a matter of months, and were back to attack us with renewed vigour. Rules of engagement, niceties of war did not apply to them, and they were merciless in their means. So what does one do? Simple. Make sure the buggers never reached the courts at all! Justice Ranganath Mishra, the then Chairman of the Human Rights Commission was content to merely shrug his shoulders. “Just make sure there are no custodial deaths”, he warned us, “those are difficult to explain”.

So back to my original question. Is collateral damage acceptable in the interest of the `larger good’? Assuming that terrorists use women and children as human shields, is the killing of these innocents justified (the `it-is-they-who-put-them-at-risk-not-us’ argument)? 

There are no easy answers.

But personally, if there is one thing that I cannot stomach, one thing that tears me up, it is the sight of a child suffering. The clips from Gaza and Waziristan have made me lose more sleep that I care to remember. Nothing can ever justify the wail or tears of a ten year old with shrapnel wounds, or a kid maimed for life by anti personnel mine.

Nothing. Just NOTHING!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Night of the Generals..

Huyi shyam, unka khayaal aa gaya…

True, having reached the evening of ones’ life (closer to the end than the beginning, as Alec Guiness says in `Bridge on the River Kwai’), one frequently looks back, and mellow thoughts of people, places, institutions and events cast a warm glow at the sunset hour.  As Richard Church says..

Joy is sad in retrospect
Just as a time of strife
Calms in recollection..

If there’s one institution that one remembers most fondly, one that has shaped us for who we are, one that defines us in every sense of the word, that institution is, without a doubt, the Indian Army! What it has given us in terms of our work ethos, our pride in walking tall and our sense of camaraderie is beyond compare, and beyond words. The friendships one has made, the bonhomie shall most certainly outlive all of us – and that, to me, is its greatest gift to us.

So it is with considerable anguish that one reads that the insidious web of corruption that assails civil society has begun to creep into this wonderful institution as well. Stories of `Ketchup Colonels’ and `Rum Brigadiers’ and `Adarsh scams’  fill one with deep foreboding. We pray that these are one-off aberrations, and that the motto inscribed in Chetwode Hall will ultimately prevail.

Civil society, that amorphous entity, is today up in arms. Middle class anger, fuelled by a high decibel media, is the rage. One thought the Army would exert a sobering influence over the national debate. But lo and behold, it is our misguided ex-servicemen that are shouting the loudest. Rather than soothing the cacophony, they are actively conducting it with tremendous relish!

Switch on any news channel, and one sees the same faces  (why the same faces ad nauseam? Daal mein kuch kaala hai??), handle bar moustaches bristling, raving and ranting at anchors who are the pits anyway (a Pakistani journo has tweeted that, if he shouted just a wee bit louder, Arnab Goswami could be heard in Pakistan even without them switching on their TV sets!) – one urging the Govt to unleash the Army, another screaming that we shut off the Indus waters. Such top brass, and such utter nonsense – who made these guys what they are? Check out Asma Jehangir calling Pak generals `siyasi duffers’ – she could well have been talking about the lot on this side!

Samina admits that their duffers are probably bigger than ours, but I differ - the only difference, I tell her, is that ours, thankfully, had never taken over the country!

The latest bit of news that caused me great pain was the hunger strike by the family of L/Nk Hemraj. I wrote on Facebook -

As soldiers, the qualities of courage and fortitude get inbuilt in us, and get passed on to our families as well. The behaviour of L/Nk Hemraj's family after his death, howsoever gruesome, has sadly been far from soldierly. The ill advised hunger strike, the calling it off after they were promised Rs 25 lacs by the UP CM has caused even greater anguish than the tragedy of his martyrdom..

Sadly, this resulted in a wave of backlash from my Army colleagues. I was accused of being insensitive to the plight of the lady, and my remarks on the largesse she received to break her fast were labelled as `uncharitable’.  They sought to paint this incident as yet another voice raised against an insensitive Govt/System. But what was the lady protesting against? Non receipt of dues? That the Army not sensitive enough?

There were no answers to my queries, viz:-
  • Does the widow of L/Nk Sudhakar also go on a hunger strike till she too gets 25 lacs?
  • Do ALL war widows hereafter follow the same process? How is their case any different??
  • Does this not show the glorious institution we all served in a poor light?

We need to look at these things with a sense of perspective, and not just emotionally. But that won't happen - if I speak against Anna Hazare, I am labelled as corrupt, if I do not thump my chest and shout anti Pakistan slogans, I am not a patriot!