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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 41 New Delhi September 29, 2018

Tactics of Beheading Soldiers: When Will this Gory Chapter End?

Saturday 29 September 2018

by Gautam Sen

After a recent border flare-up and cross-border firings, during a joint Pakistani Rangers-Border Security Force (BSF) patrol on the international border in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir State, the body of a beheaded BSF Head Constable, Narendra Singh, was located in the Ramgarh sector and retrieved to India. This phenomenon of beheading each other’s soldiers across the international border (IB) in the sectors in the lower Jammu region and northwards across the Line of Control (LoC), seems to have become a measure of accepted tactics and a near-regular occurrence.

The beheadings have been happening quite frequently, within the scope of operational activities as part of border-guarding operations, involving fierce cross-border shelling, and also in the course of the Pakistan-abetted infiltration attempts of Kashmiri insurgents and Pakistani irregulars into the India-controlled part of the State. Beheadings have also been resorted to during the Indian Army‘s selective prophylactic operations and countermeasures. Pakistan seems to have initiated this vicious barbaric activity in a vengeful way to hurt India, and boost the morale of its regular forces and the supporting irregular elements in a jihadist fashion when the Indian military dominance on the IB and LoC has been significant or overwhelming. Whatever be the wisdom, Indian defence authorities at the highest echelon seem to have given a degree of latitude to the Indian border-guarding forces at the formation level, particularly at the divisional and brigade commander levels of the Indian Army, for similar retributive action.

This ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth‘ approach may not serve the interest of either country in the long run. In fact, it would not be out of place if some human rights organisation takes up the issue on behalf of the citizens of both the countries, at the level of institutions like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or International Criminal Court (ICC) or other UN fora.

No codified international legal provision exists today specifically proscribing such barbaric acts in conditions of less than full-scale war. However, all countries within the United Nations system cannot be oblivious to or ignore the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), particularly Article 5 thereof, which do not leave any scope for state actors to indulge in inhuman and barbaric acts like beheadings in conditions of less than all-out war and also during war. While the Geneva Conventions specify the parameters of state action in respect of states involved in war, vis-à-vis their comba-tants, there is no all-encompassing interna-tionally accepted guideline or convention embargoing barbaric behaviours as beheading combatants, gouging out their eyes, disem-boweling them, etc. It may be worthwhile and politically and diplomatically rewarding for India to consider devising an appropriate policy in this regard, and initiating steps for building up an international consensus to ensure codifi-cation of norms of state behaviour within a range of conditions in conflicts involving use of force within its territory, its periphery and abutting its border, vis-à-vis other countries. Incidentally, both India and Pakistan are original signatories to the UNDHR.

While a nation-state is entitled to take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty and security under international law and the UN Charter, certain limitations in state action in support of the objectives as above, which enjoin on nation-states to eschew barbaric behaviour, are required to be evolved. Enforce-ability will, however, remain an issue. But, once the limitations are codified, framing of charges against state actors or rather state officials deciding and executing such inhuman actions, will become feasible. Proceedings for criminal prosecution under international law could then be initiated, and may even be possible to execute under certain circumstances. Within such an ambit, pressure could be built up on the authorities concerned in Pakistan and India to abjure in engagement of their personnel and also irregulars functioning in tandem with them, on beheading and mutilation of combatants as has been occurring frequently along the IB and the LoC.

Notwithstanding the above, in the ultimate, it is political will and predilection of the political and military leaderships of India and Pakistan, which will be of essence. The beheadings and related barbarism had been initiated by the Army-dominated governments of Pakistan over nearly past two decades. Though India has been in a retaliatory mode, this cycle of barbaric violence seems to have endured with no let up in a long time-span. It needs to be realised that, inculcating vengeful attitude among the masses, particularly of border areas in the vicinity of the IB and LoC, serves the interest of the Pakistani hardliners and extremists only, to the detriment of peace in the region and proper bilateral relations. The previous UPA alliance government tried to maintain the border ceasefire regime instituted in 2003 in the State, which created beneficial conditions for the people on both sides of the border, for some time. Unfortunately, the regime started weakening within a few years, with instances like beheadings, etc. occurring from time to time. The present NDA regime has neither been able to restore the status quo ante, nor take decisive steps to degrade Pakistani adventurism and also dissuade it from barabaric activities, as mentioned above.

While appropriate military countermeasures to such barbaric acts of Pakistan and the forces abetted by it, may be deemed justifiable, it is not necessary to respond to barbarism perpe-trated from across the border in a likewise manner. It depends on the ingenuity of the government’s policy-makers in India at the highest level, particularly of the Prime Minister and his National Security Adviser, as to how effectively they can work out responses to beheadings, mutilations, etc. to make such gory acts of Pakistan unrewarding from the immediate security perspective and also politically at the international levels. Such an approach in concert with diplomatic efforts to proscribe inhuman acts within an universal legal framework, may be prudent from the international perspective and harmonious to our foreign policy interests.

It is essential that the Government of India should keep the channels with its counterpart in Pakistan open, so that the consequences of the extremely provocative acts like beheadings, etc. and likely consequences, can be communicated appropriately at a suitable level in Islamabad. A hotline exists between the Directors General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan and another one is on the anvil between the Directors General of the Pakistan Rangers and BSF. Despite the existing communication channel, there has been no let up in border violence and the gory acts.

A study of such occurrences would reveal that they are not impromptu responses or sudden outcome of hostile action of local commanders at the border spiralling out of control. Instead, these have been well-planned actions at relatively higher level for psycholo-gically and emotionally cowering and inciting the adversarial forces as part of a conscious strategy. In such a backdrop, it is incumbent on the political leadership of India to abjure jingoism, work forcefully with a clear long-term objective of isolating Pakistan internationally, politically and within the realm of international law, while adopting countervailing military measures which degrade its capacity to indulge in barbaric violence against India and its citizens, without following the path of barbarism.

The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments in the Government of India and in Jammu and Kashmir. The views expressed here are personal.

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