Dangari Killings: Defending injustice a greater crime


By Col DPK Pillay

The army has sentenced seven personnel, including a major general, to life imprisonment for extrajudicial killings of five persons in Assam in 1994.

In extrajudicial killings, the denial of truth in the face of overwhelming evidence is often more embittering than the actual killings. Large-scale public demonstrations, when militants are killed, are often mobilised by those with vested interests in keeping an insurgency alive. But when innocents are killed, sentiments run high.

Such demonstrations cannot be instigated. Most of those expressing solidarity do not want recrimination; they do not want revenge; but they want the truth to prevail as a guarantee for protection for themselves as citizens of this country. This case stands testimony to the dogged pursuit for justice over two decades.

All armies fighting home-grown insurgencies tread a very thin line which can be breached under the panic and stress of fighting a shapeless and undefined enemy leading to killing of innocents. It is true that the armed forces while operating against terrorists, insurgents and anti-national elements are constrained, and function under trying circumstances. Therefore, the armed forces do need requisite legal protection while operating on behalf of the country.

But there are side effects of such immunisation – tactical mistakes are liable to mushroom to strategic proportions. The army has been defending the need for the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in its present avatar stating that the army has its own checks and balances to ensure the Act is not misused and has taken action to punish violations.

There can be no doubt that AFSPA, like TADA and POTA and other strong government measures with sweeping powers, can be misused despite the measures instituted.

Such aberrations are not unique to India. The massacre at My Lai is one of the most horrendous killings of unarmed civilians by the US Army in Vietnam. Similarly, in another blot on democracies breaching the thin line, British soldiers from 1st Parachute Regiment opened fire in the streets of Londonderry in 1972 – titled Bloody Sunday – killing 14 civilians.

Any law, especially in a democracy, should be aimed at protecting the weak and innocent. In breaches of the law, defending injustice is a greater crime than the crime. Where its own authorities are concerned, the state must let truth triumph because when we defend the truth, we defend our democratic and secular values and uphold respect for the law, as well as the professionalism and dedication of our security forces.

In the case of extrajudicial killings that took place in Assam nearly 24 years ago, this sentencing was expected from the army. It goes beyond accepting and apologising for a violation that should not have occurred.

One does not protect the Indian Army ethos by defending the indefensible actions of its members. The army is ultimately responsible for the conduct of its members. The army represents the country’s values and democratic ideals and the punishment was an acknowledgement of just that.

It also needs to be mentioned that a state that orders unending deployment of its armed forces without a sunset clause in its use to quell political and internal disorders, displays a lack of commitment to democratic principles of the constitution. In internal disorders, using no arms is the best weapon in quelling the disturbances. The larger the number of armed forces personnel deployed in a disturbed area, the greater the chances of that force gaining illegitimacy.

In democracies like India, the approach is to establish the primacy of human life and dignity over everything else. What is at stake here is not justice in stray incidents of extrajudicial killings but the fundamental principles of a democratic, secular and liberal state. The moral imperative for any state is to get the fundamental principles right.

Col DPK Pillay (Shaurya Chakra) is a war decorated veteran who suffered near fatal wounds in an encounter in Manipur. Is now with the IDSA


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