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I was talking to an 18-year-old neighbor who recently did  phenomenally well in the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education Class XII exams and wants to get into one of the elite institutions of law in India and then practice corporate law so he can start earning well from the first day of his working life. I asked him if anyone in his high-school class was thinking about joining the army.

“I don’t think anyone has considered that as an option,” he said.

My next question was: What’s your opinion about Major Leetul Gogoi parading a man on the hood of a jeep in Kashmir? Without batting an eyelid he said, “That’s a gross human-rights violation on the part of the army.”

I asked why he thought so. “You cannot tie someone up like that on top of a jeep to use as a human shield,” was his quick reply.

This young man was repeating the majority view without delving into the issue at all. And what I find really interesting is that most young men in India are quick to form an opinion about the armed forces who ensure they get a good night’s sleep but, when it comes to choosing the army as a career option and serving the country, they would rather fly from the nest, go off to some foreign land to study. and stay in a foreign country criticizing the Indian Army in living-room conversations and questioning its human-rights practices.

Indian Army in Kashmir

Most of us have never been to Kashmir, and we just form our opinions by reading news reports, which are often biased and not well researched.

Sifting through several such reports, I realized that by making Farooq Ahmed Dar a human shield, the army kept stone throwers at bay. As stone throwing and incitement of riots by religious and political bodies continues to be a growing issue in Kashmir, in my opinion using one person as a human shield to make it through a mob is a better option than opening fire, which would have meant plunging into yet another cycle of violence that the Kashmir Valley can do without.

Gogoi has been awarded a commendation by the army chief, and not without reason. Those who are criticizing his action probably fail to realize that his quick thinking not only kept safe the polling-booth officials he had gone to rescue, but that he avoided a violent skirmish with the mob and saved lives in the process.

When it comes to Kashmir and the Indian Army, something happens to us. While we are most often unaware of the volatility that the army on the ground has to face there and the changing terrorist tactics and political scenario, we often judge its actions going by the information we have been fed so far of army atrocities in the valley.

But we usually form an opinion without checking or rechecking that information. There are always two sides to a story. And before criticizing the army at the drop of a hat, why do we never see that it is  doing a very difficult job?

The genesis of terrorism in Kashmir

Kashmir has been mentioned as a prosperous and strategically important place since ancient times. The geopolitical importance of the Kashmir Valley has induced formation of kingdoms one after another since prehistoric times. Its populace has gone through transformations from Shaivite Hinduism to Buddhism to Islam in its tryst with the times.

When India gained independence from yet another empire, the British, Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state under the Dogra king Maharaja Hari Singh. After independence in 1947 there were invasions by Afghan mujahideen aided by Pakistan aiming to control J&K. The Maharaja approached the Indian government for assistance and acceded to India, which led to the 1948 Indo-Pakistani War.

Several decades of futile attempts by Pakistan to force J&K to secede from India through three wars and diplomacy made it realize that it would be difficult to take the initiative by conventional methods. Thus Pakistan adopted the method of bleeding by a thousand cuts and started sponsoring full-scale terrorism in the valley in the latter part of the 1980s. This became worse when the minority population of Hindu Pundits were driven out of the state by fundamentalists through atrocities, and this led the government of India to resort to deployment of the army to contain the terrorism.

Since then the Indian Army, empowered by Armed Forces Special Powers Act, has been handling the volatile situation in the Kashmir Valley in a patient and humane way. It is said that the army wields an iron-glove approach in the state, where the hard exterior of the glove is aimed at Pakistani-sponsored terrorism but the softer inner core is aimed at winning hearts and minds of the Kashmiris.

From time to time there have been media reports of the army harassing civilians and creating a sense of fear in the state, but there are also reports that because of the army there is some order in the region, and otherwise there would be complete chaos.

Riots are a burning issue in Kashmir at the moment. But we all know riots don’t start by themselves; they have to be incited, and the army only steps in when the police are unable to handle the situation. The army is doing its job of bringing the situation under control, but if pelting the soldiers with stones is the way to express discontent then serious measures need to be taken. And most often army personnel go easy with the stone throwers; it is only when the mob turns violent that it takes measures.

The peace-loving, mild-mannered average Kashmiri is not an army hater, as the impression is often given out. There are plenty of Kashmiris who realize that they are safe because the army is around.

Most of the casualties in Kashmir happen because of riots and the actions of insurgents, and it is probable that there would have been more injuries if the army had not kept watch and intervened.

What most of us fail to realize is that the soldiers doing their duty in that difficult terrain and harsh climate are people much like us, with feelings and families. The only difference is they have taken up the job of safeguarding our country and saving people.

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A soldier’s life

On a cold January morning a soldier wakes up at 5am, while Kashmiri citizens are still under their quilts. He often uses cold water in the bathroom when the supply of warm water runs out and, battling the formidable cold assaulting his bones, he takes up his post on a willow bench inside a bunker pointing his rifle at the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, keeping a watch on the vehicles passing by. He stays at his post for eight or nine hours before he can rest. Some go off to their patrolling duties protected only by a bulletproof jacket and helmet.

Major Leetul Gogoi’s act is making controversial headlines, but many times we have read about how a soldier got pelted with stones, took it in his stride and left without any reaction. What about a salute to that?

In 2016, 64 soldiers lost their lives in Kashmir, the most since 2010, when 69 soldiers were martyred.

In 2016 as many as 31 terrorists were killed along the Line of Control in the course of 17 infiltration attempts by the army, a report in firstpost.com said.

And before people take out the brickbats for the Indian Army in Kashmir, they should look back to September 2014 when disastrous floods hit Jammu and Kashmir. Eighty-two planes and helicopters, 10 battalions of the Border Security Force, 329 columns of the Indian Army and 300 boats were used in the rescue operations. The Indian Army used some old-fashioned juggaar (creativity) and converted their trucks into mobile charging platforms for the people to charge their mobile phones.

Two aircraft carried in a total of 50 tonnes of supplies including food, water and medicines. More than 200,000 people from different regions of Jammu and Kashmir were rescued. And throughout this operation Kashmiri youth worked in tandem with the Indian Army to make the rescue operations possible, and in many newspaper articles, army officers thanked those young men for their assistance.