Pathribal: Back in the news


Kunan Poshpora and Pathribal will remain etched in any history of the Kashmir conflict. While the salience of the former (in the perspective of this writer) is a product of the information war that inevitably attends conflict, the latter is an illustration of the intelligence game that is an inextricable part of conflict. It is unsurprising, therefore, for Kashmir being the conflict zone of Pakistani proxy war and Indian counter-insurgency to have its recent history littered with such evocative names, quite like other such theatres of conflict, whether conventional or unconventional. 

Pathribal is in the news for the army’s exoneration of its members held for perpetrating the infamous Pathribal incident in which five civilians were killed and passed off as those who had committed the Chattisingpora carnage on the eve of Clinton’s visit to India. Truthfully, the army states that enough evidence was not recorded to implicate the men. Recording ‘enough evidence’ could have opened up a Pandora’s Box and therefore for the perpetrators to be left off is in a way only fair. Had they been after rewards and awards as is the usual explanation, they would likely have been nailed by the army. The army’s letting them off suggests that there is more to the case as has been surmised by the circumstantial evidence over the past decade.

The Clinton visit is critical to understanding Pathribal. India had blasted its way into the nuclear club and was temporarily in the dog house for that with the United States that had a democratic dispensation which is usually more influenced by the non-proliferation lobby. The Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks had opened up space for India, even as Pakistan’s support for the Taliban that was harbouring bin Laden was getting constricted. The Clinton visit symbolised this shift in American interests away from Pakistan with Clinton deciding to spend as many days in India as hours in Pakistan. 

In the context of the visit, the security establishment decided to twist the knife by arranging the Chittisingpora incident in order to push Pakistan into a corner with the US, knowing that a democratic administration is usually more sensitive to human rights issues. Since the Sikhs had never been targeted before, it was to stretch credulity that Pakistan would be so strategic as to allow its proxies to perpetrate the massacre on the eve of Clinton’s visit, particularly when they wanted to compete with India for US affections. No doubt, the US had in this case its own views, informed also by its links with the Pakistanis who would have fed it their version. Even within India there was considerable scepticism that then needed to be dispelled. 

With their thinking murkied by an insurgency over a decade old by then, the security agencies thought it fit to cover their tracks. The execution of this at Pathribal was as ham handed as was the massacre at Chittisingpora. The tracks left by the army by killing innocents to pass off as Pakistani terrorists were easily uncovered by civil society agitation that incidentally led to deaths in firing of another set of civilians at Panchaltan. Given the second set of deaths, the incident became too difficult to consign into the several unresolved cases that have filled not a few of the unmarked graves across Kashmir. 

The resulting investigation led to uncovering of enough evidence by the police to prompt a CBI investigation that yet again declared that the case was prosecutable. The army’s protection of its members led to the Supreme Court declaring that the case be handed over to the army for military justice to take its course. The current recurrence of Pathribal in the news is the army’s expression of inability to prosecute due to lack of evidence. They in fact go on to state that there is enough ‘evidence’ that the operation was a bonafide joint police-army operation. 

Clearly, the military judicial process has not been as blind as the ends of justice require. It appears to have been cognisant of the context surrounding the case then and equally so of the current political, external and internal, juncture. As the Congress looks at elections it can do without the opposition gaining further traction than it has already demonstrated. The exservicemen lobby, that represents the military’s political face, is also one that is increasingly vocal, cannot be ignored and is liable to put its weight behind the opposition strongman, NaMo, as General VK Singh’s presence on the dais with Modi testifies. 

Externally, the Pakistan relationship is not going anywhere any time soon. Manmohan Singh in his lame duck tenure cannot pursue what he promisingly set out to do in his first tenure. In fact, the assessment is that it would be downhill for sometime here on since the magic figure ‘2014’ is in the here and now. With the statistics of last year promise a militarily feisty Line of Control this year too. Therefore, if the Kashmir security situation is likely to worsen, it would be a waste to emplace mitigatory measures now such as enforcing accountability for human rights violations. ‘Demoralising’ the security forces should not be done when they are about to be most needed yet again. 

The shortcoming of this assessment need highlighting in that if the Taliban, and Pakistan at one remove, are out to retake Afghanistan on the departure of the US, it is reasonable to believe that they would like to keep their backyard quiet. They also will unlikely have the strategic resources to open up the Kashmir front simultaneously, after all after over half a decade of capacity building the Afghan security forces are unlikely to be a pushover even if Karzai is a pushover politically. 

Therefore, while it can be expected that Kashmir will likely see more fireworks this year, it is hardly on account of Pakistani strategic design as much as a self-fuelling prophecy in which India, out to check Pakistan in Afghanistan through a proxy war, will see Pakistan revert to using its trump card. In fact if the procedural democracy soon to be worked in Kashmir were to be supplemented by substantive democracy through accountability then it could have dispelled the hurt in Kashmir that conveys to Pakistan that it remains ripe for meddling. 

Accountability indicting Indians would also deflate India’s diplomatic position that Pakistan is the root cause of the problem in Kashmir. It would put the AFSPA defence of the army into question. It would lead to an easing of the situation, heightening concerns of continuing army presence. This would bring up the matter of redeployment of the RR out of Kashmir and into Central India. Therefore, there are plenty of reasons not to expect justice to take its own course in the Pathribal case. 

But most importantly, incarcerating a few soldiers is hardly just if those who ordered the killings are not brought to book. The chain of command does not stop at the army itself in this case. What the brass in the command chain could tell would go into the heart of the governmental establishment to include men in safari suits and dhotis. Going down this route would expose the underside of India’s security establishment and its culpability in keeping Kashmir unsettled. 

This explains why the army – and indeed the government – wants the nation to forget Pathribal. Now, if only the families and the activists would put on their nationalist cap and listen. Feedback at