Ever since the advent of war, soldiers have desecrated the corpses of their enemies, whether to send a message or exact revenge. However, nations and their armies were also aware that it was wrong and never formally condoned the same.
India and Pakistan fought the conventional wars of 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 generally adhering to the Geneva Conventions. India’s humanitarian handling of 93,000 prisoners of war became a model for the world. However, with the advent of proxy wars and vicious fighting along the Line of Control (LoC), the primitive practice of desecration of the bodies of dead soldiers seems to have been revived.
There have been numerous instances where the bodies of our soldiers have been desecrated by the Pakistan Army and the terrorists. What began as carrying body parts as “proof” of action seems to have become a routine ritual. The proliferation of mobile phones and an overactive media have led to gory photos and videos making their way into the public domain. An incensed public egged on by a nationalistic fervour has been clamouring for “10 heads for one head”.
Beliefs, norms and honour code of warriors demand that the enemy dead be treated at par with own dead. In classical literature, Homer’s Iliad described the 12th century BC Trojan War, and captured this essence of the customary laws of war and the reality of battle.
Incensed at the killing of young Patroclus, Achilles slays Hector, ropes his body to his chariot and drags it away as shocked kin and people of Troy watch. In his own camp, he drags it 12 times around the funeral pyre of Patroclus and leaves it face down to rot, to be eventually eaten by dogs. Even the Greek gods are horrified by this immoral brutality. They intervene to preserve the corpse of Hector from being corrupted and Zeus sends word that Achilles “tempts the wrath of heaven too far” with his desire to “vent his mad vengeance on the sacred dead”. Achilles relents and hands over the body to Priam who gives a befitting funeral to his son.
In actual battles, the worst instincts of men come to the fore. Laws have been, therefore, progressively codified over centuries to act as a deterrent. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention states, “At all times, and particularly after an engagement, parties to the conflict shall,… and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled”.
The Indian Army prides itself on fighting as per the laws of the conflict. India is a great advocate of “rules-based international order”. We highlight this every time Pakistan Army or its proxies mutilate the bodies of our soldiers in operations along the LoC. Last year’s ‘human-shield’ incident and two recent events, however, have severely dented this image.
On 15 September, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman participated in India TV show ‘Aap Ki Adalat’ (People’s Court) as a mock accused. During the programme, the anchor asked her a loaded question. “Lekin sawal hai Pakistan ko theek karne ka. Chunav ke dauran kehte hain ki woh do sir katenge toh hum das sir kat ke layenge. Lekin ab dus toh nahin kat rahe (During the election campaign, you people had said that if they cut two heads, we will cut 10 heads. But 10 heads are not really being cut now)”.
The defence minister replied, “Nahin. Main yeh bol sakti hoon, kaat to rahe hain hum, display nahin kar rahe (No. I can only say this that we are also cutting heads off, but not displaying them)”. The statement was followed by a smug smirk.
The same day, two photographs taken after an encounter in Reasi district in Jammu and Kashmir on 13 September went viral on social media. In the first photo, soldiers are seen dragging the body of a terrorist from approximately two metres with a chain tied to his feet. In the second photo, a saffron-clad person is taking a selfie with the terrorist’s body. Both actions as seen in the photos violate the standard operating procedures of the Army and the Geneva Conventions. The logic of “anti-IED/booby trap drill” does not hold good because the rope has to be at least 30 metre-long and pulled from behind a safe cover to turn the body.
The media spared the minister, but the ramifications of her naive gaffe are far-reaching. The defence minister has incriminated her own Army of violating Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention and the Customary International Humanitarian Law. Not even the Pakistan Army and its proxies have ever admitted or boasted about mutilation or decapitation of dead bodies of our soldiers. Similarly, with no formal statement on the viral photos, the Army, carried away by the mood of the nation, appears to condone the incident.
The government and the Army must forthwith issue a formal clarification to dispel the notion that we have fallen to the levels of rogue armies and terrorists. A political boast and a ‘one-off’ violation of the standard operating procedure must not give the impression that the Indian Army has lost its ‘moral compass’.
The author served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.