D for Dirty, W for War – Indian Army Chief’s Alphabet lesson

Over the past few days the airwaves over and about Kashmir have been filled with the aftermath of an incident where an Indian army officer had tied a Kashmiri civilian to a jeep to be used as a human shield. This incident has been both condemned as well as supported across different political locations. The controversy was fuelled further when Major Gogoi, the officer in question was awarded a citation by the Indian army, which is an open statement of the support of the army and the State. The history of military operations in Kashmir since 1990 has been marked by particular controversies from time to time, most notably Kunan Poshpora in the early 1990s. However, what is surprising in this recent incident is that by awarding Gogoi, the army and the Indian state has made an open statement of support rather than statements denying any misconduct as seen with other incidents in the past. In a press conference the Chief of Staff of the army, General Rawat, who has in the past declared that any civilian hindering counter insurgency operations in Kashmir would be treated as a militant praised Gogoi’s actions as ‘innovative’:

[su_quote]This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagements are there when the adversary comes face-to-face and fights with you. It is a dirty war…. That is where innovation comes in. You fight a dirty war with innovations[/su_quote]

What is striking about the General’s comments is his choice of words. What is taking place in Kashmir is now clearly ‘war’. While the conflict in Kashmir has often been called a proxy war waged by Pakistan in Indian state discourse, the depiction of the situation in Kashmir as a dirty war is unusual. Hence, while life in Kashmir has been marked by violence for nearly three decades, there is another form of violence that has now come into the open. Rather, the violence of the state is physical, institutional and linguistic.

Language has been a fundamental feature of violence. While violence is a physical process, an important component of the experience of violence relates to how people talk about it. It is through language that we can approach the forms of violence, especially those of us watching from afar. The philosopher Etienne Balibar had written that what we call war shapes how we understand war. What is critical to war is often how we name it. It is through naming a war that the war acquires its character and type. Balibar’s discussion had developed in the early years of the ‘war on terror’; a war was marked by violence, despair and a new vocabulary. The war on terror was fought against ‘the axis of evil’ by the ‘coalition of the willing’. As a student in those days, I remember one class teacher lecturing us on how the US army was going to ‘smoke’ the Taliban out of their ‘holes’. One learned to imagine the war with special words that straddled the thin line between meaningfulness and meaninglessness, the mundane and extraordinary. The Enemy as a rat…..

When I spent time in the state of Jammu and Kashmir conducting research among the Kashmiri Pandits who had been displaced in the first year of the conflict, studying with a group in a camp colony, I discovered that the official term for displaced people in the state was ‘migrant’. While many Pandits were angry as the term migrant could refer to anyone and not just those displaced by conflict, I was surprised to see that the word had entered everyday language in Jammu to refer to people displaced by the conflict. It was towards the end of my research when a government official had mentioned that it was preferable to use the word migrant with regard to the Pandits as to use the term Internally Displaced People or internal refugee would imply that the state had lost control in Kashmir in the early 1990s.

In Kashmir other forms of language circulate taking a life of their own. Phrases like ‘catch and kill’, ‘hearts and minds’, ‘encounter’, are a part of everyday language. A counter vocabulary also takes root, drawing on experiences from elsewhere such as ‘occupation’. To return to the General’s statement, to call the present as a dirty war, in other words, is an open declaration of Kashmir being a war zone, and that too of a unique kind. There even seems a certain disappointment when the General in the same statement wished that the stone pelters used guns instead of stones. That would make sense to him. Perhaps that is the power and genius of something basic as opposed to a piece of sophisticated engineering.

Yet to call the present situation a dirty war means that the violence of the state can no longer be bound in principle by concerns of normal ethics. While many Kashmiris and others may argue that ethical actions have long been compromised, what we may now see is the discarding of an ethical veil.

While the situation in Kashmir may be classified as a dirty war, depending on how the phrase is used and who articulates it, there is history to this phrase. Not every war is a dirty war. The phrase itself was first used during the 1970s in Argentina during a period of state violence against opponents of the military junta that was in power at the time. The dirty war since then evokes torture, disappearances and the suspension of democratic norms. The question to ask is whether General Rawat is aware of this history while using this choice phrase.


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Ankur Datta Written by:

Ankur Datta is Assistant Professor of Sociology at South Asian University. His research interest is Kashmir

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