A Body Snatcher

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Nobody knows about the body-bags he might have filled during his Kashmir posting. But Major Gogoi, who was finally sent to the Court Martial, has been using and abusing human bodies – one, he converted into a human shield, and, the other, he wanted to abuse for his comfort, reports Masood Hussain

Shawl weaver Farooq Dar on the bonnet of Major Leetul Gogoi as a human sheild

Finally, Nitin Leetul Gogoi, the Major rank officer, found guilty of “fraternising with a local” and “being away from the place of duty while in an operational area” will face the Court Martial. This goes with the public commitment of General Bipin Rawat, the Indian army chief that ‘if found guilty’, the punishment will “set an example”.

In 14 months, between April 2017 and May 2018, Gogoi made front page news twice and introduced himself to Kashmir outside his hill garrison. Both incidents were unpleasant and appalling. First, he used the body of a poor man as a shield for his passage and, then abusing the body of a poor girl for his personal leisure.

On April 7, 2017, he was escorting poll staff to a booth in Beerwa when a stone-pelting incident halted his convoy. He caught a man, Farooq Dar, beat him, tied him to the bonnet of his jeep with his hands tied behind and used him as ‘human shield’ for the next more than 20 villages. The slow-speed convoy moved through central Kashmir hamlets inviting youth on megaphones: “apnay banday ko pathar maro”, (throw stones at your own man)”.

Dar, a poor shawl-weaver, had barely come out of the polling station where he had cast his vote and was about to leave to see his sister when Gogoi’s men caught him. Later, he spent months as a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Doctors who treated him said he will take still a long time to come out of the trauma. Currently, he is lost in the systemic maze to get justice and compensation.

The next time, on May 23 last, Gogoi was attempting checking into a Srinagar hotel along with a local girl. The hotel refused him entry because local hospitality sector rules prevent a non-local from checking-in with a local girl in Kashmir. In reaction, his subordinate, a local soldier, created a scene. That unfolded the scandal and led to his halt at police station Khanyar. Major had claimed that he was there for a “source meeting” but the girl, an adult, told the magistrate that she had come for the “fun”, insisting, she had been on outings with him earlier, too. Even the state police had inputs about the officer’s colourful night stays in various hotels, earlier.

The girl who spoke plainly and truthfully before different levers of law, the police and the court, in particular, belong to a low economic group. Her labourer father is still not in a position to complete the reconstruction of their home that they lost in September 2014 floods. The Gogoi racket added social ostracisation to the family, to the extent that her father treks a long distance to find work far away from home in anonymity so that he does not face uncomfortable questions.

Kashmir reacted to both incidents vociferously insisting these were against the basic canons of law, humanity, ethics and engagement of soldiers with civilian populations, the all-powerful, immunity-providing Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, notwithstanding. But the army and most of the governance set-up responded differently.

For converting Dar into a human shield, Gogoi was celebrated as a hero. His “valour”, “wit” and “innovation” did not make him an instant hit with powerful sections of media, politics and the armed forces only but fetched him a commendation letter from Bipin Rawat. A Bollywood producer began shooting his film by recreating the same scene, interestingly taking a Kashmiri ‘extra’ – artists will lower roles in films and low costs, to play Dar’s role!

Those opposed to celebrating Gogoi game were quite a few. “Image of a ‘stone pelter’ tied in front of a jeep as a ‘human shield’, will 4 ever haunt the Indian Army & the nation,” Lt Gen H S Panag wrote on his twitter. “When the State starts looking like a mirror image of the terrorists, it spells ominous portents!” For the two-liner, the General faced his own share of criticism.

Gogoi, who served for eight years as a sepoy before clearing the mandatory examination to get into the officer rank, was already a ‘superhero’. He took his personal SOP (standard operations procedure) to the next level and descended down the hill garrison with his pimp subordinate to the city for a night with a poor man’s daughter, whose ramshackle home he had earlier visited too. Had police not reached the hotel gate quickly, there was a possibility of Gogoi ‘human shield’ infamy getting discovered. He could have himself become a similar shield as earlier happened in a remote Bandipore village in north Kashmir where a group of soldiers were caught by residents and brought in a huge procession to the main town, almost half dead, and handed over to police.

Had the army acted on Gogoi’s April 7 ‘innovation’ about managing stone pelters, they might have prevented the organisation’s embarrassment in wake of his May 23 leisure trip.

Gogoi will face the Court Martial. He may get some punishment as well. But in Kashmir, not many people expect justice because most of the counter-insurgency grid lacks transparency in doing and delivering justice.

Pathribal is a classic case where five civilians were roasted alive and passed off as butchers of 35 Sikhs who were massacred in Chittisinghpora, the same night, Bill Clinton landed in Delhi in March 2000. CBI investigated the case and held five soldiers responsible for the murders. The case was taken to Court Martial and it said the evidence on record “could not establish a prima facie case against any of the accused persons.” Now the families of the slain five have gone to the Supreme Court.

Major Leetul Gogoi

Even the Machil fake encounter, in which three youth were lured to a garrison near the Line of Control, killed and dubbed as foreigners, had a similar outcome. A key factor behind the 2010 unrest that killed more than 100 civilians, a court-martial held six ranks responsible for the three murders. Two years after the army said the accused were given a life sentence, the case was taken up by the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) in 2017 that suspended the sentence of five of the six accused!

As Venkatesh Nayak, a Delhi based activist took the RTI route, to seek details of the courts on inquiry, he was told that the army did not conduct the court-martial in Pathribal case. As he went in appeal within the RTI set-up and got a clear direction for the army to give him information, the army went to the Delhi High Court and got a stay to protect the information in both the cases.

Army sought a stay on basis of pleas that disclosure of the information would result in “public outrage”, will “prejudicially affect the security, sovereignty and integrity of India” and shall have “national and international ramifications”, besides, it might “create unrest” in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

But Gogoi case does not mean “nothing” to Kashmir. The two images he has created of himself in 14 months have fetched Kashmir two pieces of stark evidence on two fronts. It established the practice of soldier’s taking ‘human shield’ as a tool of counter-insurgency, a system that has killed many in last 30 years. His hotel stay explained the prevalence of a system that creates and sustains ‘rings of comfort’ within the vulnerable sections of a conflict-ridden society using abundant resources, unchallenged authority and blackmail.

Kashmir has been a justice seeker for a long time. Right now, however, the societal emphasis seems to be on keeping the history books clean. The court-martial is a welcome step.

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