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Army not naming terrorists killed in encounters is a step back on its transparent culture

The counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir are seeing two important elements firming up – forces not allowing public janazas of terrorists and the Army’s campaign against naming of terrorists shot dead in encounters, a lot of which has spilled on to Twitter.

While the former is a right step since these janazas had become the breeding grounds for new terror recruits and a show of strength for banned groups, the latter is a slippery slope the Army should avoid venturing into.

Although the burials of terrorists are carried out away from the public gaze, police in Kashmir makes sure that the families of those killed, if they are local residents, get to pay their last respects.

Even the US, as protocol, had offered Saudi Arabia the body of global terrorist Osama bin Laden before he was buried at sea. Of course, Saudi Arabia refused to take it. Neither Saudi nor the US would have wanted the grave of the terrorist to become a shrine.

Army’s logic behind not naming

According to the Army, naming the killed terrorists amounts to their glorification. While the approach makes sense from an immediate security point of view when an operation is ongoing, not naming the terrorists even after the encounter, has larger legal, human rights and transparency ramifications.

Thankfully, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Jammu and Kashmir Police, along with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have not toed the Army’s line, and continue to name terrorists killed in encounters and list their criminal activities in official press releases and media bytes.

The new policy was brought out in open by the Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand on the day terror group Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief Riyaz Naikoo was killed.

In a text message sent out to journalists at 3:17pm on 6 May, Colonel Anand while confirming that two terrorists were killed said their names were being “withheld” for security reasons.

This was surprising because the officials in Jammu and Kashmir Police and the CRPF had identified and officially named the terrorists after the bodies were recovered and operation called off. This created a lot of confusion.

Later, when journalists reached out for clarity, Colonel Anand said that the Army shall not glorify these terrorists by releasing their names.

The confusion continued late into the night when 15 Corps Commander Lt Gen B.S. Raju, in an interview to Times Now, gave details of the operation and named Naikoo.

The next day, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat also spoke about the encounter in an interview to news agency ANI.

So, it gets a bit confusing when the Army says that naming terrorists leads to glorification.

Transparency vs glorification

Both the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court have laid down regulations for encounters and identification of the killed terrorist is part of the legal procedure.

It is also a matter of transparency as no one wants a situation tomorrow where any security force can use the “terrorist” tag to refuse details of a person killed in encounter. And hence, identifying the killed person, even terrorist, is a matter of legal requirement because a case diary has to be maintained for every incident.

Non-identification of those killed in operations is a policy, if implemented, will blow back on the forces one day.

Countries across the world, including a security state like Israel, gives details of terrorists killed in an operation and their terror activities. Apart from the fact that it sends out a strong message to other terrorists, it also helps maintain a transparent culture.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, it was then US President Barack Obama who announced his death. Obama was not glorifying a terrorist, but was sending out a strong message to all like him and praising the success of the intelligence and military community.

Or closer home, was the Sri Lankan military glorifying dreaded LTTE terrorist Vellupillai Prabhakaran when they announced his death?

If one goes by Army’s logic, then the name of Mumbai attacks terrorist Ajmal Kasab should not have been made public. It was media, especially the Pakistani media that exposed Kasab’s Pakistan links after his name came out in the Indian press.

There needs to be a larger discussion on what does and does not glorify terrorists.

Blaming the media

In another message to journalists on Sunday, Colonel Anand again said that the force will not confirm names of terrorists killed in an operation in Jammu’s Doda, and “appeals to the media to not glorify the terrorists”.

This was round two of confusion in less than two weeks’ time. Much before Anand’s communication to the media, the Jammu and Kashmir police had already given out details of the terrorists killed.

After many journalists flagged the communication gap between the Army and other security forces, Colonel Anand took to twitter through his personal account to defend the Army’s stand.

And this happened again. On 19 May, after deputy chief of Hizbul Mujahideen, Junaid Sehrai was killed in a joint operation by Jammu and Kashmir Police and the CRPF, several journalists, including this author tweeted out the information, once official confirmation came in and bodies were recovered. What followed was an unusual move by the Army spokesperson who took a swipe at this journalist for naming the terrorist.

When it was pointed out to him that the information was shared by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and that the police have a responsibility to identify terrorists, he tweeted back saying: “JKP has a reason and is understood. What’s media’s?”

Not another Twitter General

Questioning media’s role and duty to report an information, which has anyway been given through official channels, bears an eerie resemblance to the infamous “Twitter General”

Pakistani military’s PR establishment ISPR’s former Chief Maj General Asif Ghafoor, known as the Twitter General, often used his personal handle to browbeat journalists and others.

I am sure neither the Army as an institution nor the Defence Ministry, support these tactics.

The Constitution allows freedom of expression, from which the media draws its power, subject to reasonable restrictions. However, there has to be a rational balance between the restrictions and the objective to be achieved.

Article 19(2) says that reasonable restrictions can be imposed on freedom of speech and expression in the interest of the security of the state.

It even lists out the reasons and criteria that will guide the imposition of such restrictions: friendly relations with foreign states; anything that disturbs public tranquility or public peace or order; contempt of court; defamation, and incitement to an offence.

How naming a terrorist after his death impacts any of the above laid down conditions is beyond my understanding.

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