Caged in Kashmir

Zuha Badar analyses a soldier’s dilemma in time of war

By: Zuha Badar      Published: 08:14 PM, 23 Jul, 2020
Caged in Kashmir

I trek upwards in the hills of Arang Kel in Azad (‘Independent’) Kashmir, Pakistan, knowing that not so far away lies one of the most highly militarized and conflicted zones of the world –   ‘Occupied’ Kashmir. I squint my eyes to check for any sign of abnormality across the demarcated line separating the freed and the occupied land, but my view is blocked by snow-covered mountains tops. And I only see a shadow steadily creeping upon the valley as the sun begins to set. The same shadow that is being cast beyond the mountains. The only difference is that people on the other side are under lockdown.

Sandwiched between two atomic powers, India and Pakistan, and nothing but a reminder of the hasty British blunders in 1947, Jammu and Kashmir is a declared disputed territory. Seventy-three years later as I tour the Azad Kashmir, I witness military personnel sprinkled strategically on the mountainous terrain of the valley. They are charged and ready to lay down their lives under any circumstances. Exchange of fire along the Line of Control (the line marking the conflicted zone) is often expected. And so is the inevitable truth that more innocent lives will be lost before this conflict meets its end.

The recent stripping of Jammu and Kashmir of its relatively autonomous status by India has triggered alarms internationally. Accompanied by thousands of Indian troops in the valley, the human rights violations amidst a communication blackout have fooled no-one. Long story short, at the time of decolonization of British India, Kashmir consisted of a Sikh monarchy with a majority of Muslim subjects. Before the British recession, Kashmir – on the basis of its majority population and a signed bilateral agreement with the Pakistani dominion – was deemed to be a part of Pakistan. A guerrilla rebellion against the Hindu ruler Hari Singh’s taxation policies led him to plead for help from Lord Mountbatten, who placed a condition of accession to India. The Hindu monarch accepted the condition while keeping an agreement with Pakistan intact. So, you know it’s a sore subject to talk about when three wars have been fought over the territory subsequently, albeit with no outcome.

Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica noted that ‘War is contrary to peace. Therefore war is always a sin’. However, he also notes that in order for war to be just, it has to fulfil three conditions: Firstly, a sovereign authority to wage war, as individuals do not have the mandate to call for it. Secondly, a rightful and just cause is required, for it is then lawful to wield a sword for the common good of the city. Lastly, the rightful intention of the ‘belligerents’ is required for the ‘advancement of good or the avoidance of evil’. This constitutes the ‘just war theory’. For all purposes, wars can have just causes, but it is highly possible for them to turn into illegitimate means to harm, to wreak vengeance, and to become a gamble for power. This is much like the conditions in Kashmir today, where not only the cause overrides the agency of individual freedom, but violence is perpetrated among civilians as a violation of universal human rights.

The debate over morality and war forms two trajectories in philosophy. The jus ad bellum (justice of going to war) referring to the legal aspect, and jus in bello (justice in war) referring to the moral aspect of war. In both cases, what is just and what is not is deemed by governments with respect to two things. First, by the token of democracy that entails the tyranny of the majority, and secondly by the military oath of allegiance to the state that every soldier has to take as the principles of nationalism dictate. However, the extent of moral obligation to jus ad bellum in modern day war has become problematic as it creates a dilemma for soldiers. On one hand, military service is deemed as one of the highest virtues for combatants, but on the other it involves the killing of innocent people if a state goes to war. This moral dilemma is defined as a conflict between two obligations with equal imperative duties, and to choose one is to violate the other. This conflict later projects itself as regret in one’s consciousness. Friedrich Nietzsche called this “Gefühl des Müssen” or the “feeling of obligation”. Using one’s inner voice to express this feeling of obligation underscores the fact that some authority is involved that forces a sense of duty in the person. As a result, the legally binding obligation to the state is put before any moral obligation the combatant might have, says a prominent academic J. Montrose.

Another academic Walzer contends that it is important to recognize a soldier’s jus in bello to understand their jus ad bellum commitments. But acting on an individual’s jus in bello in a sturdy military chain of command is often considered a breach. Hence, a limit on obedience is to be observed in order to warrant a soldier’s jus in bello responsibility. This came up in the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders after the Second World War. It was established, against the proposition of merely carrying out superior orders that a soldier cannot ask for immunity for acts of an immoral nature – such as war crimes. This undermined not only the authority in the chain of command but also the power of the state. Still, soldiers walk a tightrope when choosing to discard either their moral agency or their duty to the state. What is worse is that a moral defence of not carrying out an immoral order is often seen as redundant, which was the case in the famous trials of Adolf Eichmann, who was later sentenced to death.  The reason, as explained by Jonathan Edward’s in Freedom of the Will is that acts rooted in free will carry the blame of such action within the people themselves. In other words, one is to be blamed if one chooses to act according to one’s will – even if it is a morally virtuous act. Ironically, many armies have written limits to the use of individual military power, such as the US Rules of Engagement Cards. There are many internationally accepted limits to obedience in the military regarding acts that require moral deliberation as well, such as the Responsibility to Protect program. They do not, however, coincide with the goals of sovereign states at war; much less is there a mandate to intervene in matters that states deem to be national.


This photograph, captured on the streets of Srinagar – the capital of occupied Kashmir – is a rare one. For once, the armed man, instead of pointing his gun towards the child, is extending a hand. And the boy, instead of having a bandage on one of his eyes (due to the Indian army’s use of pellet guns) seems to be smiling. The emotion here appears to be genuine. It is symbolic of the fact that refusal to take part in criminal war crimes is not a breach of state loyalty. The moral imperatives of war actions should be made available to the last person down the chain of command. Mike Prysner, an American war veteran’s speech comes to mind, where he reminds people that governments only sell wars. They do not have to lift a single weapon. Nor do they have to witness human suffering. The most interesting part of his speech was when he said: “They can spend millions on a single bomb, but that bomb only becomes a weapon when the ranks in the military are willing to follow orders to use it. They can send every last soldier anywhere on earth, but there will only be a war if soldiers are willing to fight”. The decision makers on the other side of the border seem adamant, however. A prime example of what Machiavelli means by ‘virtu’ seems manifest in the Indian premier, where the decision of revoking the special status of Kashmir was necessary for remaining in power.

Legal consequences are admissible and inevitable. However, soldiers owe it to their ethical convictions to act morally. The Nuremberg Trials established that commanding orders should be lawful, which requires them to not only be legal but also moral. But if the command given is illegal in nature – that is both unlawful and immoral – the soldier can choose to disobey. This sets a limit to the unconditional obedience of soldiers to follow certain orders. But I guess the inherent loyalty to our own nation and utter spite for the other numbs any sense of morality on the battleground. Though I doubt that the same people aren’t bothered by their own conscience later in their life. Much like General Johnson, an American veteran of the Vietnam War who recalls an incident where he could have spoken against the war in front of the then president, but didn’t. “I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage in my back”, he said. So many others might carry the same weight on their backs and might question themselves of its value one day. One is only left to wonder the number of lives that could have been saved had there been less people like General Johnson and more who extend a hand and not a gun towards innocents.

Zuha Badar is an undergraduate student at Forman Christian College (A Chartered University).

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