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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On December 19, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    Should the army apologise for killing 13 innocent fellow-citizens in Nagaland? It’s a simple and blunt question but it’s also a pertinent one. No matter what the background or the extenuating circumstances, this was a terrible mistake. That’s undeniable. Doesn’t that alone call for an apology?


    The army and the government have expressed regret but is that sufficient? According to the dictionaries I’ve consulted, a regret indicates sorrow that something has happened whilst an apology is an acceptance of a mistake. Colloquially there are many things one regrets but does not apologize for. For instance, you could regret not accepting an invitation but you’re not apologising on that count. So when the people of Nagaland call for an apology they want more than an expression of sorrow. They want an acknowledgement of error, which is inherent when you say ‘I’m sorry’.


    I’ve discussed this issue widely with several retired generals. They’re divided and, at times, pretty sharply. Let me see if I can explain their respective positions.


    The view there’s no need for the army to apologize is grounded in the belief the army did not commit an offence. No doubt it was a mistake but committed in good faith and, probably, on the basis of faulty intelligence. In a disturbed area like Nagaland, with an ever-present threat of insurgency, such errors can happen. The important point is it wasn’t done deliberately. The army did not knowingly kill innocent people.


    To this argument is added the claim that an apology would be perceived as a sign of weakness that could embolden insurgents. It could affect the army’s morale.


    The opposite view that an apology is called for also, ironically, starts by distinguishing between a mistake and an offence. Where it differs is it believes a mistake must be apologised for, particularly when innocent fellow-citizens have been killed.


    One of the generals I spoke to went a critical step further. The killing of seven civilians by soldiers who were trying to disperse the crowd was clearly excessive use of force. The soldiers should have fired to disable, not shoot to kill. This argument seems to convert a mistake into an offence and, therefore, provides clinching grounds for apology.


    The need to apologise is also corroborated by the belief it will placate emotions in Nagaland. In other words, an apology is required both because it’s a moral imperative but also because it’s practically helpful.


    Of course, the generals I spoke to viewed this matter from the perspective of the army. I’m an army son myself but I believe in a democracy there’s a more powerful reason why you must apologise when innocent citizens are killed.


    You owe it to them. An apology cannot restore them to life but it’s the least that’s expected. No institution is too powerful, too important, too critical to be exempted. If anything, the opposite is true. The more important an organization, the more necessary the apology.


    For a moment, consider the opposite. It’s arrogance for the army to believe it does not need to apologise. The people it killed were not criminals, insurgents or illegal migrants. They were fellow-citizens.


    Let me put it differently. A people’s army – and that’s what ours is and wants to be recognized as – cannot kill its own people and get away with a mere expression of regret. That’s even more true of the government under whose command it operates. In a democracy, people are the masters. They cannot be treated in a cavalier and casual way.


    Finally, I don’t believe an apology should be viewed as weakness. It’s never easy to say sorry, even when necessary. An apology would enhance the army’s stature. More importantly, it would restore the army’s image in the eyes of the Nagas, where it has undoubtedly suffered.


    I know two weeks have passed and many want to forget this dreadful episode but it’s never too late to say sorry. It’s also the best way of attempting closure.

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