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24 May 2017

Human shield saved lives, says major - After 43 days, army officer defends tying man to jeep amid stone-pelting

Dar strapped to the jeep
MUZAFFAR RAINA AND PRANAB BORA, TT, Srinagar, May 23: The army today allowed the officer accused of using a Kashmiri youth as a human shield to defend his action, the public relations exercise 43 days after the atrocity apparently aimed at countering the criticism of its decision to honour him.
Major Leetul Gogoi, who had strapped embroidery artisan Farooq Ahmad Dar to a jeep that drove past stone-pelters during elections in Srinagar on April 9, said today he had taken the decision in "a fraction of a second" and had he not done so and fired, many civilian lives would have been lost.
"That was the decision of a fraction of a second," Major Gogoi told The Telegraph over phone. "I will do what my brain says if put in a similar situation again," Gogoi added.
Asked if he would tie a person to a jeep again, Major Gogoi said: "I won't do a thing like that. That was done at the spur of the moment. I had first put the man in front of my vehicle and saw that the crowd stopped throwing stones. So, I went ahead (and drove past the mob with the man tied to the vehicle)."
The army had revealed yesterday that Major Gogoi had received a commendation card from the army chief for "his sustained distinguished services in counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir".
The honour for Gogoi at a time police and the army are conducting separate investigations into his action triggered an uproar.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted today: "In future pls don't bother with the farce of a military court of inquiry. Clearly the only court that matters is a court of public opinion."
Major Gogoi gave to reporters in Budgam, Kashmir, his version of the episode, which raised questions but the officer refused to address those.
He said he received a call at 9.15am on April 9 from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police officer in charge of the Utligam and Gondipora police stations, informing him that 400 to 500 people were throwing stones at polling staff and ITBP personnel at Gondipora. The army dispersed the mob, Major Gogoi said at the news conference.
Gogoi said that while at Gondipora, he received a "distress call" at 10.30am from the ITBP officer.
"He informed me that around 1,200 people had surrounded them at the Utligam polling station and were trying to burn it down by hurling petrol bombs. I rushed to the spot, 1.5km away," he said.
According to Major Gogoi, the mob at Utligam hurled stones at the police contingent.
"That time, it included women and children. We were unable to move out of our vehicles. They were hurling stone boulders from rooftops. I was unable to move out. I was repeatedly announcing over the megaphone that we had come to rescue the polling and ITBP staff. The crowd did not listen," Major Gogoi said.
The officer said he saw a "stone-pelter" 30 metres from his vehicle.
"Immediately, I told my QRT (quick-reaction team) boys to catch hold of him. On my orders, my QRT boys, they were five along with me, and I got off the vehicle and started running towards the stone-pelter," he said.
Major Gogoi claimed it was "found later" that the person "was instigating" the mob. "We moved towards him, he saw it and started running towards the crowd. He got on a bike and started to flee," the officer said.
"Somehow, despite intense stone-pelting and getting hurt, we caught hold of him," Major Gogoi said.
The officer did not explain how he and his team caught Dar when, as he had claimed moments earlier, they could not get out of the vehicle because of intense stone-throwing. Gogoi did not say how the personnel on foot caught a person escaping on a motorbike.
The major said after catching Dar, the team "walked" towards the polling booth.
On the way to the booth there was a mine-protection vehicle. "With their help, we moved towards the polling station.... I rescued four civil poling staff, seven ITBP personnel and one JKP (Jammu and Kashmir police) constable. From there, we started safely moving towards the road. But the protection vehicle got stuck in a muddy area," he said.
"Again the stone-pelting started. There was also an announcement.... After the announcement, civilians started gathering and they became more violent and threw a petrol bomb at us. Somehow the petrol bomb did not explode. I again announced over the megaphone to give us safe passage. But the crowd was not listening to us," Major Gogoi said.
According to the officer, it was then that the idea of strapping Dar to the vehicle came to his mind.
"I ordered my boys to tie him to the vehicle. On seeing this, the stone-pelting stopped for a while. That was a fraction of a moment when I got a window to come out safely from the place.... I did this to save local people. Had I fired, there would have been more than 17 casualties, which I did not do. With this idea, I saved many peoples' lives," Major Gogoi said.
Gogoi's claims are at variance with Dar's version. Dar has said he was not a stone-thrower and was among the few to cast his vote in the election. Dar maintains he was picked up on his way to a condolence meeting at a relative's home.
The decision to honour Gogoi has angered separatists and mainstream parties alike.
Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani said it was distressing and shameful.
"Honouring such an officer clearly vindicates our claim that this is a state-sponsored policy and if not stopped, it will prove detrimental to human lives," he said.
A National Conference spokesperson said the defence ministry should have waited for its "sham" inquiry to end before announcing the reward for the officer.
Rafi Ahmad Mir, a leader of the ruling PDP, a BJP ally, said the decision to honour Gogoi was ill-timed.
Social networking sites were flooded with comments criticising the move.

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