Sourcing Praveen Swami’s Story
I apologise for the unusual format of this post – rather than make [x/n] chirps on twitter, I thought it best to put my thoughts in a short post. These thoughts, for whatever they are worth, are as yet incomplete and may remain so until someone has more data. Nonetheless, I insist on working from data as much as possible and not on speculation.
Many readers will be aware of the two chirps I made yesterday about my emails to UNMOGIP. Basically, upon reading Praveen Swami’s article in The Hindu, I was curious about the documents he mentioned. My curiosity was more motivated by my research habits of verifying sources than any disagreement I had with Swami’s article. To be clear, let me state again that I accept what Swami wrote to be close to the truth. Unlike those offended by the article, I do not think that the events show the Indian Army in a bad light. Having studied conflicts over centuries, one accepts that tragedies occur when people with weapons under a lot of stress are put in extreme environments.
This is not to impose an equality between India and Pakistan – the latter has acquired an international reputation for aiding and abetting terrorists while the former, us guys, may have problems but do not indulge in such activities. It is also incredibly obtuse to think that one side would not give as good as it gets, no matter what the orders are from HQ – unit cohesion would not last the week otherwise.
Anyway, to return to my investigation about Swami’s sources, the response from UNMOGIP-Delhi made me suspicious about the existence in the public domain of these “classified” documents. If they were classified, how had Swami obtained access to them? So as advised by Delhi, I emailed the UN Headquarters in New York. I was informed that any declassified documents they held would be available in their online database, and it seems to be true, given that the latest document listed there is from January 18, 2013.
By the way, the UN seems to follow a 20-year rule on declassification…just in case you missed my old article. In any case, I received a helpful email explaining how to use the database and narrow my search from an initial 3,980 documents to 560 at the last pass. Here are my findings so far:
- Swami is indeed right that the Pakistanis complained to UNMOGIP about the massacre of 22 civilians at Seri, Bandala, on April 26-27, 1998. However, though the report mentions mutilation of bodies by daggers and the presence of notes (as well as Indian ammunition casings and an Indian-made watch), it does not carry gory details Swami mentions such as decapitation or the gouging out of eyes. Neither is there any mention of a note asking, “How does your own blood feel?”
- In the Nadala enclave incident, the Pakistani complaint to UNMOGIP of January 24, 2000, was quite sparse. There is no evidence presented, and the only mention is of two dead and five missing Pakistani soldiers from the alleged company-sized attack with mortars and “recoilless rifle bunker-busting fire.” There is no mention of Pakistani soldiers being tied up and dragged across a ravine. In fact, the report looks like a regular instance of cross-border firing and little else.
- Nothing was found on the other events mentioned – Bhimber Gali on September 18, 2003, Bhattal on June 19, 2008, or Sharda on August 30, 2011.
Is it possible that I missed some documents? Absolutely. However, given how broad my search terms were – “UNMOGIP,” “Kashmir,” “Pakistan AND India” – that seems unlikely. Furthermore, I searched not only for reports from the Pakistani delegation to the UN but also an entity called the Jammu & Kashmir Council for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and others. This means that at least part of Swami’s story comes from sources other than UN documents or that he had access to documents that have not yet been declassified. Even on the 1998 Bandala incident where his story lines up most, the UNMOGIP report has been embellished with external material.
By the way, complaints are, by definition, one-sided. Even if Swami produces all the documentation he has cited, it does not prove the Indian Army’s guilt but merely merits an investigation from the Indian side. It is not the media’s job to adjudicate on guilt, something they seem to forget quite often.
I fully understand that newspaper articles are not peer-reviewed academic pieces and have different evidentiary standards, but it should not be this difficult to track down the sources of a story if one is so inclined. Journalists frequently make use of their privileged access to people in power, but that is a double-edged sword – you may as easily be a propaganda mouthpiece as the journaliste du jour. It is also, in my opinion, good research ethics to explain the nature of one’s sources.
I am told that Swami has blocked people on twitter for asking him about his sources (RTing to him my two chirps) and I understand not wanting to be inundated with requests for information, especially when the matter puts one in an awkward light. However, given the sensitivity of the piece and the reaction it has provoked, the responsible thing to do would have been for The Hindu, Swami’s employer and the tabloid that carried the story, to put up links to these alleged documents – documents are not people and need not be protected in the same way journalists protect their human sources. Swami could also have been clearer about the sources of the extraneous details he added.
If these documents are indeed classified and we have to accept the author at his word – which is fine – this whole fancy article based on “classified documents” can also be rewritten as “Sources say…” The latter seems, to me, a little more honest in that it does not even hold the slightest hope that the information can be verified, whereas “classified documents” implies that they might be available somewhere and have just been or are about to be declassified.
As was pointed out to me yesterday on twitter, “classified documents” can also mean a leak. This raises questions about how selectively documents were leaked, who these leaks were, and what their motivations for such a revelation were, that too when Indians were just beginning to forget the LoC decapitation of two Indian soldiers.
In conclusion, I can only say that, at present, the documentation on the Swami story is at best a mixed bag. I’d appreciate any assistance in deciphering this mess – from The Hindu, Swami himself, UNMOGIP, or especially a more persevering researcher. By the way, I have a classified document that appoints me as the head of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission…will the office send a car to pick me up?