The three men were pleased with the offer of US$30 a day to be porters for the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir. They left their homes gladly and headed for an army camp.

They were never seen again.

When the 2010 disappearances were investigated by the Indian police, a horrific tale of cold-blooded murder emerged. The army had “purchased” the three men for $2500 and a few bottles of alcohol. Soldiers then killed them and falsely identified them as militants, and planted weapons at a site in the Machil sector of the Line of Control, the de facto India-Pakistan border in Kashmir, so that the army unit could claim credit and awards.

When the facts of the killings emerged, there were widespread protests and promises of a full investigation. Finally, on November 13, 2014, the army reported that a military court had sentenced five soldiers, including two officers, to life in prison for faking an armed encounter and executing three innocent villagers.

This is a welcome but rare case where the Indian army, in announcing the verdicts, has publicly admitted to human rights violations and the perpetrators have been prosecuted. While the army insists all allegations of abuses are internally investigated and wrongdoing punished, such information is almost never made public. Instead, army officials typically contend that most such allegations are found to be false. Independent civilian investigations too are seldom made public.  All of this generates a climate of impunity that encourages further abuses.

The Indian army is primarily an external defense force but is deployed to contain internal armed insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir, and in India’s northeastern states. It operates under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, a law that provides widespread powers to shoot and arrest. The law also protects soldiers from prosecution by civilian courts unless sanctioned by the government—permission rarely granted.

The AFSPA has long been criticized by affected residents, activists, government-appointed committees, politicians and United Nations human rights bodies. The army admits to some mistaken killings of civilians, but argues that it needs the powers and protections under AFSPA to operate in war-like zones. The risk of prosecutions, army officials point out, will harm both operations and troop morale.

Indians who live in areas where the army operates, both in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeast, protest that soldiers routinely misuse AFSPA to commit abuses without being held to account, a culture that has been exported into operations by paramilitary forces and police as well.

Operations and troop morale are surely more severely impaired when soldiers who risk their lives learn that their colleagues are killing innocents, and falsely claiming to have engaged in acts of bravery. While the 2010 Machil case has exposed the wrongful practice, doubts remain that others that have disappeared might have met a similar fate.  

Human rights violations that go unpunished perpetuate further violent crimes. Repealing AFSPA and replacing it with a law that provides greater accountability will benefit both the army and ordinary citizens. It will also deter atrocities like what happened at the Machil sector.