Srinagar: At the centre of the controversy, Major Leetul Gogoi on Tuesday appeared before the media to say that his action of tying a man to a jeep as a shield against stone-pelting last month was intended to save the lives of many people.
Breaking his silence, he said about 1200 stone-pelters had surrounded a small group of security personnel at a polling booth in Utligam village of Budgam district on April 9 and if he had ordered firing, there could have been at least 12 casualties.
Gogoi, who was commended by the Army chief on Monday, said he and five other army personnel had gone to that polling booth after a "distress call" about a small group of ITBP personnel and few members of the polling staff being surrounded by a big crowd of about 1200 stone-pelters.
The mob, which included women and children, was threatening to set ablaze the polling booth, he said.
Amidst the mob, he said he saw a man who appeared to be the "ring leader" as he was "instigating" the stone-pelters at Utlgam, about 20 kms from his residence, on the day of bypoll to Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency on April 9.
He said the idea of tying the man, who was identified as Farooq Ahmad Dar, to the jeep had struck him suddenly as a means to evacuate the polling staff and the paramilitary personnel, besides avoiding any casualties.
He said after Dar was tied to the jeep, the stone-pelting stopped for some time, providing a window to them to leave that area safely.
"This thing I have done only to save the local people. Had I fired, there would have been more than 12 casualties...With this idea, I have saved many peoples' lives," Gogoi told reporters at his Beerwah camp in Budgam district, giving details of the incident.
He spoke to the media on the incident on a day the Army said it had destroyed Pakistani posts across the Line of Control (LoC) in Naushera sector in a "punitive" action.
Talking about Dar, Gogoi said, "He tried to flee on a bike but somehow, despite intense stone pelting and getting hurt, we caught hold of him."
He said after catching Dar, the army personnel moved towards the polling station with the help of mine-protected vehicle.
"Once we got inside, I rescued four civil polling staff, seven ITBP personnel and one J&K Police constable," he said.
The officer said while they were leaving the polling station, their mine-protected vehicle got stuck in the mud.
"On seeing us, the mob again resorted to stone-pelting. At that time, an announcement was made in the mob ... The civilians had started gathering and they were more violent. They even threw a petrol bomb at us but somehow the petrol bomb did not explode," he said.
Gogoi said he ordered his men to somehow take out the vehicle from the mud, which they managed to do.
"In the meantime, again I announced through my megaphone that give us a safe passage so that we can move out from the area but the crowd was not listening to us.
"At that moment, suddenly the idea of tying him (Dar) to the vehicle came to my mind.
"As soon as I ordered my boys to tie him up on the vehicle, the stone-pelting stopped for a while and that was a fraction of the moment where I got a window to come out safely from that place and immediately I informed all my boys to get inside the vehicle and we moved out from that area," he added.
Gogoi's appearance before the media came a day after he was awarded Chief of Army Staff's Commendation Card for his sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations.
An army court of inquiry and a separate police investigation into the incident is still going on.
Kashmir Inspector General of Police Munir Khan today said the police probe into the matter will continue.
Meanwhile, hardline Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani said the International Court of Justice should take suo-moto action against Major Gogoi.
He termed the honouring of Gogoi by the Army as an extremely distressing and shameful act.
"It (honouring the Major) is extremely distressing and a shameful act. Honouring such an officer clearly vindicates our claim that this is a state-sponsored policy and if not stopped, it will prove detrimental for human lives," Geelani said in a statement here.
He linked the human shield controversy to that of the Kulbhushan Jadhav issue and said the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should intervene and punish erring officer.
Geelani also hit out at politicians for favouring Major Gogoi and their misinterpretation of the gruesome incident. "It is ridiculous to award the said officer for the insensitive human shield incident. It is not an exemplary act. How did he save human lives? The youth was arrested in Beerwa when the situation was quite peaceful and normal. "It is a fabricated story and a lame excuse to save the erring official," he said.