Monday, 29 April 2019

Third Frame, 1:3, Jul-Sep 2008
Rajagopalan, Rajesh, Fighting Like a Guerilla: The Indian Army and Counterinsurgency, 2008, Routledge, New Delhi

The book is the first of an intended series of Studies on War and International Politics edited by Srinath Raghavan, a lecturer in the reputed War Studies Department of King’s College London. To bring to bear an interdisciplinary focus on security in its international and domestic dimension, the series has begun well in choosing this book authored by Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan, an Associate Professor in the dynamic School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The book is based on the author’s PhD thesis at City University of New York and is unsurprisingly, therefore, theoretical rigorous and avidly referenced. Its distinctive characteristic is the able use the author has made of the perspective of defence professionals, listed in his Acknowledgements, who command respect in the uniformed fraternity. He has also been intrepid enough to gain access to libraries stocked with service journals to access the authentic voice of practitioners and convey to us a feel of the debate within the services on his very ‘live’ subject.

He attempts to answer the question ‘Why do strong states lose guerilla wars?’ by discussing the Indian experience of peacekeeping in Sri Lanka as a case study. His thesis is that armies have a conventional war bias to their counterinsurgency doctrine. This owes in part to existence of conventional threats, explained in the neorealist paradigm of self-help in an anarchical system necessitating military readiness, as much as to organizational culture. He uses the prism of these two approaches to discuss how conventional armies adopt inappropriate counterinsurgency doctrines. The theoretical contribution of his ‘contending theories’ methodology is that these two are not mutually exclusive as is generally assumed. His conclusion is that ‘structure’ conditions state response through acculturation, with the resulting ‘culture’ being but the institutionalization of the socialization process.

A theoretical bias is by now a characteristic of his writings. This was visible in his earlier book on nuclear strategy, Second Strike: Arguments about Nuclear War in South Asia (2005, Penguin Viking, New Delhi). This constitutes a fresh trend in the nascent and burgeoning strategic scholarship in India. Military professionals dissect their experience linearly, such as the recent publication on the Sri Lankan experience by the commanding general of the first phase, Major General Harkirat Singh’s Intervention in Sri Lanka: The IPKF Experience Retold (2007, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi); while academics illumine the same subject with their learning, as has been done by Rajagopalan in respect of the battle for Jaffna. Thus mere events and their telling acquire a context and substance - a healthy convergence for an emerging power that is India.

The book would be of interest to soldiers and scholars, to policy makers and the lay public. It has educative discussions on military jargon such as the distinction between doctrine and strategy; conventional and counterinsurgency doctrine; and the contrast between the Indian approach with that of other armies equally beset with insurgency. He attempts to define the early counterinsurgency doctrine thus: Army operations were limited in the use of force and supplemented with a ‘hearts and minds’ approach; isolating the insurgent, the ‘fish’, from the populace, the ‘sea’, was through control measures and ‘cordon and search’; wresting control of areas from insurgents and thereafter dominating it through the establishing of a grid; and finally maintaining a superiority of forces both in deployment and in operations. Only lately has the army evolved its operational practice further in favour of intelligence led small team operations, employment of special forces and of friendly ‘proxy groups’ of turned militants. These latter aspects do not find explicit mention in the book.

Nevertheless, the author needs to be complimented for tracing, perhaps for the first time, the development of India’s counterinsurgency doctrine since the early days in Nagaland in the Fifties. That this has not been done elsewhere, even in well resourced books such as Lieutenant Colonel Vivek Chadha’s Low Intensity Conflict in India: An Analysis (2005, Sage Publications, New Delhi), is surprising. This further indicates the necessity of a scholarly focus on affairs military that has, as the popular critique suggests, been neglected on account of India lacking a strategic culture.  

India’s sobering experience in Sri Lanka has generated heat. Rajagopalan notes, that despite other factors explaining its failure, such as the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) as  wanting in intelligence, language skills, training and equipment; it was the army’s inability to adapt to the changed circumstance of guerilla war that led to its eventually inglorious departure. While its conventional war expertise won it the Jaffna battle, persisting with the conventional war bias into the subsequent guerilla war phase lost it the war. This inability to change is explained by the author as a product of organization culture predicated on the continuing threat it faced across its western border.

Value addition to the book has been possible by the author in light of his later experience in think tanks and as an official with the National Security Council secretariat. He reflects in summarizing the IPKF experience that the army is still on the learning curve in that while in Kashmir it has made organization innovations in the form of the Rashtriya Rifles, its has not been able to dispel the conventional war bias in the force as, in the authors own words, ‘doctrinal changes were too hard’.

This has obvious policy implications, which under the current circumstance of draw down of militancy in Kashmir are under threat of being overlooked. This would be unfortunate as the army’s engagement with counterinsurgency is unlikely to end any time soon, given that the conditions in Central India appear right for it. It would be too easy to concede that India’s army differs from other armies in that, in believing it is fighting its own citizens, it is less violent. The difference instead is that its advantage in numbers enables it to dispense with compensating their lack with firepower that accounts for the disproportionate violence of other armies. It is only recently that India has finally given itself a sub-conventional war doctrine that posits ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ approach. As to the extent this would withstand a robust challenge in any future internal conflict is to be watched. The author can be faulted for failing to contemporize his book through a look at this publicly released doctrine on sub conventional operations dating to December 2006 (

In summation, the book is recommended reading to gain an insight into the army’s experience of countering insurgency in general and its difficulties in doing so specifically in north east Sri Lanka. The author is right in discerning the conventional war bias in its counterinsurgency doctrine and assessing that this remains the case even today. The book would have made a telling difference were it to energize the army into appropriate self-correction for early termination of current and preemption of future internal conflicts.