Tuesday, 19 September 2023


The Army's Leader-Manager Binary

Universally, there has been tension between the two leadership models in the military. If military leadership is imagined as a continuum with a ‘Leader’ at one end and a ‘Manager’ at the other, a military officer largely tends to one or other end, and has the option of adapting their style depending on the circumstance. 

Military history has examples of such contrasts, like the one between two field marshals in World War II: Erwin Rommel and Bernard Law Montgomery. While Rommel's primary identity was that of a military ‘Leader’, Montgomery is placed better towards the ‘Manager’ end of the proverbial continuum.

The contrast in style shows up in the encounter at Anantnag, which has been going on for more than 140 hours now.

The outset of the encounter shows the military ‘Leader’, while the latter part of the operation shows the hand of a military ‘Manager’.

That Colonel Manpreet Singh and Major Ashish Dhonchak identified as military leaders is clear from each having recently earned a Sena Medal (Gallantry). Their reaction to the intelligence received from Deputy Superintendent of Police Humayun Bhat, showcases their ‘Leader’ credentials. At the encounter site, the three were in the lead, and consequently were targeted by terrorists, advantaged by the forested mountain fastness.

The commander who stepped into Singh's shoes reflects the ‘Manager’ style in the way he has methodically squeezed the terrorists holed up in caves in the thickets. He not only deployed modern surveillance means, but also, using the cover of firepower, manoeuvred the cordon into place to corner the terrorists in their lair.

The encounter has gone on longer than usual since there are perhaps strictures that no further losses are affordable, given that the operation is unfolding under a national spotlight. Besides, it has been interrupted by distracting senior officer visits.

The Anantnag encounter shows the ‘Leader’ and the ‘Manager’ in action to the disadvantage of the former, since the price paid was rather heavy. However, the takeaway from the operation should not be that the ‘Manager’ identity should therefore trump that of a ‘Leader’.

While it is true that measured operational actions at the outset may have yielded better results at an affordable cost, this is to second guess the tactical leader on the spot. Singh was acting true to the ethos of the warrior leader ethic of the Indian Army at a tactical level. A trained, experienced, and applauded military leader, just as a leopard cannot change its spots, Singh could only be himself, a military ‘Leader’.

 This is of a piece with the standards of leadership of Chinar Corps set by its corps commander at the start of the Kashmir insurgency. He is reputed to have led a house clearing drill to take down holed up terrorists. While doing so a grenade splinter scraped past his head. When asked by the then Army Chief why he was so foolhardy, he replied, that since he was the seniormost present he was the leader on the spot and could hardly order people into harm’s way without himself stepping up. The Chief let him off by saying he’s sack him next time, if he survived.

 Manpreet Singh was only trying to fix the terrorists in place before taking them out. In the circumstance of fleeing terrorists, it is beholden on those closest to the scene to shadow and fix them, lest they disappear to cause greater harm later. Besides, there is a reputational cost to allowing terrorists to get away.

In contrast, the deliberate operations that have since unfolded are understandable, though their duration appears inordinately stretched. Risk averseness must not be to fore, since the sentiment seeps down the line, throttling tactical initiative.

While the operation unfolded, social media commentary kept pace. One line of thought had it that wresting the terrorist’s advantage of terrain is not worth risking lives. Since grey zone war is amorphous, the score could be settled later, the war set to continue indefinitely. It would be unfortunate if this logic prevails.

It should not be that the Anantnag encounter heralds the end of gallantry and a welcome to the ‘Techno-Manager’ as the dominant military leader. Military leaders must continue to steer between the two ends of the continuum, even if they self-identify as one or the other.

The lesson to anticipate in the ‘Anantnag After Action Report’ is that even if hybrid war is to persist, there is no case for abandoning the Manpreet-Asish style of tactical-level military leadership.


Monday, 18 September 2023


The questions the prolonged encounter at Anantnag raises

As the encounter at Gadol near Anantnag in Kashmir drags on past its 100th hour, it begs the question why two terrorists remain holed up in a thicket for so long after inflicting four casualties, and possibly a fifth, on India’s premier counter insurgency force, the formidable Rashtriya Rifles (RR).

Clearly, at the outset of the operation, the RR was in its element. The colonel commanding the RR battalion accompanied by the major commanding an RR company were off tracking the terrorists down, along with the conveyer of the intelligence, a deputy superintendent (DSP) of Kashmir police.

Both the Army officers were recent respective recipients of the Sena Medal (Gallantry). In line with Army tactical leadership ethos inspired by the adage ‘the role of the Infantry is to close with the enemy, capture of destroy him,’ they vied for the lead.  In the event, they were felled, along with the DSP, by the initial volley from the terrorists.

Since the terrorists are advantaged by the forested redoubt, a methodical operation is currently on to eliminate them. The RR is leveraging firepower, as it closes the loop of the cordon in a glacial maneuver designed to deny the terrorists any further terrain advantage. Yet, it is curious the RR is taking this long.

It’s possible the RR was lured into an ambush by planted intelligence. That the initial volley of shots accounted for a police officer shows that a red-hot lead was being followed up, post-haste.

This possibility is lent credence in the claim of The Resistance Front - which is but a morphed Lashkar-e-Toiba outfit - that the ambush was to avenge the recent assassination of a terrorist leader across the Line of Control.

Apparently, Indian intelligence operations have drawn blood, accounting for some of the four terrorist leaders killed though in midst of their sanctuary across. Close as the ambush was on the heels of the latest assassination, the timing lends their claim plausibility.

On the other hand, the incident may well have been an opportunity ambush. Sometimes things do go awry in operations, not necessarily due to complacence but – as the doyen of strategists, Clausewitz, has it – the play of Chance. As all who’ve been in a firefight well know, the hobby of the capricious God of War is to play dice with lives.

While there is no second guessing the tactical level leaders on the ground, the operation does appear unduly prolonged. It flies in the face of the adage, ‘there is no obstacle for the Infantry.’ The RR is but Infantry.

It is inconceivable that the troops are not straining at the bit and operational level commanders so risk averse as to continue reining them in for so long, unless acting on instructions.

Has the military leadership been instructed by its political master to hold back for longer? 


The incident, purveyed on television, seized national attention. It had the potential to put a question mark on the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policy.

Did the regime unfurl the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner too soon?

Clearly, the problem in Kashmir and of Kashmir has not gone away, even if Article 370 has long been laid to rest. The encounter busts the myth that tourist footfalls are a measure of success of counter insurgency.

Mindful of this and ever ready to use military achievements to its advantage, has the Narendra Modi regime, as is its wont, turned a seeming setback into an opportunity? Hitherto it has lost no opportunity to snatch electoral dividend even from a reverse, be it Pulwama and Balakot or Doklam and Ladakh.

Nationalism has been deftly stirred up, with the cremations – and a burial - of the brave-hearts reframing the operation on social media. Another operation, accounting for three terrorists on the LC elsewhere, has timely evened the score. With elections nigh, nationalism is a potion to stir into the communal pot.

A prolonged operation was also necessary to wipe away the aftertaste of the images of Narendra Modi being feted at the ruling party headquarters for his stewardship of the G20 summit. The moment was reminiscent of Modi persisting with the shooting of a television episode at the Corbett National Park though informed of the tragedy at Pulwama. While saffron petals were showered on him at the Bhartiya Janata Party headquarters, the nation’s defenders received a shower of a different kind.

Modi’s national security minders know well that tactical operations can have strategic effects. Cognisant, they can be credited with manipulating the news cycle, denying the Opposition a handle, while preserving the Modi’s strongman image.

The unthinkable underside is if the military has lent itself as instrument to this end.





Tuesday, 5 September 2023


Reminding the Chiefs of Fidelity

At a lecture at a Delhi think tank, the Air Chief recused himself from answering two questions in Question and Answer time. The two were on nuclear issues. He averred that these were out of the ‘ambit’. It is uncertain whether he meant that the nuclear issue was out of the ambit of the lecture or of his duties as Air Chief. The think tank nevertheless described the Q&A as ‘comprehensive’.

His presentation, ‘IAF at 100: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats,’ had a one-line mention of the nuclear issue, though the issue reasonably merited inclusion at a minimum in the sections on Threats. It’s possible he thought otherwise. On the other hand, if he believes that the issue is out of his remit, then the matter is rather more serious.

Using this point as entry here, I discuss aspects in the recent conduct of the three Service Chiefs. I proceed with first looking at the significant elision by the Air Chief, then the minor storm in the Army’s teacup and finally at the trivial matter of the Navy Chief’s social media postings. I conclude that the time is ripe to remind the Chiefs of the lodestar, Fidelity.  

The Air Chief and a major matter

Indian Air Force (IAF) operations with either prospective foe - China and Pakistan - will play out in a nuclear backdrop. The IAF provides the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with both dedicated and dual role nuclear delivery platforms. It will package together the aerial forces necessary to reach air-delivered nuclear ordnance to the target. It will alongside conduct diversionary operations, air defence suppression, aerial refuelling, provide intelligence and surveillance and post-strike damage assessment. It may be called on for deliberate conventional degradation tasks of the enemy nuclear capability.

Its conventional operations could trigger off a nuclear threat if it inadvertently degrades the opponent’s co-located nuclear capability. Its air defences – both radar and kinetic - would be critical in intercepting enemy nuclear cargoes. Its own airfields could end up as counter military targets for the enemy and those hosting SFC assets counter force targets. It would be actively involved in post-nuclear strike(s) conventional and nuclear operations, while also facilitating first responders in emergency and humanitarian operations.

India has given itself a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who in his capacity of Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) is in the reporting line of the Commander-in-Chief SFC and is the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority. As PC COSC, he would be aggregating the counsel of the three Service Chiefs, including that of the Air Chief.

Incidentally, among the Service think tanks, the IAF funded think tank has acquired pole position on thinking on nuclear issues, dating to the days when the IAF wished for a Strategic Air Command. Today, it has now settled for being an Air and Space Force, the latter is inextricable from nuclear issues.

It is incomprehensible therefore for the Air Chief to believe that nuclear matters are out of his ambit. Excluding these from finding more than a passing mention in his talk therefore has a different impulse.

Missing nuclear matters

Over the Modi years, dwelling on nuclear matters has been left to defence ministers, who when doing so have shown up suffering from a foot-in-the-mouth infection. In any case, since the PC COSC only has an administrative lien over the SFC, the defence minister – to whom the CDS is military adviser - is not in the operational nuclear loop. The National Security Adviser has advisedly kept mum, unlettered as he is known to be on nuclear nuances, as was his mentor-in-khaki predecessor.

Clearly, India is missing a significant bit of transparency in governance. Its nuclear weapons’ relevant policy making is under wraps, after its last bout of transparency, when at the end of the last dispensation, of Manmohan Singh, not only had Singh called for No First Use (NFU) but had the head of his National Security Advisory Board explicate the doctrine in excruciating detail. For its part, Modi’s national security minders, after having received a rap on the knuckles for their exuberance in their input of the earlier manifesto of his party, have kept off dilating on the doctrine.

Its apparent that after the early nuclear doctrinal effervescence, designed to get the United States’ nuclear proliferation lobby off India’s back, India has lapsed into doctrinal taciturnity. Apparently, this ambiguity is deliberate, to obscure the direction of the deterrent.

And here is the catch. If there is no change in doctrine, then the situation is as dangerous as obtaining from a doctrine that has changed. Keeping from transmitting the status to the enemy might arguably be fine for ambiguity-based nuclear deterrence, but is yet another piece of evidence of the backslide in Indian democracy. The nation may not be interested in being defended to death.

Persisting with a doctrine that is twenty years old is good for consistency, if strategic equations have not changed in the interim. However, much water has flowed down the Indus since. Consistency is a virtue in regard to the NFU principle. Under threat from revisionists, its need against China is such that luckily it continues in place - officially and for the moment.

As for the plank of massive retaliation – even if read down to mean the infliction of unacceptable damage – it is oblivious to Pakistan’s move to Full Spectrum Deterrence. The formulation rejects the Pakistani belief that Mutual Assured Destruction is in play in South Asia.

In short, India expects Pakistan to suffer unacceptable damage without giving it back in some measure, though Operation Swift Retort should rightly have dispelled any such notion. Perhaps, India believes the Hindutva glue is strong enough to see India through Amrit Kaal despite nuclear exchange(s). Dispel any doubts: to be genocidal is to be suicidal.

Given that an unchanged doctrine is a national disservice, it is possible that there has been a doctrinal shift, but one kept from the public domain. The shift could be in making nuclear war fightable, if not winnable. With proportionality informing a graduated nuclear doctrine, it is possible to get off the nuclear horse – with some help from the other side. While nuclear war is eminently avoidable, it can be nobody’s case that Limited Nuclear War is not preferable to Total Nuclear War.

India’s doctrinal reticence is perhaps informed by the delusion that assuring Pakistan of wiping it off the map is better for deterring. This is delusion since it has not credibly answered the criticism (assertions not being credible) that such assurance will make Pakistan go for a dead-hand option - and earlier too while its capability is intact.

The unchanged doctrine predicated on unacceptable damage is fine in an equable strategic environment. When a nuclear use scenario is less likely to arise, promising the worst is safe since there would be no call for delivering on the promise.

However, the strategic environment in regard to both neighbours does not lend confidence. While the Army Chief characterizes the one with the northern neighbour as ‘stable but unpredictable’, the one with the western neighbour can only be predictably unstable. The Air Chief talked of ‘collaborative challenges’ posed by two together. Under such strategic circumstance, a subterranean change to graduated response implies an inordinate comfort level with both conflict outbreak and nuclear weapons’ advent.

From the foregoing it is clear that the Chiefs – CDS and Service - must level with the public. The assumption that political and military are separate compartments in nuclear matters is passĂ©.

In the subcontinental context, the military will nudge the political. Denying people the right to know, reinforces the project of a patronizing State catering to the labharti rather than a democratic state catering to citizens with a need to know.

The Army Chief and a minor matter

In a response the Air Chief said that he was not going to discuss higher policies. He would not want to speak on a policy of the government gives the game away. It’s official: the Chiefs’ lips have been zipped.

While this is an unfortunate loss for democratic debate, the situation is worse when the mouth stays zipped even when within the corridors of power.

Take the strange case of the Army suggesting that soldiers partake of social service when they are on leave. For this, they are reportedly to be equipped with information on the plethora of Union development initiatives, which they could either lend a shoulder to or disseminate when on leave.

The Adjutant General (AG), no doubt with the authorization of the Army Chief, has sent out instructions to this effect and the output is to be reported on a quarterly basis to the headquarters. This implies neither has the AG remonstrated forcefully with the Army Chief and nor has the Army Chief put his foot down against the imposition with his boss, Rajnath Singh.

The matter is patently nonsensical, but the brass evidently does not have the gumption to deter. Attending the National Defence College is a prerequisite to get to three-star rank these days. It begs the question if the illustrious institution on Tees January Marg is delivering on its mandate to turn out apolitical brasshats.

If the general cadre has been reading the headlines lately, it must be aware that the Union government is in a face-off with some state governments run by non-Bhartiya Janata Party political parties. Knowledge of this would have alerted the brass on the hidden agenda of their political bosses, allowing them to stand firm against being used as a vehicle for the Union’s purpose against recalcitrant state governments. Both, ignorance of this and falling in line when in full knowledge of this, is an unwarranted play in political partisanship by the Army brass.

It can be argued that the Army cannot take a stand all the time and must pitch and roll as necessary. Doing so is a call for the Army brass to take. Its for the Army brass to pick its fight and not be harried into one by appeasing one or other faction in the veteran and strategic communities. This allows the Army to get what it can and must from the national cake.

With Agnipath having been forced on the military, such rationalizing lacks potency anymore. It can yet be argued that the regime kept vacant the CDS office and had to retire the previous Army Chief before it went in for the makeover. A newly elevated Army Chief was too gobsmacked to take a stand, assuming he might have wanted to. But then, the assumption flies in the face of the rigour that attends deep selection. Besides, by letting the measure - soldiery as regime propagandists - go past, it is clear his deep selection stands vindicated.

WhatsApp groups are agog with the dangers. The (quasi-)non-governmental organization with country wide presence is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It would no doubt welcome a soldier getting into part time social service. With Agniveers soon to get into the groove of service life, they would be easy pickings for the RSS; and, when they leave the colours, available for deployment as a non-Manipuri Meitei Leepun or Arambol Tenggol. The dangers have been flagged when the Agnipath scheme was trotted out. It seems the path is being leveled for the dangers to materialize. Hindutva is setting up a State in an image of 2000 years back by setting upon a modernist State.

The Navy Chief and a trivial matter

Are generals blind to the rug being pulled from beneath their feet? It would appear Admirals certainly are.

A recent social media post on the Naval Chief shows him trudging on a path to a religious shrine housed in a cave. In an earlier instance, the shrine was visited by the previous lieutenant governor (LG) of the Union Territory with an entourage comprising the Corps Commander and the Rashtriya Rifles Force Commander in tow, besides an (unauthorized to LGs) lieutenant colonel as Aide de Camp.

It’s quite in the tradition of late of institutional heads making a beeline for the Gods, the most recent instance of which has been the Space agency Chief temple-hopping on national television in wake of Chandrayaan triumph, at the risk of dissonance over scientific temper.

The tempo of such in-your-face religiosity has been set by the prime minister himself, first at the unveiling of the Simha emblem atop the new parliament building and, next, in the installation within it of a scepter supposedly symbolising the transfer of power from British India to India while actually marking the transition from India to New India. Public religious displays are to culminate in the first session of parliament in its new building, rumoured for as early as the forthcoming Special Session. But the grand finale is being reserved for at the inauguration of a grand Temple built on a judiciary-appropriated land on which a mosque once stood.

What was the Navy Chief trying to project with his photos on social media depicting him striding along with other devotees? It could be a bit of soft power for the betterment of the Navy’s image. After all, the tall, lean Admiral in full stride does strike an imposing pose. It also shows that the Navy might be a maritime force, but then it is not unmindful of India’s mountain fastnesses where its troubled borders lie. Keeping in the mind’s eye of the powers-that-be through towing their line on religion worn on the sleeve does help with pulling resources towards the Navy, especially in a regime where sycophancy delivers results, as the appointment of the National Human Rights Council head suggests.

But then, the reason could be more prosaic: the Navy Chief was trying to inveigle himself into the consciousness of the ruling party, for reasons as a post-retirement sinecure. However, as his retirement is not nigh, is he instead setting new standards for naval officers to emulate; and, if so, at whose behest? It is no secret that senior officers visit the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine very often, but in a personal capacity, even if not on leave and using official facilities. But this has never been so openly done.

Be that as it may, the overt performative act on part of the Navy Chief – otherwise entitled to his religiosity – was unwarranted, since the media handle putting out the photos of a personal itinerary was an official one. Such public obeisance is part of the strategy to project the religious antecedents of Kashmir in order to strengthen India’s cultural case on its possession. This is also part of Hindutva strategy of saffronising India. The Navy Chief is not unaware, but is merrily playing his part.    

Fidelity as lodestar for Chiefs

The nation is ill served by Chiefs self-censoring. The next step is worse, if any gets to be regime spokesperson or mascot – as appeared to be the danger when Genaral Bipin Rawat was around. The Air Chief’s predicating his talk with Vikshit Bharat is an indicator of dangers ahead if the trend is not arrested.

Chiefs are exemplars. They represent the Service. Their mandate is the professional input of policy and overseeing the execution of policy and decisions. Clearly, if the input is slip shod, so is the policy and decision output they are charged to implement. This can prove a negative cycle.

Consequently, the most significant quality in Chiefs is Fidelity. It girdles a moral backbone.

The Google-thrown up meaning of Fidelity is just right for the purposes here: ‘(T)he quality of being faithful, especially to a wife or husband by not having a sexual relationship with anyone else.’  

It is said that the institution is an officer’s First Wife, his spouse coming in a distant second. By when an officer gets to the apex, the relationship with the First Wife grows in consequence – often at the expense of the Second.

Now that there is a shift to a uniform uniform for the brass, even the regiment cannot serve anymore as a Third Wife. Consequently, there is no scope for a three-some with a political party or ideology as a Third Wife. 

Fidelity, therefore, is to hold the institution, the Service, as the first - though not only - love. The Service interest is obviously to be embedded in the wider ambit of national security. The Service cannot supersede national security, but then national security compulsions cannot by default override Service interests. In case of deficit in upholding the latter, national security can only suffer.

The Chief is witness to and subject of the tension between national security interest and the Service interest. Managing this tension is their lot. They tend to let themselves and respective Service down in case of inability to distinguish between national security interest and a regime’s political interest – and, worse, a demagogue’s self-interest.

Thursday, 17 August 2023


Tide is in favour in Kashmir. Will Centre act on time?

Kashmir has been awash with the tricolour over the last few days. The Lieutenant-Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, in his Independence Day felicitations, proclaimed, “Amrit Kaal of Jammu Kashmir and a new dawn of peace and prosperity for all the citizens.”

Shah Faesal—the 2010 batch IAS officer who left the civil services in 2019, founded the J&K People’s Movement, and was reinstated into the services in 2022 by the Union government —on August 15 tweeted that “Kashmir had embraced [the tricolour] with pride”.Earlier, in July, he had tweeted that “Jhelum and Ganga have merged into the great Indian Ocean for good”.

On the obverse side is the sombre note former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah struck when he spoke twice over in New Delhi within a week:first at the release of the report, ‘Five Years Without an Elected Administration’, of the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, and, next, at the no confidence motion debate in Parliament.

Abdullah cautioned against being taken in by the usual indicators of normalcy, such as tourist footfalls; implying that even if the situation appears much improved, alienation persists, and must be addressed meaningfully.

Independence Day festivities and the return of the Ashura procession in July to the streets of Srinagar after a gap of over three decades are presented by the administration as gains stemming from the striking down of Article 370 and the centralised — double engine — administration thereafter.

There are good reasons for the Union Territory administration to project such a picture.

There is the G20 Summit coming up and the Union government is at pains to ensure that India is showcased in favourable light. At the G20 meeting on tourism in Srinagar, the security situation prevented the attendees from visiting Gulmarg and Dachigam. This needs washing down.

Alongside, the Supreme Court has fast-tracked hearings on petitions against the dilution of Article 370. Though the government in its opening salvo had pointed to the changed situation for the better, the argument did not wash on the court.

Even if claims of a meaningfully improved situation are taken at face value as true, it would be prudent to also heed Abdullah, since politicians — by nature of their calling — are meant to have a finger on the pulse of the people.

Across both regions of J&K, the consensus call is for the reversion of statehood, and the holding of elections.

While Shah Faesal has it that‘ there is no going back,’ only responsive measures can clinch his sentiment. Not taking these timely can prove yet another missed opportunity.

By the government’s own admittance — from the L-G’s touting of the indicators of normalcy at his Independence Day speech in the half-full Bakshi Stadium — the time is ripe.

The violence indices have it that the situation cannot be better. Pakistan’s proxy war is at ebb. It will remain introspective, looking to its national elections after the census results are incorporated into its electoral processes.

Thus, once the government is done with the G20 Summit, it has the panchayat elections slated. This can be taken as an opportunity to review the situation, giving it enough time through the winter to wrap up assembly elections.

Whether these would be for a state assembly is moot. Holding elections at the behest of a Supreme Court judgment will make it look chastened, particularly if the judgment forthcoming soon reverses the sequence Home Minister Amit Shah promised— statehood after assembly elections.

With constituencies long worked out, there is little reason for procrastination.

This would close the chapter of integration of Kashmir on a positive note. Having started its second tenure with Kashmir topping its agenda, wrapping it up as its stint comes to an end would be a useful plank to go into national elections soon thereafter.

It would contradict the narrative sceptical of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s perspective on Muslims. It would be of a piece with its strategic shift of an outreach to Muslims.

Not taking such a track has negative portents.

Pakistan is wracked for a second time in a decade by an Islamist backlash at a time its polity is in flux and its army is divided. The Taliban are resurgent. It is important to cauterise India from any spill over, by defusing any ‘pull factors’ that might incentivise interference from without.

Though a restive Kashmir might help with a polarisation strategy as the ruling party heads into national polls in 2024, any reversal in Kashmir in Narendra Modi’s third term (if the BJP wins the 2024 general elections) can potentially upset his ‘guarantee’ of India becoming the third largest economy.

A missed opportunity will expose the seeming normalcy as but a Potemkin village-like hype.




Tuesday, 15 August 2023



The Big Fat Fib on the utility of force in Manipur

The debate on the No Confidence Motion threw up two diverse view points on the utility of force in internal security situations. While either option – use and non-use - can reasonably be adopted by a government in such circumstance, what intrigues is justification in Parliament for the non-use of force in Manipur

During his intervention in the No Confidence Motion debate in parliament, Rahul Gandhi – profiting from the uncanny timing of reinsertion into the parliament – observed that Manipur need not have spiraled into violence had the Army been employed in time. With the Army in place, the violent political extremism witnessed there could have been nipped in 24 hours.

In his response to the No Confidence Motion against his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared wary of the use of force to address such situations. He gave the example of Mizoram, wherein - to him - the then government was guilty of targeting innocent civilians with the employment of the Indian Air Force (IAF). For good measure, he added the example of the assault on Akal Takht.

The following day in a meet with the press to reply to Narendra Modi’s two-hour-plus-long speech in parliament, Rahul Gandhi clarified that Army deployment is one among many instruments the government has, which when deployed complementarily can control civil unrest in two-three days.

For his part, Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma - bĂȘte noire of the Gandhi family and resident expert of the Hindutva regime on the North East - was quick to attack Gandhi’s take. He held that the military would have served no purpose in the circumstance. Citing the Mizoram episode, he rhetorically queried, “They (the Army) should open fire on civilians? Is it his prescription?”

It’s rather obvious that both Modi and Sarma have a coloured notion of the use of the IAF in Mizoram. For their political purpose of beating back Rahul Gandhi’s charge, they have twisted the unfortunate deaths of civilians in the bombing by the IAF of Aizawl back in 1966 as deliberate targeting of civilians.

From the backlash on Modi’s take on the IAF’s operations in Mizoram is amply clear that the IAF close air support operations in Aizawl were undertaken in the extreme conditions of an attempted take-over of the then Mizo Hills District of Assam by the separatist, Pakistan-supported militant group, Mizo National Front.

The IAF operated in support of the beleaguered garrisons of the Assam Rifles. Given the technology of the times, undeniably there were some civilian deaths. Though regrettable, should the risk have led to dropping of the option altogether? That it yet required brigade-level land operations lasting almost a month to dislodge the insurgents shows the constraints India and the military faced.

It emerges that in a consideration of factors involved, including collateral damage, a judicious decision has to be arrived at the political master.

Misconstruing the aim of the operations – that civilians were targets – shows up a political motive. Modi’s lying in parliament must be appraised accordingly.

The obvious strand of the politics is in relation to the situation in Manipur.

A second less obvious one also merits a look: coup-proofing. More on the second later.

But, before addressing the politics is a look at use of force decision making.

On the use of force in internal security

The outbreak in early May of the internal security situation that persists till today witnessed brazen looting of arms from police premises and their subsequent use by ethnic militias for perpetrating what amount to crimes against humanity.

There is no gainsaying that both internal security situations – Mizoram and Punjab - were preventable. To argue however that military force should have been ruled out when it came to the crunch in both places - on the basis that civilians got killed - is debatable.

At the Golden Temple, the use of military force is easier to justify in retrospect since it turned out that the complex had been turned into a veritable fortress. It required extensive firing of the formidable main gun of tanks to dislodge its terrorist defenders, a decision taken after a rather steep price paid in lives of soldiers.

In Mizoram, when trouble broke out, the closest brigade headquarters was at Agartala. The forces to do the job of vacating the MNF threat required first being concentrated and then inducted. This would give the militants sufficient time to consolidate their gains in Aizawl and elsewhere, making deliberate operations with a larger force inescapable, at the risk of higher toll in lives.

Chief Minister Sarma is right that the employment of the Army does not resolve anything and can only quieten situations.

Incidentally, that’s precisely the intent.  Army doctrine has it that its deployment is to reduce violence to levels even as political processes kick-in to resolve matters.

Rahul Gandhi was also quick to clarify at his press meet that he meant resort to military force is an option that cannot be ruled out and is only part of a package of measures taken with the instruments of State available.

On this the two politicians appear to be on the same page.

The applicability of force is a matter of judgment. The risk of civilian casualties must be factored in and the level of risk can serve to stall or moderate military action.

How does this conclusion square with the situations that sequentially obtained in Manipur?

The risk

A truism in theory on controlling of internal security situations is that inter-community fights can be controlled within 48 hours, in case of political will and a clear mandate to the police. The Army must be called in timely in aid to civil authorities.

In Manipur, it was very much possible for the state government to firmly deal with the mobs using the police and central police forces at hand and call for Army deployment as necessary. Such demonstration of resolve on part of the ‘double-engine’ government could have prevented conflict spiral.

Using force - to the extent of causing loss of life - may have been inescapable. The argument that civilians would have been killed seems to view participants in mobs as ‘innocent civilians’, which is not the case when such mobs are raiding sensitive government premises with nefarious intent.

The circumstance was in no way reminiscent of instances of use of force against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir, as at Gow Kadal, on the Mirwaiz funeral procession and at Bijbehara.

Firing is under rules of engagement that compel proportionality and discrimination. The upshot is deterrence, preventing widespread unrest and resort to higher degrees of force. Therefore, though regrettable in every instance, any innocent lives lost must be seen in relation to good faith in conduct and expected outcome.

This reading makes Rahul Gandhi’s questioning of the response to the outbreak of violence in Manipur sustainable.

Next, let’s consider whether the induction of the Army and greater government resolve would have ended the largely tit-for-tat attacks.

The Army, assisting the police and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), would have had to contend with well armed militias. Forcible disarmament therefore recedes in priority as an option.

However, the Army could have proven more efficacious than CAPF alone in securing people in situ. The CAPF are held hostage to the police, which in Manipur was partisan. There is no ethic of independent professional action in the CAPF.

The Army’s availability would have resulted in credibility for any governmental thrust for a ceasefire. The ruling party, that has members of the legislative assembly from both sides, was well positioned to bring about such a draw-down. The double engine holds a promise that both communities might like to avail themselves of.

However, the lesser engine proved parochial, which explains why the Army was not more in evidence as part of the solution in first place. It would have been less responsive to the state administration, as was proved in the Chief of Defence Staff dismissing the lesser engine’s characterizing of the situation as one resulting from an insurgency-drugs nexus.

Prime Minister Modi indicates that stability is in the offing. It’s possible that the government is taking the ‘hurting stalemate’ theory rather too seriously and is waiting for the two sides to exhaust their firepower and angst. The trouble with this theory is that in the interim fissures widen, ruling out easy or early reconciliation.

An aspect worth reminding is the State must regain monopoly over violence, preferably in a politically brokered way, but, if necessary eventually, by use of force.

Such disarmament should not amount to a Jaffna redux. Recall at Jaffna, the Tamil Tigers has to be bearded in their own den, at a high cost in lives of Indian soldiers. 

The situation is likely to be more fraught in the Valley, since the lesser engine has a pronounced bias towards the majority community. Selective impunity based on ethnic affiliation is likely. Instead, it should use affinity to encourage self-regulated disarmament.

That said, the assumption that the militias, having tasted power, will comply meekly is misplaced. It is not impossible that the militias will not be messed with, the excuse being they are ‘our boys.’

This implies Rahul Gandhi’s perspective on the Army’s continuing relevance in internal security remains valid as Manipur wades into an uncertain future.  


The lesser engine’s actions are self-confessedly informed by majoritarian thinking – in this case ethnic. The senior engine played along, since it is likewise imbued with majoritarian thinking - in its case, cultural.

The glue between the two is the appropriation of nativist turn in Manipur to its own ends by Hindutva. Symbiosis between the two majoritarian strands – one local and the other national – led to the backing by the senior of the local.

Appeasement as a political strategy can be endorsed if capable of winning the day, but implementing it without covering the flanks – such as with the Army deployed as deterrent - is chimerical. The result is not political resolution, but political acquiescence.

This is excusable taking cue of the ‘Do No Harm’ principle. However, with the violence being largely one-sided, such posture tends to disfavour the victimized. This shows up the approach as instrumental. The grant of the impunity allows Hindutva to draw its local counterpart into a more intimate bear-hug.

Avoidance of civilian casualties is an alibi. The lesser engine was selectively gung-ho after Kukis, even launching an First Information Report against an Assam Rifles outfit for impeding operations against Kukis.

Lawyers can quibble over ‘civilian’ status.  Logically when engaged in raiding an armoury or, as members of a mob perpetrating crimes against humanity, individuals lose their civilian status for the duration. When busy violating the law and humanity, they can be at the business end of the law enforcers’ stick, with due regard to restraints on the use of force.

That the senior engine does not think so begs the question: Why?

Manipur is the new laboratory. Were the two engines to intercept and intervene in concert, they would be acting against their very own foot-soldiers pursuing an agenda set by the two engines themselves.

Styling these as ‘innocent people’, Modi seeks to justify mobocracy – for a second time. Recall the 48 hours given to malevolent mobs in Gujarat of late February 2002. It is necessary to expose this sleight of hand.

Perversely interpreted, Command Responsibility requires that having put their unauthorized forces - militias and mobs - to work, majoritarian masters cannot also simultaneously exercise Command Responsibility - rightly interpreted - over the authorized forces at their disposal to stop the proceedings they have themselves set unauthorized forces on.

Militias are Hindutva’s private army, meant to undercut the State’s monopoly of force. The State as bystander allows for Hindutva to fashion India in its own image. For this, the State’s sword arm needs first to be neutered.

Coup proofing

This brings up the second political factor: coup-proofing.

While on the one hand is the visible setting up of the soldier on a pedestal, such as through Parakram Parv, National War Memorial, One Rank One Pension; alongside, is the insidious hollowing out of the military as an institution, with, for example, deep selection, Agnipath and the decolonization bogey.

In Manipur, the Assam Rifles - that identifies more with the Army and less with the ministry it is administratively under - has been on the cross-hairs of the lesser engine. Controversially, the lesser engine wanted to redeploy it away from a non-existent post! The Spear Corps has also had occasion to point out the manner an unarmed women-only militia interferes with military movement and operations.

Operationally, the sidelining of the Army and Assam Rifles, ostensibly for the cover of Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act not being available from parts of the Valley, shows intent to retrench the military from its traditional remit as the last bastion on internal security.

Where was the need for importing a retired CAPF chief as Adviser to Chief Minister Biren Singh, when the commanding general of Spear Corps was near at hand and when two divisional level formations - one of the army and the other of Assam Rifles are readily available.

The AFSPA could have been re-promulgated under its Paragraph 3, by a mere declaration by the Governor of the Valley as a Disturbed Area. In any case, while in aid to civil authority, the Army is covered by the indemnity clause included in the Code of Criminal Procedure (or whatever the Hindi term the statute now goes by).

To be sure, the military is a blunt instrument. But from recent killing of Muslim passengers by a railway cop; the killing of a Muslim youth forced to chant the national anthem by cops beating him; and the setting upon of girl students of Jamia Millia Islamia by baton wielding police, show there is no substitute.

The service ethic of political subservience of CAPF needs contrasting against the professional ethic of the Army. The Army, though subordinate to political masters, can only deviate from the professional ethic at the cost of national security.

Normally, the military’s reading of national security takes second place to political considerations of political decision makers. The military can validly input decisions, but not disobey them. The political decision maker does not owe the military an explanation, but is democratically answerable to the people – through the parliament and at elections.

However, in abnormal times, there are limits to obedience. And, the times – as seen in the previous section - are abnormal.

In such milieu, the military’s national security mandate is independent of and in contradistinction to its political subordination. The Army cannot let go of its moorings on a parochial political say so.

Its political inertness is limited by its institutional self-regard. The political cannot will the military out of existence and the military cannot willfully comply.

The explanatory variables together

Two political facets have been explored with Manipur as backdrop. The first is majoritarian incest, between the local and the national. The second is the marginalization of the military in a sphere of its professional mandate and competence.

Taken together, they forecast a national disaster ahead.

The clue is in the latest Big Lie: the risk of civilian casualties must stay the Leviathan’s hand.

The corollary is to let majoritarian mobs be. Rather than nipping their sway at the outset with a bullet below the knee, allow them maraud through a minority neighbourhood, killing, raping, burning. Demolitions can follow.

To allow majoritarian mobs play, the professional military requires neutering.

A de-facto change to the Constitution has already been made that has it that some are more equal than others. This puts a lie to the last Modi phrase, ‘One House – One Law’, coined in reference to the Uniform Civil Code.

State supported mob-militias will administer the de-jure constitutional shift to dissenters, with the military defenestrated.

Manipur is a test bed of New India.