Sunday, 12 August 2012

lessons from bandipore, kashmir


An encounter has proven to be an embarrassment for the army in Kashmir with the defence minister taking cognizance of the encounter in which Hilal Ahmed Dar died in the forests at Bandipore. Based on its internal reporting system, the army stuck to its initial position that it was a bonafide encounter. This insistence of the army disregarded the well known pattern in both J&K and the NE that seldom, if ever, do people protest when genuine militants are eliminated. Given this, for the defence minister to overrule his general in Srinagar was inevitable. It is possible that this intervention by the normally placid defence minister was politic, since his visit the Valley was due soon thereafter. 
However, there is a take away from the incident that bears reflection at all three levels: tactical, operational and strategic levels. At the tactical level, there is little dispute over the army springing an ambush in the forest that led to the killing of the youth. Of consequence are subsequent revelations through police investigations that the youth was ‘lured’ into the forest with the expectation of a life with the mujahedeen by civilian ‘sources’ reportedly working with army. The possibility of the army being manipulated, rather than the other way round, cannot be ruled out since it is not the first time that such bottom-up manipulation has taken place.

Exactly a year ago Rajouri served as a site for a similar case in which a mentally challenged man from Poonch was set up to be killed by two SPOs, one from the SOG and one from the army. Even in the Machhil case, two SPOs were found to be involved, though that infamous episode is now be pursued by courts martial by an initially reluctant army, indicating a degree of complicity between the SPOs and their controlling elements in the army. However, the later two episodes mentioned, signs are more of the tail wagging the dog, in that the army has been let down by its associates. 
As a first step, the ‘incentive’ system that tempts such action needs review. But the lesson learnt then is to reappraise the manner it handles such associates. While the intelligence imperative may make their existence indispensable to their effort, by now SOPs and cultural learning should have taught the army that these elements are hardly in the ‘game’ for nationalist reasons. It bears rethinking if the strategic price is worth any tactical ‘gains’. 
At operational level, the learning is for the general in charge to have broad enough shoulders to say that a mistake has been done and the army will hasten to make amends in its procedures. To stick by the initial position in light of contrary indicators, such as an incensed civil population, is good neither from PR point of view nor that of WHAM. It is certainly unnecessary since for the army it is always the ‘nation first’.

The understanding that being introspective in such circumstance is bad for morale is contrary to the fighting ethic. This myth is but a cover for inadequate leadership and needs ruthless exposure since it holds up spring cleaning. For instance, the CRPF leadership’s defence of the indefensible in the recent killings of civilians in Sarkeguda has also been based on this fallacy. That there would be a let up in operations in case the leadership insists on the right means is to miss the stolidity of Indian soldiery, either in the army or the central armed police. Such leadership alibi should not find acceptance either in the military or in its civilian minders. 
Conceded sticking by the subordinate is a command responsibility and a display of leadership; however generalship is not about being overly identified with the institution. It is more important to integrate the institution’s output with its context, in this case the ‘healing touch’ operational now for close to a decade in the Valley. This embedding of the institution within the strategic framework is apparently not without its angularities. It is widely appreciated that precedence for such exertion exists in a succession of generals fully cognizant of their command function in this light; to name only a few for want of space, Generals Zaki, Patankar, Hasnain among others.

More importantly, to place a corps headquarters in a counter insurgency scenario at the operational level is a travesty. It must instead be more deservingly characterized as a strategic level headquarters. This implies that Badami Bagh has to see its role not only as defender of the military’s position, but equally if not more so that of the people in its area of operations. They, after all, constitute the ‘sea’ in which ‘swim’ insurgent fish. This counter intuitively means privileging the people even over soldiers in the scheme of things and the professional mind’s eye. 
This has not been adequately registered in counter insurgency theory since most such theory originates in ‘metropolitan’ academies and deals with pacification of the ‘periphery’. It is for this reason that the sorry spectacle of the American military demanding of General Petraeus greater self-protection in a freer fire regime on change over of its General MacChrystal, who had insisted that it should be otherwise. Clearly, there is no room in India for imbibing such nonsense from global strategic culture.

In India, the nation must imply people. An army of the nation must defend its people, even at its own cost. Leadership is about compensating any costs to the soldier. In fact, there is no contradiction between the requirements of the soldier and the people. Clearly, if people’s acceptance is the ‘end’, then vigil over ‘means’, provisioned by soldiers, is indispensable. Clear recognition of this as the ‘Indian way’ is imperative for the security forces to relegate this long standing misunderstanding of the warrior ethic. This will give lie to the illogical interpretation that the institutional interest is the national interest. Unambiguously restating this is important to dispel any notion that this is amenable to discretion of a military’s leadership. It most certainly is not. 
Lastly, must be recorded a potentially promising movement let on by the strategic level head of the army in Kashmir, the general in Udhampur: “We will go strictly as per the rules. There will be no short cuts, we will be transparent and will ensure that every person who was involved is asked to depose in the inquiry. Therefore, witnesses will not only be from Army, but they will be civilians, they will be from other security forces, whosoever was involved." Even though he refers to the Pathribal and Macchil cases, in which the army has been a reluctant convert, this can serve as precedence for reflexive counter insurgency. 
Since India is not out of the woods yet in J&K, NE or in Central India, young Hilal Dar must not be allowed to leave in vain.