Friday, 3 August 2012

To call out the army or not

Financial World - 2 Aug 12


emerged from the blame game in wake of the
Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam is the response
of the army in ‘aid to civil authority’. Guwahati
has let on that there was a lapse of two
days between its requisition and its deployment. This
was despite both the state and centre being run by Congress
governments. The latest in this episode is the home
ministry’s missive to its neighbour on Raisina Hill, the
defence ministry that such calls on the army by a district
administration must be responded to without waiting for
clearances from the hierarchy.

But this amounts to turning the clock back. A point in
the post-Kargil reforms agenda was on distancing the
military from internal security to the extent possible.
This was along two lines: one was in raising additional
crpf units for taking over internal security duties and the
second was in reducing the calls on the army for assisting
with law and order duties.

The procedure for the latter was changed from the dc
having a lien on the military in the vicinity for such duty
to having the demand routed through and vetted in the
home and defence ministries. In an age of instant communication
this can be a real time process, but can be delayed
on two counts. One is in the decision-making procedures
on ‘babudom’, and second the bureaucratic politics
endemic to civil-military relations in general and which
have deepened lately.

Even though this time round the procedure accounted
for more fatalities than need have occurred, harking
back to the older system may not be the most useful
‘lesson learnt’.

Under the strain of deployments in ‘aid to civil authority’
through the eighties and nineties the military had
urged for change. Over the period, a substantial portion
of it had been caught up in countering insurgency successively
in Punjab, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Assam. The
rotations of units in peace stations had been cut short to
two years. During this time they were on call for restoring
law and order, particularly in a situation of worsening
communal harmony in the run up to and beyond the
Babri Masjid episode. In tiring out the military, such duties
were seen as denuding its cutting edge.

Besides, an early resort to military assistance was an
easy way out for the administration. Not only was this
holding up preventive action, it was also hampering the
professionalisation of police. The ease of conflict management
made conflict prevention and resolution recede
from the consciousness of governments. Thus the constitutional
responsibility vesting with state governments for
Public Order and Police, included in the State List (List II,
Seventh Schedule), tended to be neglected.

A course correction was done in having the military
less readily available, first through procedural measures
and secondly by substituting it through an expansion in
the central armed police forces (capf), as recommended
by the NN Vohra Task Force on internal security as part of
pos-Kargil reforms. This has been duly done over the past
decade. However, the demands on the expanded crpf
ranging from Kashmir to Central India have tied it down.
Consequently the government cannot seem to do without
the military close at hand.

There are advantages in the military’s ready availability.
Firstly, the human toll can be contained. Secondly, long-
term effects of extensive blood-
letting are precluded. For instance,
the post-Babri Masjid Mumbai
riots cast a shadow over the balance
of that century as did the Gujarat
carnage over the last decade.
Likewise, the recent Bodo-Muslim
clashes are likely to remain in collective
memory of the two communities
making political and social
reconciliation difficult. Lastly, the
intervention of the military, seen as
an honest broker by all sides, helps
defuse the crisis and tensions.

system currently in place
needs preserving to deter
over reliance on the army, over-
riding protocols can be worked into
it that can enable quick time reactions
in situations warranting it.
The army, itself attuned to developing
situations through its static formations,
can be enabled to act on
lateral calls on it. This was the case
in Srinagar in the January 1990 crisis
when the Srinagar Corps commander,
Lt Gen Zaki, deployed
military assets without recourse
to higher headquarters, even while
keeping it informed of the developing
situation. Incidentally, while
the word martial law does not appear
in the Constitution, the defence
service regulations devote
three pages to the concept and its conduct!

In the case of the clashes in the Bodo Territorial Council,
the army is already in location as part of the counter
insurgency grid in Assam and enabled by afspa. It could
and should have deployed without unduly looking over its
shoulders. Therefore, while the state government is amiss
in allowing the situation to have come to such a pass, the
army’s slovenly reaction suggests that its live-wire characteristic
is somewhat rusty. While prescriptively the
case for police reforms comes to fore yet again, the interim
cannot be tidied over without the army.

Ali Ahmed is Assistant Professor,
Nelson Mandela Center for Peace & Conflict Resolution,
Jamia Millia Islamia