Sunday, 21 February 2016

Book Review

Vivek Chadha, Indian Army’s Approach to Counter Insurgency Operations: A Perspective on Human Rights, Occasional Paper 2, IDSA, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 40

In the IDSA monograph under review, Chadha brings out the current status of army’s approach to human rights. The army’s record has been chequered, but the limitations of space in a monograph length work have led to Chadha’s looking at only the positives. The good news is that the current day army appears suitably impressed by the need to keep human rights to fore in subconventional operations.

Since the army is not particularly challenged today in any theater of subconventional operations, be it J&K or North East, it is easier for the army to maintain a credible record on human rights. That it is has used the letting up in operations for taking a closer look at human rights is altogether heartening. The test of whether it has suitably internalized this can only come up with the next test.
Such test does not appear on the horizon. The situation in J&K while being delicate politically and simmering in terms of popular disaffection is unlikely to escalate militarily owing to the massive deployment of the army continuing along the borders and within the ‘hinterland’. The Udhampur, Gurdaspur and Pathankot incidents suggest the difficulties terrorists are having in using Kashmir as site for their action. In the North East, a series of suspension of operations agreements are in place, the most significant of which in Nagaland has recently be strengthened by a framework agreement. The Central Indian theater of operations has been consigned to the paramilitary since the levels of violence are relatively low and access to sanctuary abroad the missing element.  

As for the possibility of being faced with subconventional operations outside of the borders, this can only be in wake of conventional operations against Pakistan. The likelihood of this has thankfully been appreciably set back by the upward trajectory, albeit a hesitant one, in Indo-Pak relations of late. Stabilisation operations in which human rights would have a place appear remote. Another farfetched site for subconventional operations could be if India joins a multinational force in wrapping up the ISIS in an indeterminate future. 

The upshot of this survey is that after a long while the army is not faced with subconventional operations of any notable intensity. Does Chadha’s work lend confidence that the army will pass when tested?

It would be as easy as unfair to dismiss Chadha’s word as coming out of a ‘sarkari’ think tank, the IDSA, and being from a former military man cannot but be biased. However, it best to give him a hearing for as once an infantry colonel he would know where the shoe pinches. His first hand knowledge is from participation in subconventional operations in Sri Lanka, J&K and North East. He is also author of the heavy tome Low Intensity Conflicts in India: An Analysis in which he laid out a brief history of India’s showing in countering insurgency in various theaters.

Chadha believes that the army’s human rights approach has not received due attention in the human rights discourse otherwise crowded with the works critical of the state and its agencies. His claim is that the army has at least over the last decade spruced up its understanding of and record on human rights. He uses its work in J&K as a case study.

In J&K, the statistics are clear. The human rights record of the army has improved to an extent that incidents such as at Machil stand out as aberrations. Further, the positives are in the army’s own attempt at house cleaning such as in its punishing perpetrators for the Machil and follow up in the mistaken opening up of fire at a road block in Chhatargam in which two youth died.

There are two explanations for this. One is that Pakistan has indeed turned off the tap to a large extent in terms of infiltration, leading to an improved security situation. Consequently, the army has rightly tuned down its operational tempo, leading to an improved human rights record. The second is that it has also had an enlightened leadership in Kashmir, appointing figures with a credible spoken reputation. It needs noting that the current theater commander General Hooda has embellished his credentials by his actions on this front.

In the bargain, Chadha’s work appears to have profited with Northern Command furnishing some figures to help his case. Even if these are critiqued - as they should be - by human rights defenders in J&K, the gainer would be the human rights discourse having something more that a straw man to grapple with and reflexive military bashing.

Chadha’s vantage point does not allow him to engage with the items at the forefront of the human rights agenda in J&K. The issue of justice is critical. The figure of disappeared at close to five figure mark; the resurfacing of the Kunan Poshpora incident in the judicial agenda; and the attempted closure by the army to the Pathribal case are prominent cases.

Chadha, for his part, attempts to bring out that judicial and human rights activism can result in miscarriages in terms of making soldiers acting in good faith victims. The reminder is that intensive operations also have a psychological war angle, which human rights defenders must also for their part be objective about. Chadha also reveals the processes by way of which the ministry approaches its role in respect of Article 6 (in case of J&K, Article 7) of the Armed Forces Special Power’s Act. But, he takes the safe way out in being descriptive, rather than self-critical.

In a reference to the infirmities in the western record in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chadha brings home an inescapable fact: that collateral damage and human rights infringement is intrinsic to military operations. There is no ‘zero casualty’ war. The human environment of combat severely tests pious intentions: both at the strategic and tactical levels. The ‘zero tolerance’ to human rights abuse policy inevitably acquires caveat.

The seeming logic is that this is for the eventual larger good. This explains India’s parameter: human rights infringement is tolerable only if it is operationally justifiable. The problem is that the military sits in judgment on its own action, in that verdict on operational justification cannot, of necessity, have civilian imprimatur. 

Though outside the scope of Chadha’s reflection, if and since subconventional operations have human rights consequences, the state (and civil society) must not only look at mitigation. The state must be preventive and political.

For instance, in the case in J&K, it is not enough for the army to be working on its human rights record. Firstly, howsoever well intentioned, this would always leave much to be desired when, for example, the ‘Do’s and Dont’s injunction against torture implies that it is excusable short of maiming and causing death! Secondly, kinetic subconventional operations outsourced these days the army’s engagement with human rights becomes academic, if not diversionary. The case in Imphal of ex PLA fighter Sangit Meitei’s killing by Herojit Singh on orders of the police Additional SP and the manner of paramilitary’s sway in Central India make their human rights approaches more significant.

Wishfully speaking, the state must work more diligently in taking forward the promise of Modi’s 
Lahore stop over externally, and, internally, creating the political conditions speedily for removal of troops. If the misplaced sloganeering in Delhi’s Press Club and JNU on 9 February is to have any value, it is to wake India up to this finally. If two tenures of a UPA government could not bring this about, it cannot happen any time soon.

Consequently, the verdict is that whatever the human rights spin/situation - such as currently - it cannot but be impacted when push comes to shove. This inevitability opens the human rights space to instrumental use as part of policy and strategy, by both sides. Chadha’s is a tragic insight: this is at best subject to mitigation, never to elimination. In J&K, the resulting satisficing leads to the circular argument: since the situation is tolerable now, the army can be removed, but since the army is tolerable now, it can remain indefinitely.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

For India to be off to Levant now would be premature
India’s Former National Security Adviser and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon in a lecture in New Delhi argued that, “sooner rather than later India will have to make real political and military contributions to stability and security in this region (West Asia) that is so critical to our economy and security.”
He takes India’s “high stakes”, specifically its oil being sourced to West Asia, the presence of an Indian diaspora and remittances, as its national interest, and advocates that “our approach and behavior should change in defense of our interests.”
That India is not part of the ongoing four powers’ peace initiative closer to home in Afghanistan suggests prudence in casting out wider. Further afield in West Asia, our power is greatly diluted by distance. As a recent study points out, India does not currently have the capacity to sustain such operations, even if it would be able to do so in future.
At best India can reinforce the peace frameworks being put in place under US-Russian aegis. Militarily, it can participate in any subsequent peacekeeping, but, as pointed out by its defence minister, only under the ‘UN flag’.
The catch is in going further in terms of rolling back the ISIS by going beyond peacekeeping to peace enforcement.
As the foreign office spokesperson Vikas Swarup hastily clarified, this is a “hypothetical situation”. Menon, who plugged the liberal-realist perspective while at the helm of the national security establishment, is unlikely to have had this in mind.
What can India do? India has rightly ruled out a military solution to the conflict and backed the conference that is currently bringing all actors to the table. Interestingly, its statement in the UN makes no mention of its position on ISIS.
In standing up against regime change in Syria, the line favoured by Russia, China and Iran, India stands to be at odds with the West, Arab regimes and Israel that have consistently sought the exit of Basher al Assad. India’s stakes – oil, diaspora and remittances – being largely on the Arab side of the divide and its tilt towards Israel, act as constraints to actively standing up against regime change in Syria.
Therefore, India cannot be expected to ‘do more’ at this juncture. It can await fruition of the UN led peace initiative currently underway, whereupon it can participate more broadly including in any peacekeeping dimension that emerges.
However, tacitly in what Menon says, and explicitly in the words of other commentators, there is a belief that India, as part of its ‘great power’ march can, indeed must act, in the defence of what it defines as its national interest.
In regard to West Asia, a leading strategic commentator, Manoj Joshi, puts it thus: “If  our oil supply lines or  citizens working in the Gulf are threatened,  or hundreds and thousands of Indians are being radicalised by the Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, India should certainly consider intervention, with, and if it has the gumption, without, UN authorisation.”
Although Joshi’s is rather a high – almost hypothetical level – of Daesh tentacles, even so, interventionist thinking needs contesting.
The first problem is political, on the question of legitimacy. Menon appears to suggest that since traditional security providers in the region – read the US and UK – are less than effective, India must sign-up rather than continue as a free-rider.
Menon appears to justify prospective military action by saying India’s transformation depends on flow of oil. Interference in its flow would require Indian military response to defend the status quo. The argument smacks of neo-colonial logic in which oil dependency of the West requires them to back repressive Arab regimes.
Arab nationalism that has been discounted in the media fixation with the religious dimension to the Daesh challenge, has been air brushed out of the frame. This has enabled the unchallenged Western, and now Russian, military approach in West Asia. In effect, India would end up backing a status quo in favour of the mix of repressive regimes that have between them succeeded in stymieing the promise of Arab Spring.
Scope for ‘doing more’ is in pointing this out course correction by Arab regimes in internal reform and their Western backers in shedding militarized templates. However, in having the French President over for its Republic Day, India appears instead to be painting itself into the same corner as the West.
The second reason is military. An ‘all of government’ response would be called for. The response to the terror attack on Pathankot airfield does not lend any confidence that the national security establishment can pull it off.
An external – military – consequence of India’s military proactivism could be with Islamists fetching up at the door step. The Pathankot episode suggests that the border fence, even if shored up with gadgets and tactics of Israeli provenance, cannot be relied on.
Menon discounts such a scenario, saying that the “risks of the (India-Pakistan) relationship deteriorating into open conflict are slight.” With the Daesh having already fetched up in Afghanistan, in case of India’s military involvement in the Levant it could provide a fillip to anti-India groups in Pakistan.
The internal political consequence of this would be the benefits for the right wingers in India. It would buoy majoritarian extremists who misrepresent the Islamist threat as the threat from Islam.
Therefore, any thrust for a greater role in West Asia needs to be contested. The liberal realist argumentation can be easily manipulated by cultural nationalists at the helm of national security affairs to depict an emerging consensus in favour of intervention. That an Akshay Kumar starrer Airlift is ruling at the box office suggests such a thrust.
As Menon points out elsewhere, the timing of when to make the move from a regional player to a ‘great power’ is a delicate one. Clearly now is not the right time and this is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.