Monday, 12 June 2017
An Army to fear: The Army's future?
The jury is out on whether the army chief was put up to it by his political masters or whether his rewarding the protagonist in the infamous ‘human shield’ case was of his own volition. From the broadside by one commentator likening the chief to General Dyer, it is clear that there are some who believe that the army chief acted on a suggestion from his superiors. That broadside from an academic would likely have been directed, less at the army chief himself, as much as the one whose bidding he was doing. But with the army chief going out on a limb (yet again) with his defence of not only the indefensible action of Mr. Tactical Innovation himself, Major Leetul Gogoi, and his own award, it is quite clear that the army chief has the courage of his conviction. That is the good news.
The bad news is that the conviction is itself wrong-headed. Courage of conviction in such cases leads to persisting in the wrong direction. Precedence in the case of a predecessor of his pursuing an age related case for a year’s extension at the helm of the army suggests as much. Incidentally, that general titled his memoirs, Courage and Conviction. Worse could follow. The generals of the First World War were not for nothing dubbed ‘donkeys’, for their outsized determination in trying to breakthrough trench lines with tactics that failed to work for several successive years at the cost of a million lives.
The pattern of persistence in wrong headedness in Kashmir is discernible. There has been a reversion to cordon and search operations. The unwritten ceasefire dating to end 2003 is in tatters. Just as the army went after the JKLF in the early nineties, believing it was wrapping up the indigenous insurgency then, this time round too it has a list, a score entries long of local militants it wants to take out by summer’s end. The army chief has warned off people from complicating military operations, lest they be taken as overground workers. Since it is well known what happened to overground workers, among others, through the nineties, he is harking back by a decade and more. The earlier measures having failed to end the insurgency, it beats imagination as to how these can possibly succeeded in their second iteration.
This time round the difference is in the army chief setting the tone out loud. He has required that the army be feared. Earlier - at least up front - the army preferred being respected, if not quite loved. It certainly wished to inspire fear in the enemy. This enemy was usually the adversary state across the border and its army, and in Kashmir, the jihadi mercenary, usually Pakistani Punjabi.
However, in terms of internal security, Jawaharlal Nehru had early on clearly spelt out how the army needed to be appreciated in such circumstance as a protector of the people. The then army chief taking cue in sending the army into Nagaland in 1955, had in his Special Order of the Day phrased the political terms of reference given out by Nehru in these words:
You must remember that all the people of the area in which you are operating are fellow Indians. They may have different religions, pursue a different way of life, but they are Indians and the very fact, that they are different and yet part of India is a reflection of India’s greatness. Some of these people are misguided and have taken up arms against their own people and are disrupting peace of this area. You are to protect the mass of the people in the area from these disruptive elements. You are not to fight the people in the area but to protect them.
General Rawat has upturned this. He has pronounced that ‘Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.’ He argues that the proxy war the army is coping with is a ‘dirty war’. He cannot have people throwing ‘petrol bombs and stones’ while his soldiers ‘wait and die’. He needs to keep their morale up by allowing them to fight innovatively, including through use – in the incident that prompted his defence of himself – of human shields.
Happily, he was quick to clarify that, ‘It (human shield) is not a general norm. As a practice it is not supported.’ What he misses is that tactics is to be guided both by norms and the humanitarian legal code, be it in war or internal conflict. Situations cannot guide tactics. Tactics are responses to situations that have to be ethically and legally compliant. By shifting the goal posts the army chief is arbitrarily changing the accepted doctrinal principles of Indian army in subconventional operations.
This could possibly be on his initiative. His extensive experience in counter insurgency that got him his job, perhaps persuades him that the doctrinal principle of ‘one hand tied behind the back’ is superfluous. It was never quite popular within the army, with its counter insurgency trope largely bewailing the imposition. This is what prompted the army’s somewhat tough approach and action in the nineties in Kashmir, such as through use of proxy groups as Ikhwan, disappearances, firing on LC without concern for collateral damage etc. The new fangled technique - perception management - was to manage the fallout. The army’s flagship publication on subconventional operations - ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ - coincided with the start of the decade long hiatus of peace in Kashmir. It is apparent that the tenets on the use of force in the document are liable to be liberally interpreted by those who have cut their teeth in counter insurgency operations, such as the army chief.
In other words, has the army dropped its veneer? Though veterans with equal claim to operational experience are aghast at the brazen shift, that its slip is showing does not appear to embarrass the army any.
This brings one to the second possibility. The shift away from the central doctrinal pillar of people-friendly operations is perhaps an imposition by its political masters. They have chosen well in choosing an army chief with like sentiment. The government is explicit that talks are not the way out, even if its home minister promises a solution to the troubles in Kashmir. The army will therefore be held to the till. A tough line to go with the image of its national security minder – the national security adviser - and his boss - the prime minister - is politically useful. In any other dispensation, even if it was not knocked on its knuckles privately, the army could not have been this willful.
The problem with doggedness is that it can be in the wrong direction. The army in Kashmir is on such path. It mistakenly insists that it is confronted with a proxy war. There is surely Pakistani chicanery, but a decade long talks process with several false starts cannot but have let Pakistan continue as an interested party and ill motivated player. The equally long and coextensive engagement with a political solution in Kashmir has been abandoned, leaving the people – even girls - with little choice than to take to stones. Whether this is a product of information war on social media - as the army chief suggests – is up for debate.
Instead, a self-fulfilling prophesy will likely develop, with a jihadists supposedly in search of Khorasan overrunning the indigenous dimension – yet another throwback to the mid nineties when the JKLF was eclipsed by the Hizb and the late nineties when the Hizb was outshone by the Lashkar. This would be welcome in New Delhi. Turning the army into one feared by people would be small price to pay and it would exactly what is needed by an authoritarian regime. Hopefully, this is not a future the army envisages.