Sunday, 27 August 2017

Dilating on a ‘Half-front War’

The reference to a “two and a half front war” by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is critically dissected. The “half front” apparently covers large tracts of India and a significant number of its marginalised people. The thought of a war on the half front, as conjured by this term, needs to be controverted outright. The army’s imagining of such a war and preparation for it is questioned.

Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been in the limelight ever since he was picked up for the job superseding two of his seniors. This time around, he figured in the media over an interview to a news agency in which he expressed his satisfaction that the “Indian Army is fully ready for a two and a half front war” (ANI 2017). The backdrop to his statement is an ongoing face-off with Chinese forces at Doklam, a disputed territory between China and Bhutan adjoining the tri-junction of the India–China–Bhutan border. The general, perhaps, felt it necessary to bolster national morale by reassuring Indians that the army could fight off not only the Chinese, but also the perennial foe, Pakistan, in case Pakistan—in the circumstance of an India–China conflict—sensed an opportunity.
Some, such as the acerbic strategist Bharat Karnad, have questioned the general (Karnad 2017). In light of the figures recently put out in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on critical shortages in the ammunition for tanks and artillery, their critique is plausible (CAG 2017: viii). Apprehending as much, the defence minister—who, being the finance minister too, is at best a part-time raksha mantri (defence minister)—declaimed in Parliament that the armed forces were “reasonably and sufficiently equipped,” cryptically adding that it is not in public interest to disclose the actuals (Hindu 2017).
As for the “half front,” Bharat Karnad is somewhat glib in believing that, “on the half front, there’s no issue.” He reasons that the army will “quickly rid the landscape of insurgents at will, if the brakes on its actions in J&K or in the northeast are removed by the government,” given that, “[e]ven with the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] shackles, the army can do its job of denying the insurgencies the success they crave” (Karnad 2017).
Though Karnad is sanguine, it bears reminding that the Kargil War—the anniversary of which India, under its ultra-nationalist ruling dispensation, has begun observing as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day)—had witnessed an upsurge in insurgency and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Even the additional deployments in the nearly year-long Operation Parakram (2001–02) were unable to staunch the insurgency. It is arguable that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s political sagacity in reaching out to the Kashmiris in April 2003 on the basis of insaniyat (humanity) and to Pakistan through the back channel resulted in the unwritten ceasefire agreement of November 2003 and the Islamabad declaration of January 2004. As for the supposed “AFSPA shackles” that the army has on, according to Karnad, the army only adopted the “iron fist in velvet glove” philosophy when relative quietude returned to Kashmir through the “healing touch” policy internally and the composite dialogue with Pakistan externally.
Outlining the ‘Half Front’
In other words, the half front—a euphemism for internal security—is a consequential front. This is not so only in relation to the communication zone (the rear areas of military operations through which troops and logistics intended for the front are located or transit). The two parts—combat zones and communication zones—comprise the theatre of war. While the army, perhaps, restricts itself to this area, the term “half front” potentially goes well beyond this and therein lie the dangers.
In case of a “two-front war,” the areas to the rear of the two theaters of war—northern, against a twin threat from Pakistan and China; eastern, against China, and western, against Pakistan—are taken as sensitive enough to club into a half front. This would understandably include areas in J&K and the North East that abut the combat theatres, and the states along the western front. Further, and more troublingly, in the strategic lexicon, the half front straddles most of the rest of India. Deeper in the hinterland is the Red Corridor that would, in the imagination of strategists, kick in in case of a war with China, and Muslim inhabited areas that are taken as likely areas in which a Pakistan-affiliated fifth column based on “sleeper cells” would activate. At a juncture in the nation’s life when dissent is being equated with sedition, a redefinition of the half front can be taken as ongoing, with even liberal bastions and spaces, such as free-thinking universities, being included.
The formulation “half-front war” conveys the impression of an India at war with itself. It is not clear as to what the army has to do with any such war inside India, restricted as its mandate is to the defence of India externally and only secondarily to assisting civil authorities in internal security duties. Using the term “war” in relation to internal security is questionable as a dangerous mindset that can set off a self-fulfilling prophesy. The army needs cautioning that, even if it imagines the half front in a restricted manner as the area directly impinging on its operations, there is a danger of the expansive interpretation taking over. This would not necessarily demand the army’s attention as providing an arena for its current-day political masters and their assorted supportive pseudo-cultural political formations to expand their takeover of India.
Dissecting the ‘Half Front’
It is a reasonable expectation that J&K could turn restive at the onset of war. Pakistan has not sustained the insurgency in Kashmir out of a sense of affinity with Kashmiris alone. Its military overlords have national security and the military’s institutional interests at heart. Operationally, they wish to undercut India’s conventional military advantage prior to its application on the western front. Keeping rear areas insecure helps in interdicting and disrupting the Indian forces en route to the frontline. An example is Pakistan’s choice in the late 1990s of the Hill Kaka area in Surankote tehsil as a base for terrorism. Not only would the terrorist base prove useful for disrupting India’s defences in Poonch sector from the rear, but would also help sustain the insurgency across the Pir Panjal range in the Kashmir Valley. The base was finally evicted in a division-level operation, Operation Sarp Vinash (2003), on the heels of Operation Parakram (2001–02).
Sensing Pakistan’s game plan in Punjab and Kashmir, the army had raised the Rashtriya Rifles. Additionally, the home ministry has at its disposal massive Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). However, the interface has seldom been smooth. During the Kargil War, with the army’s Kashmir-based formations concentrating on operations on the Line of Control, the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters based in New Delhi were brought forward to Srinagar to handle the spike in terrorism and insurgency. The move met with backlash from the forces, answering to the home ministry, which refused to come under operational control of the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters. From the handling of the stone-throwers in Kashmir last year with the use of pellet guns, it is evident that under the conditions of war the situation would be considerably more fraught and human rights that much more expendable.
As for the eastern front, India’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by an unstable North East stretching behind it. Though insurgency-related deaths in the North East have been the lowest in 2016 since 1997, the army’s “worst case scenario” most likely has it that insurgent groups in the North East would be armed by the Chinese. This is especially so since the army itself probably has plans up its sleeve of waging an asymmetric war in Tibet using Tibetan irregulars behind Chinese lines. India, however, lives in a glass house of its own making. There are over two dozen suspension of operations agreements across the North East. These are at best interim, since peace is not merely the absence of violence. A few hundred AK-47 rifles can set the accumulation of grievances and greed alight.
The North East’s insurgent groups being under an umbrella organisation—the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia—with links to China, heightens India’s threat perception. This will inform its suppressive reaction in case of hostilities.
A significant stretch of the half front is the Compact Revolutionary Zone, visualised as the Red Corridor running in an arc through forested central India, from the Terai region astride the Nepal border to the Telangana region. Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, had once referred to Naxalism as India’s “biggest internal security challenge” (PTI 2010). Noting a declining trend of left-wing extremism-related incidents since 2011, the home ministry’s annual report in a self-congratulatory mode claims an “unprecedented improvement” in the current government’s tenure (MHA 2017: 4). While Naxalism has no external linkage of any military significance, it can be expected that the opportunity offered by a border conflict, particularly with China, would be used to legitimise forays of the Operation Green Hunt variety. Operation Green Hunt, disclaimed by the government after its launch in 2009, was a search-and-destroy mission that continues till today, though under a different guise and scope.
The least visible aspect of the half-front war is related to “terrorism in the hinterland of the country” (MHA 2017: 4). The devotion of merely one paragraph to it in the home ministry’s annual report indicates the actual level of its significance. Nevertheless, prime-time noise and headlines on terrorism, and the supposed inroads by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence earlier and by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant lately into India’s largest minority, its Muslims, leave the impression of a large-scale problem.
This politically motivated identification of Muslim communities with terrorism has been going on for over a decade. This image has been forged by police reflexively picking up Muslim youth in the wake of incidents of domestic terrorism. Such a perception of Muslims indicates that Muslim mohallas might well find inclusion within the half front; for instance, Batla House in New Delhi, the site of a supposed encounter against a terrorist cell in September 2008 (Sethi 2012). In June 2017, 15 Muslims were arrested at various places for allegedly celebrating a Pakistani cricketing victory in the Champions Trophy (Suri 2017). In case of a war with Pakistan, increased security surveillance of Muslims and security-related impositions can easily be imagined.
Additionally, the spate of lynchings and rowdyism by cow vigilantes suggests how any such war will play out for Muslims as a part of the half-front war. This identification of Muslims with the Pakistani “other” is best illustrated by the unsolicited advice of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Inderesh Kumar in reaction to former Vice President Hamid Ansari voicing the concerns felt by India’s Muslims regarding their security (Thapar 2017). Kumar called for Ansari to leave the country for “some place he feels secure” (Deshpande 2017). Presumably, after the fashion lately, Kumar had Pakistan in mind. This conflation of India’s Muslims with Pakistanis can only reach a crescendo in the case of military setbacks in war. If the war goes nuclear, its intercommunity impact within India could rival partition.
Last but not least is the opportunity that a war will offer cultural nationalists for further throttling liberal voices. At a recent observation of the Kargil Diwas in Jawaharlal Nehru University attended by its vice chancellor, the university was likened by Major General (retd) G D Bakshi, with his cultural nationalist credentials, to a “fort” that had been conquered, and he called for similar conquests of similarly oriented universities in Hyderabad and Jadavpur (Shankar 2017). The overt displays of nationalism are now de rigueur, such as the installing of giant-sized tricolour flags in public places, including university campuses; playing of the national anthem before movie screenings; and mandatory singing of the national song, Vande Mataram (I pray/bow down to thee, Mother), twice a week in schools in Tamil Nadu. This is happening in peace time with mere border stand-offs with both neighbours as the backdrop. War will increase the “holy cow” status of national security, legitimising the invasion of liberal spaces.
Prevention as Answer
It would appear that, irrespective of the military showing on either front, India’s national fabric can only suffer a setback on the half front. This is one more reason—added to several others, such as nuclear escalation—why war should not figure as an option. Working meaningfully towards its prevention assumes importance. This means going far beyond, for instance, diplomatically addressing the Doklam crisis. Instead, India needs to clinch the 19 rounds of special representative–level talks so far with China on the border issue, with a determined display of readiness for mutual compromise and accommodation. On the western front, India must discontinue its current policy against substantial engagement with Pakistan and within Kashmir of ignoring political outreach as the best and only way to tackle violence and public disaffection.
Such a line of reasoning might not impress cultural nationalists, who hold the reins of power. To them, a round of bloodletting might be just the potion the nation needs to unify it and bring in the discipline, uniformity and cohesion attributed to wars. Though Vajpayee denied likening Indira Gandhi to Goddess Durga (Vincent 2016), today’s bhakts (devotees) would welcome a similar profile as a war leader for Narendra Modi. The communalists within their ranks would welcome the prospects for further marginalisation of the minority community. This explains India’s strategic direction in terms of the absence of engaging with political solutions. To them, the possibility of war is an acceptable alternative to negotiated settlement of problems.
ANI (2017): “Indian Army Prepared for a Two and a Half Front War: Army Chief General Bipin Rawat,” Associated News International, 8 June, viewed on 20 July 2017,
CAG (2017): “Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for the Year Ended March 2016: Union Government (Defence Services) Army and Ordnance Factories, Report No 15 of 2017,” Comptroller and Auditor General of India, New Delhi, 21 July, viewed on 27 July 2017,
Deshpande, V (2017): “Go Where You Feel Secure, RSS’s Indresh Kumar Tells Hamid Ansari,” Indian Express, 13 August, viewed on 15 August,
Hindu (2017): “Armed Forces Equipped to Face Any Crisis: Jaitley,” 28 July, viewed on 1 August 2017,
Karnad, B (2017): “Is the Indian Army Ready for a ‘Two and Half’ Front War?” Qrius, 20 June, viewed on 25 July 2017,
MHA (2017): “Annual Report 2016–17,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, viewed on 25 July 2017,
PTI (2010): “Naxalism Biggest Threat to Internal Security: Manmohan,” Hindu, 24 May, viewed on 28 July 2017,
Sethi, M (2012): “Batla House and the Problem with the Deluded Journalist,” Kafila, 28 February, viewed on 23 July 2017,
Shankar, A (2017): “JNU V-C M Jagadesh Kumar Wants an Army Tank on Campus as Inspiration,” Indian Express, 24 July, viewed on 30 July,
Suri, M (2017): “India Arrests 15 for Celebrating Pakistan Cricket Victory,” CNN, 21 June, viewed on 27 July 2017,
Thapar, K (2017): “Asserting Your Nationalism Day In, Day Out Is Unnecessary: Hamid Ansari,” Wire, 9 August, viewed on 12 August,

Vincent, P (2016): “Footnote to Fabled Story on Indira,” Telegraph, 27 February, viewed on 5 August 2017,

Friday, 4 August 2017

Debating the 'harder military approach'

In wake of the attack on the Amarnath pilgrims that took a toll of eight innocent lives, Lord Meghnad Desai in an op-ed lamented that, 'A harder military approach will be urged. That has been tried since 1989. Time may have come to try something different ( article/opinion/columns/the-opportunity-in-kashmir-death-of-pilgrims-amarnath-yatra-attack-hurriyat-jihadists-naga-tribes-4752306/).' 

As if on cue, a hardy contender for the vacancy coming up soon in the Raj Bhawan in Srinagar, while agreeing that '… no proxy conflict of this kind can ever be defeated by military means, 'countered that, 'I disagree, however, that India's approach to the proxy conflict has so far only been militaristic or through the security prism and not from the angle of winning the support of the people ('

He gives an article long summary of the army's engagement in Kashmir covering inter-alia its Operation Sadhbhavna initiatives. More pertinently, perhaps referring to his tenure at the helm of Srinagar corps, the author, who is a retired member of the army brass, has this to say: '2011-13 saw the conscious calibration of the balance of hard and soft power through the Hearts Doctrine which created hope and attempted restoration of dignity to the conflict stricken people, incidentally by the army itself; a situation not politically exploited ('

The general appears to have drawn cudgels with the academic over the latter's understanding that a 'harder military approach' has been tried since 1989 and has been found wanting. His article attempts to highlight two aspects to the military's engagement in Kashmir. One that the military is indispensable to managing the situation of such violence as encountered in the 'proxy war' in Kashmir; and, two, that despite this, the army has attempted to win 'the support of the people', by largely following the counter insurgency doctrine of 'winning hearts and minds (WHAM!)'.

The academic, however, was questioning whether India's Kashmir policy that has been rather military dominant, could succeed, and on that count advocating a shift in tack from a military reliant to a political approach. A politics-up-front approach would have political outreach to Pakistan on one hand and an internal political settlement with the Kashmiris on the other. Lord Desai appears to believe that India has erred in not taking the two prongs of the political strategy to their logical conclusion in a settlement in Kashmir, even though its Kashmiri citizens have been imposed upon as a consequence for over a quarter century. 

Since Lord Desai's remark is a concluding one in his article on the routinisation of conflict and approaches to conflict in Kashmir, space constraints precluded his articulation of his position in these terms. But this appears a fair interpretation of his position, since he calls for a change of tack from the direction Indian has been on since 1989. 

He is entirely right. The political prong of strategy has never been the dominant one in tackling India's Kashmir problem. Over the preceding two score years to 1989, India firmly retained a hold in Kashmir, by lining up its military along the Line of Control and deliberately foisting corruptible regimes in Kashmir. The Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks of the early sixties were not sincere. This was brought out in an evening talk by PN Haksar at the India International Center in the early nineties at which this author was present. Haksar recounted asking Swaran Singh what the aim of the talks had been, with Swaran Singh letting on that it was a charade to keep the Americans at bay. The Simla Agreement is similarly a promise regarding the representatives of the two sides to meet 'to discuss further the modalities and arrangements for the establishment of durable peace and normalization of relations… a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir… (italics added).' It is about 'talks about talks'. 

The story of the nineties is little different. The weak coalition governments then - even if led by a bleeding heart at one time, Inder Gujral - were hardly in a position to change tack on Kashmir. When Nehru and Indira in their prime were unwilling to walk down the road to peace politically arrived at, it would be too much to expect of the prime ministers in the nineties. The late nineties saw some political activity, such as the composite dialogue initiation under Gujral and its spirit carried forward by Vajpayee. However, the leeway either had in clinching the issue through compromise was non-existent. Gujral was a stopgap, while Vajpayee had Mr. Advani on his flank to be mindful of, as revealed unmistakably at the Agra Summit a few years on. Since India was also rather hard pressed through the upturn in the proxy war in Kashmir in wake of the Kargil War, it could hardly be seen to be compromising in face of such pressure. 

Even so, it is to Vajpayee's credit that he allowed the backchannel to enable a start to the composite dialogue, by creating the conditions for this in an unwritten ceasefire along the LC and on its heels with the Islamabad declaration. However, in retrospect, it is questionable whether Vajpayee could have gone the distance, even if the BJP's India Shining campaign had worked out. Within Kashmir, the 'healing touch' campaign could not even get the AFSPA sway diluted, though some of the army was depicted as returning to barracks - which incidentally was a sleight of hand since only additional troops deployed for Operation Parakram reverted to barracks. 

This remained the case even as the indices of terrorism were brought to negligible as the composite dialogue progressed desultorily under Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh's incapability was stark in his inability to convert the quiet in Kashmir to India's advantage by acting purposefully on the feedback from his three roundtables, five working groups and his team of three interlocutors. For its part, the Congress was unable to convert the penalty corner into a goal owing to its political sense telling it that India was then veering away to the right, buoyant from a high growth rate, increasing great power aspirations, diaspora influence into its polity, imbibing of cultural nationalism and, therefore, was unlikely to countenance any let up on Kashmir. All it's tuning in to the national mood could not keep the Congress from being swept into history - as history will record soon enough. 

Mr. Modi's strategy is what Lord Desai was ruing. An opportunity to foreclose a deal with Kashmiris internally has been lost. The PDP chief minister in alliance with the BJP, Mehbooba Mufti, is right that Modi holds the cards. She is only naïve in thinking he would play it in the way she hopes. The unnecessary standoff with China on the Doklam plateau suggests the lengths the two - Modi and Doval - have invested in a militarized template for India's security policy. In this, resort to politics is a sign of weakness. The Hindutva cultural paradigm entails revitalization of Hindu masculinity. Muscles, brawn and testosterone now matter, since India's eclipse a thousand years ago is attributed to their absence. A national security policy on steroids cannot but singe its Kashmir policy. 

This exposé of the absence of a political prong to India's Kashmir policy, leaves one just enough column space to touch upon one of the general's pet projects, which happenstance he does get to Rajbhawan he will surely thrust onto a hapless state administration. In his own words, this is: 

…if the chief minister has to walk this talk it will need the support of one organisation which can make all the difference, the Army; it has the deployment, reach, contact with people and the robust ability to secure a grand engagement plan. It cannot be a creeping plan. It just has to be bold with transformational approach. All the talk about not talking will vanish once the government, the politician and security forces are speaking with the people and not the leadership ( article/india/handling-jk-what-is-right-and-what-more-needs-to-5333.html). 

Perhaps an elaboration is merited: absent politics, there is only the military left. But the matter is best left to the reader.