Saturday, 10 February 2018
The Army: Introspection is warranted

Basant Rath, a J&K cadre IPS officer, writing in The Wire (5 February, berates a senior in the IPS of the UP cadre for taking the oath to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He calls for the commitment of uniformed officials the Constitution. He was reacting to a social media video of his IPS senior participating in a right wing organization’s ceremony at which attendees took the oath on building the Ram Mandir, that went viral recently. This invited Rath’s wrath. Quite at the same time, there was another video clip that went viral on social media. This one showed an army officer, presumably serving in J&K, motivating his listeners with cultural nationalist trope. This suggests Rath’s advice is valid for all uniformed services, including the army.
This is a counter intuitive claim since the army is known for its apolitical and secular character. That the army needs reminding of this commonplace is unfortunate. In the clip in question (, the officer claims prior service in J&K and attests to have had a trigger-happy time. Downing rum, he is seen dashing the glass to smithereens against his head, after the fashion of para-commandos who reputedly do so in their messes on occasion. The officer in question sports the para wings on his chest. He is perhaps participating in the annual Republic Day ritual in which the Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) are invited to drinks at the Officers’ Mess. JCOs reciprocate by inviting the officers over to the JCOs’ mess on Independence Day.
The officer is entitled to his views. However, since he is sharing these and speaks in the video in Hindi, he is apparently speaking to persons below officer rank. Since he is in uniform and in an official capacity, he has to exercise caution in airing his views. Assuming that drink has loosened his tongue, it is worth taking him at his spoken word and reviewing his spoken reputation as a Rambo of sorts. The army can do without misguided elements within its ranks in an age of the ‘Strategic Corporal’ (an age in which media amplified tactical decisions potentially have strategic effects). He certainly must be prevented from misusing the cover of AFSPA and the human terrain in Kashmir for his pathologies. Even if the officer’s views are forged at the increasingly respectable fount of cultural nationalism, there is no official legitimacy conferred on such ideological views as yet – particularly since the poem he recites reportedly is of genocidal content.
There is no guarantee the army would take appropriate action. The army is liable to clamp down on social media footprint rather than address its warts. The ‘human shield’ episode of last year – endorsed by no less than the army chief with a commendation - indicates a certain permissiveness in the internal social environment within the army. That perhaps emboldened the mentioned officer to go the distance in his motivational talk. Another misstep by the army in course correction would lead to the discourse only expanding and nauseating the conversation and exchanges within the army. The army needs to be vigilant on this score and officers’ circumspect.
Little propels the military (universally) to action more than a threat to its corporate values and culture. It is best advised of the extant threat to these and from within. It is time for the army to back track from the limb it went on to in the ‘human shield’ episode. Then, under seeming assault from the liberal media and usual suspects in the commentariat (including this columnist), it closed ranks behind unacceptable behavior. The price has been in a fraying of its internal fabric. Internally, an advisory could serve as a deterrent to help the army track back to safety. It would reinforce traditional norms and messaging, while warning off closet purveyors of cultural nationalism lurking in the officer corps. 
Externally, a leak of the action taken in disciplining this particular officer is warranted. It would show those interested in the good health of the army that the contaminating possibilities from the spread of majoritarian nationalism in India are contained. The virulence is particularly rabid in the northern cow-dust belt: the catchment areas of majority of its officers and its soldiery. Besides it would reassure the Kashmiris – in whose area the officer boasts of multiple tenures – that the security is in the right hands.
Rambos are never absent from a ticking force. The challenge is to positively articulate their energy, innovation, spirit, strength and enterprise. Even so, not all who project a Rambo personality are strong internally. Some are hiding from or running away from inherent infirmities. They use the cover of outsized moustaches, swagger, braggadocio and bluster to impersonate fighting men. It is unclear which category the officer in question belongs. In either case, there is a requirement of supervision, lest the autonomy of subunit command is taken as license to impose on the populace – the center of gravity in subconventional operations - or subject them to gratuitous violence.  
This is the case with the terrorists too. Their recent violent grab from police custody of a terrorist at a hospital in Srinagar is a case to point. There are swashbucklers among them, with sterling fighting and leadership qualities. In the case of the hospital attack, while the participants apparently had the gumption to pull off a rescue, they had no compunction of sparing a hospital as the site. They too are self-indulgent in the liberal rope they are mistakenly bestowed with by society. Most are undeserving dregs, drop outs and ‘losers’ in Trumpian terms.
The community, in the false belief that the wider interest of liberation requires their forbearance, allows them untold liberties – including unspeakable ones with womenfolk. Often the community’s choice as to how long and to what extent to persist with the challenge to state authority is snatched away. Those profiting from the troubles take charge, relegating original aims and superseding traditional authority structures. This happened in the late nineties in Kashmir. The phenomenon appears to be making a reappearance. Kashmiris would require exerting to reacquire agency, lest they are ground down yet again.
Troubled times bring out not only the best in men – on both sides – but also the worst. A conflict environment – as it gets increasingly brutalized – allows for impunity for both sides to indulge their worst instincts. Supervisors and handlers respectively have little interest in monitoring and restraining fighters. While for terrorist there is little incentive to rein them in; for the army, a misunderstanding that morale suffers holds up action.
While Pakistan can be expected to shed crocodile tears, and use the troubles to further its agenda, that India is increasingly in the same boat is a new dimension. The Hindutva lobby, poised to use the Kashmir issue – among other Muslim centric issues – to hoist themselves into another stint in power have no love lost for Kashmir or Kashmiris. In so far as these are body count based and not dependent on picking up a wound medal alongside, you can be sure creative writing is in evidence in citations.
Acknowledging this does not detract any from the daredevils, such as the citation of the gallant deceased Air Force corporal that made our President tear up on Rajpath at Republic Day. In standing through the reading of the citation in front of the spouse and bowing deeply to her in respect as he handed over the highest national honour, the Ashoka Chakra, the President conveyed national sentiment. The army knows this sentiment does not and cannot carry over to fakes. While the army men have a choice of models to follow between the Air Force corporal and the army officer in the video in question, the army must ensure – through a regulated internal environment - the wrong model is no option.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Dissident Terror Narrative

That Abdul Subhan Qureshi – infamous as ‘India’s bin Laden - has been nabbed at long last is a relief. The arrest wraps up longstanding investigations into terror attacks, ranging from Hyderabad, Surat and Ahmedabad.

Dubbed ‘Techie’, he specialized in bomb making reportedly difficult to defuse. He is also an associate of notorious Indian Mujahideen founder, Nagori, who has been in jail for long now. It was a timely catch in the run up to Republic Day, with some or other nefarious act no doubt nipped in the bud. There only the Bhatkal brothers holding out, who like the D Company are out of the country.

There is little else left to settle on the terror front. This casting of the terror case dating to the last decade into the ash heap of history adds to the earlier letting off of Vanzara and Co. in the Gujarat encounter cases and of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur et al in the Malegaon case. The army man involved in the latter, Lt Col Purohit, has donned olive greens again. The current day juncture, to explicate, is that, like most of India now open defecation free, India is terrorism free.

The narrative has it that over the preceding decade some Indian Muslims precipitated a terror assault on India, supported by Pakistan’s notorious ISI expanding its footprint across India from a quiescent Kashmir. The ostensible trigger was in alienation resulting from the Gujarat pogrom. They also had jihadist connections, stemming from rise of Islamism in wake of 9/11. These links included the Taliban, the Al Qaeda and, over time, the Islamic State.

India’s redoubtable anti-terror agencies and mechanisms put together to cope with the threat have finally delivered. India, under Modi, has not witnessed terror attacks, with many aspirants for the IS being tackled through counseling and parental pressure. The narrative now is that under the able stewardship of intelligence honcho, Doval, as expected, our intelligence and policing organizations merit an appreciative mention at Republic Day.

There is of course a ‘dissident’ narrative, India being a land of vexatious argumentation. It is perhaps muted since saying it out loud in today’s day and age amounts to ‘sedition’. But it needs being aired.

The Narrative would likely figure as a box ticked in Modi’s last lap into elections, with the date either pulled into this year to avoid the incumbency backlash or next year on due course. It needs querying timely, if not busting outright so as to broaden the citizen’s political choice at election time. So, here’s the ‘dissident’ narrative.

The four judges puisne at the Supreme Court have done the nation a favour by putting the cat among the ruling party’s pigeons. Their going to the citizen’s court has forced a focus on the troubling case of the death of CBI judge, Loya. Justice Loya supposedly died of heart attack brought on by his overseeing a significant case involving the ruling party’s president, who allegedly was linked to the killing in an ‘encounter’ of Sohrabuddin and his wife, Kausarbi, and later, their accomplice, Prajapati, by the now scot-free top cop Vanzara and his crack anti-terrorist team. Sohrabuddin was reportedly enroute to take out Gujarat’s chief minister to avenge the Gujarat massacre.

The top judges apprehending a cover up and intervening dramatically to preserve the wheels of justice from political chicanery have put a spoke in the Narrative. Clearly, there is more to the terror India has witnessed.

Vanzara and Co. also figured in the fake encounter that felled teenage Ishrat Jahan and three others. They too were supposedly on the errand as Sohrabuddin. Alongside the targeting of the provincial supremo, Modi, Gujarat was also at the cross hairs of terror attacks such as at Akshardham and multiple terror bombings in Ahmedabad. Surat that was also targeted, but – conveniently - the bombs were discovered by sharp eyed right wing members and defused timely.

Much of the evidence pointing to Muslim provenance of the bombings was from the Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh police, both under control of right wing political masters. The evidence regards some bombings, such as in Varanasi, was from give-away emails, with Muslim fingerprints all over them such as from the Al Arabi group (mistakenly named after a Sufi saint – rather than a orthodox personage).

Implausibly, the targeting of Muslims and Muslim places of worship too has been laid at Muslims’ door, for instance, in Hyderabad and Malegaon. This over-enthusiastic implication of Muslims, combined with the whitewashing of ‘saffron terror’, gives rise to the suspicion that there were Muslim impersonators at work and whose footprints need now to be obscured. The pulling out of members of the Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sanstha from the list of suspects shows up that the cases of the mid and late 2000s are being put to rest.

The provenance of the terror then is in the veering of politics rightwards about then. Lal Krishna Advani, hoping to ride on the Shining India campaign into 7 Race Course Road, was tripped up by the over-zealous campaign itself. Hindutva needed a new champion. Mr. Modi’s aura had to be built up and the Hindu vote bank manufactured alongside with the Othering of Muslims.

Ostensibly minority perpetrated terror was instrumental in this, with 2008 being the high water mark, intended as setting the stage for the elections in 2009. In the event, the UPA went in for another term, even though their showing in the 26/11 crisis was pilloried.

The right wing discourse over the next five years was that India needed a ‘strongman’, with Mr. Modi’s name willy nilly emerging as the Iron Man II, displacing his mentor and original claimant to the title, Advani. Now that Mr. Modi has made it to Lutyens, there is a need to let off the right wing foot soldiers who paved the way and nab the Muslim terrorist hold outs, such as Qureshi, to pin the blame.

By all means Muslims participating in or inclined towards terror must have their just desserts served up. The nabbing of Abdul Subhan Qureshi is to be applauded. It is one stick less for beating the Muslim community with. But in keeping with the rule of law, terror suspects cannot be rounded up one-sidedly. Their Hindu counter-parts, with whom they kept up a terror jugalbandi of sorts through the 2000s (targeting of each other’s religious sites for instance), need to be arraigned.

In case this is not done, two possibilities arise. One is that the Hindu perpetrators of terror crimes had political provenance, and having proved useful to their political masters, need to be rewarded with freedom. Since Muslims accused in their place and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit are also being let off by the courts, there is an even handedness. The Muslims should not really complain, now that their sons are back in the mohallas.

The second is that there is no link between the two – the political masters and Hindu terror entrepreneurs – in which case, their nevertheless being left off is tacit acknowledgement that right wing forces gained politically in their electoral capture of parliament. This puts the democratic credentials of the electoral exercise in question, in that its marginalization of Muslims was brought about inter-alia by illegitimate means.

Finally, there is a foreign policy underside. The NIA appears to have gone the CBI way as a caged parrot. Rule of law is sine qua non of a robust democracy. Else, India would replicate Pakistan that uses tender gloves in handling Hafeez Saeed. If India is to credibly accused Pakistan as a fount of terror, it had better not live in a glass house of its own. It is no wonder India’s case for a comprehensive convention against international terrorism has not acquired traction yet.

There is an election coming up. In case the rule of law noose tightens round Amit Shah in the Loya case, reopening up the Sohrabuddin case – and other Gujarat cases under his watch and that of PM Modi – there would be a hark back to the tried and tested Terror Narrative. More is needed to be done to flesh out the – dissident - counter narrative, outlined here. All that is being asked is to take justice in terror cases to their logical end. Let the electorate decide. If law enforcement falls short, democracy will be the casualty.

Friday, 2 February 2018


Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy's Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to the US withdrawal

The title says it all. India’s approach to Afghanistan has little to do with Afghanistan. It has everything to do with Pakistan. This tells us something about India, about how we see ourselves, which is essentially in relation to our Siamese twin, Pakistan. This is not quite how we project ourselves—as a regional power and emerging great power, measuring up against China and a strategic partner of the US. India comes across as just another country attempting to set itself off against its neighbours. Since in our case—and in this case—it is Pakistan, a country perpetually on the brink of failed state status, this is evidence that we are not quite the power we make ourselves out to be. It is no wonder that our Afghan policy—essentially out to sabotage what Pakistan is up to in Afghanistan—is mostly a step behind. Avinash Paliwal’s book tells it like it is: the fragility of thinking in our national security policy making establishment and the dangers that can only accrue.
[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”reg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]
Paliwal describes the making of India’s Afghanistan policy as an offshoot of our Pakistan policy. This is of a piece with our Pakistan-centric Kashmir policy. It is also true of our wider defence policy, which while having China in the sights rhetorically, has Pakistan in its cross hairs. What is worse is that this policy does not emerge from—as imagined—from a cool-headed survey of the threats and opportunities in the strategic environment and the geopolitics of the region, but from a political battle between partisan lobbies within the national security establishment. In the case of Afghanistan, Paliwal has it that there are the ‘partisans’ and the ‘conciliators’ battling to control policy.
Partisans are out to wreck what Pakistan has set out to do in Afghanistan. Conciliators for their part are keen to ensure that India’s interests are protected, even if Pakistan gets an edge in the bargain. The partisans appear to derive their angst and passion from their Pakistan animus, while conciliators wish to use Afghanistan as a leverage in their soft-line version of India’s wider Pakistan policy. The outcome of the tussle in the corridors of South Block appears to be dependent on which of the two sides gains an edge in bureaucratic politics, assisted respectively by the internal political configurations.
Paliwal, of course, makes his more-nuanced case soberly and with due regard to theory, relying on the public policy processes’ theory: Advocacy Coalition Framework. The theory has it that core beliefs of participants in the policy making processes influence their policy beliefs. The core beliefs are formed at their formative stage, under the influence of social conditioning beginning from childhood. These in turn form policy core beliefs, which is the basis for their input to policy making. Advocacy coalitions are built up from likeminded policy stakeholders and participants. To Paliwal, ‘policy change occurs when advocacy coalitions (like the partisans and conciliators) with different belief systems and resources interact with each other’ (p. 18).
In order to trace India’s policy in Afghanistan since the end seventies that witnessed the Soviet invasion, he divides the period into several segments and discusses the role of the partisans and conciliators in each duration. The period of the Soviet intervention witnessed a tussle over how critical should India be. Then came the period of scramble for Kabul between the Mujahedeen and the holdover of the earlier regime under Najibullah. The inconclusive debate in India over the levels of support to give Najibullah led to his eventual incarceration in the UN compound after an aborted bid to flee Kabul bound for Delhi. The following period was on whether India should open up lines to the Taliban, the answer to which depended on the perceived (by the two schools) nature of the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan. Thereafter was the Karzai period with the ‘global’ (read the West’s) war on terror (GWOT) providing context. The period witnessed a return of the Taliban, emboldened by US President Obama’s intent to draw down and withdraw the United States’ (US) forces and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s mission from Afghanistan by 2014. In the event, the International Security Assistance Force continues in Afghanistan with US President Trump upping the ante with his Afghan policy speech of end August. In effect, the tug of war between the partisans and conciliators is set to continue.
This time round it is easy to surmise that the partisans would win. Their core beliefs appear to be shaped by a conservative upbringing that lends itself to nationalist (cultural and hyper) policy prescriptions. The continuing stand-off at a heightened level over the past three years implies a vigorous proxy war, not only in Afghanistan, but—if Pakistan is to be believed—in Pakistan too, with a tit-for-tat rationale from Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. The dangers are obvious. Paliwal needs being read to reappraise the manner is which policy formulation takes place in New Delhi.
He discerns India’s Afghanistan policy as stemming from the tug of war between the partisans and conciliators over three divergences: striking a balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, meaning balancing Pakistan’s sway in Afghan affairs; international political environment, such as, at varying times, the GWOT or the Obama exit strategy and determining India’s place in it; and finally, domestic Afghan politics, to include the balance between the Pushtun and non-Pushtun ethnic groups. He explains India’s meander between these shoals along these lines, making for a fascinating reading.
One troubling aspect that nags as one reads along is the lengths to which the side that loses out on policy making subverts the policy in the implementation phase. While the Afghan policy was largely worked by diplomats and intelligence practitioners, and to a lesser but consequential extent Indian military intelligence staffers, there appears to have been a vertical divide between the hardliners and softliners. How much did this influence the implementation phase of strategy is interesting to speculate on. For instance, if MK Narayanan was a hardliner and was at odds with Manmohan Singh’s softline policy, how much does this account for dissonance in India’s Afghan (and at one remove, Pakistan) strategy? Can it explain how the Pakistan policy fell through in the Manmohan years? There was little efficacy in the Afghanistan policy either in the period, since the Taliban resurfaced and has since gained control over some 40 per cent of the territory.
Paliwal’s book justifies the praise on its cover by notable South Asianists. He has brought his earlier experience in journalism to bear recounting India’s participation in the recent moves of the Great Game. His interviews with 65 key players make the book come alive with detail and nuance. Besides there is ample evidence of a sound thesis on which the book is based, including 85 pages of notes and select bibliography. The book is a must-read for the attentive public in South Asia and students of international politics, security and peace studies.