Wednesday, 16 May 2018
The army chief as regime spokeman?
By Ali Ahmed
The regime deployed two information war heavyweights over the past week to counter stone throwing Kashmiri youth. The first was the chief regime apologist, Chetan Bhagat, who writing in the Sunday Times, sought to deter stone throwers by advocating they be locked away for indulging in criminal activity. The second was the army chief, no spring chicken himself in info war having done his doctoral work on media and conflict. He advised Kashmiri youth that both stones and guns are futile since they cannot fight the army. He warned, Azadi is ‘never’ going to happen.
Two salvoes together might suggest to the stone throwing youth they are getting it right. It would be too much to expect the regime to be embarrassed - even on behalf of India - at the sorry spectacle of the army having to fire on unarmed stone pelters. Since Israel is at it too at the Gaza border, resulting at last count some 52 dead Palestinians (at the time of writing even as the figure rises with Nakba Day nearing), India is in the same boat as its role model, even if India’s figures are somewhat (thankfully) less. Nevertheless, stone throwers might read in the two info war stalwarts going at them that they have managed to somewhat disconcert the regime.
Of course, they would know that it is not a case of ‘ek dhakka aur do’ (‘give it one more push’). They don’t need the army chief to remind them that the army ‘will fight you (them) with all our (the army’s) force’. They don’t need reminding by the Underage Optimist (a sobriquet bestselling Bhagat has coined for himself) of the opportunity costs such as exacted of tourism, economy etc.
Hurriyet patriarch Geelani put it rightly that the army chief (true for Mr. Bhagat too) does not understand what’s going on. Attributing the ‘Intifada’ look-alike (the IIM-IIT graduate Bhagat helpfully informs that the word means ‘to shake off’) in Kashmir to Pakistani incitement by the Chief is a dead give way. But, to his credit, the army chief admits that he is still wracking his mind as to what motivates the youth (‘I am still trying to understand where did all that anger come from.’)
He has been at it for a year now. The last time he admitted mystification is when he hoped that the youth would take to arms, enabling the army to shoot them down without a qualm. While some youth have obliged, such as the doctoral student from Aligarh Muslim University and recently the assistant professor from the Kashmir University, most have stuck to stones. This has prevented the army chief from using tactics from Syria and Pakistan where, according to the chief, ‘they use tanks and air power in similar situations.’
Yet again a betrayal of ignorance, or, more likely, a willful distortion of reality – an info war tactic. There is little comparison between the Kashmiri insurgency and the terrorism in those countries. There the terrorists are rather well armed (as their Western backers (once) would know) and in instances hold, or have held, territory. This has required the application of additional firepower to dislodge them, necessitating the tactics involving tanks and air power. This is not the case in Kashmir. Where it was so in one instance, in Hil Kaka in Surankot, helicopters were deployed in an offensive role during Operation Sarp Vinash that had the terrorists vacate the area. India has not fought shy of using airpower in Aizwal. Given this, the army chief appears to be practicing intimidation, hoping the scenarios might scare where employment of pellet guns, snipers and bullets have not.
Info war usually has multiple targets in the cross hairs. The army chief’s interview also had his own military constituency to influence. In his explanatory interview last year in the aftermath of awarding Leetul Gogoi – of the human shield infamy - with his commendation card, he admitted that one of his key focus areas was to keep up the morale of his force. This time too he had this to say, ‘My officer felt that he is being abandoned. I can’t let my officer feel that.’ Another officer had figured in an first information report, this time for his patrol shooting dead two stone pelters.
An institutional head having his internal constituency to fore amidst addressing a long standing national security challenge should give pause. Sympathetic commentary may have it that this is explicable given that a military chief is expected to give out the military’s position. To them, the political class has to temper the military position by taking a political – higher – line.
That said, strategic myopia that prevents looking beyond one’s nose, cannot be excused of those operating at the strategic level. The problem – admitted to sotto voce usually – is that the mentality of those climbing the military’s greasy pole seldom matures beyond their first appointment as corporal at the National Defence Academy. The mindset gets reinforced with successive appointments beginning with sergeant and cadet adjutant, and by the time they get flag rank, it is rather frozen. Bluntly put, the army chief has kept his strategic acumen rather well hidden so far.
As if on cue, he stepped in to spike yet another peace possibility. His last hatchet job was in puncturing Dnyaneshwar Sharma’s car, even as Mr. Sharma got into it last October, saying military operations will not be affected by appointment of an interlocutor. This time round it was to put the state’s political parties in their place. The 9 May all party meeting in Srinagar had promise. Their idea of a ceasefire had potential, so much so that even the otherwise comatose special representative of the union government, Mr. Missing-in-Action Sharma, admitted to a spying a ‘positive’ turn.
The army chief – true to form - quickly reminded the nation that the ceasefire idea was unmindful of the military’s concerns. He asked helplessly, “But who will guarantee that there won’t be fire at our men, at our vehicles? Who will guarantee that policemen, political workers, our men returning home on leave aren’t attacked, aren’t killed?’’ Using his shoulders to fire, his political master – who according to the sympathetic theory should have moderated the military’s position – instead jumped to clobber the budding peace initiative, virtually repeating the chief’s lines: ‘“Indian army has to firmly handle any terrorism which threatens the peace and harmony of Jammu and Kashmir as a state and of the rest of country. The army’s position is that it has to be firm on terrorism.” The lady minister can be excused for informing of the army’s position (‘The army’s position is that…’). She is learning on the job. Rather costly for national security, but it’s the price of democracy, foregrounding the flotsam and jetsam deposited in power by the Modi wave. It begs the question why did the government need the army chief as mouth piece, and, worse, why does the army chief need to fit the bill as spokesman?
The long and shot of all this is that as with its other policies – China, Pakistan, internal security, employment, Make-in-India etc – the government is also floundering on Kashmir. It is unable to finesse the exercise of force over the past three years with dividend on the table in relation to either Pakistani good behavior or Kashmiri quiescence. Force is meant to have purpose. If it is not yielding result on the lines expected, then it is being misapplied. Continuing with it is therefore insane, as a famous definition of stupidity has it. India could well claim victory and count its eggs. The Pakistani army chief has been helpfully providing the necessary peace verbiage for some six months now. The Pakistani bail out enables India to claim victory and call a truce.
However, choosing to instead continue with it – as is the case announced by the defence minister – implies that its purpose is to bludgeon a population, an Indian community and its constituents, Indian citizens. The cover of terrorism – so usefully passed on by our strategic partners, the United States and Israel – is to only figleaf. It is no wonder that chief trumpeter Chetan Bhagat warns, ‘While efforts must never stop to listen to the other side, the moment the youth chooses violence all bets are off.’ The youth have been left with little choice. The government is in an unnecessary ‘pehle aap’ (after you) situation with youth. Perhaps it is the one believing in ‘Ek dhakka aur do’ (one more nudge). If their provincial government has no voice, the youth cannot expect to be allowed any. To deny them their choice of voice – stones – is to be complicit. The army chief needs introspect whether his spokesman role interferes with him bringing strategic sense to his ethnic cousin Doval’s table.