Monday, 24 September 2018
India on the brink

One explanation for the enduring India-Pakistan rivalry has been that it is an identity conflict: India as a multitudinous democracy and Pakistan as a military-run state. A cynical view of Pakistan has it that its envy of India results in its constant provocations, including terror attacks and periodic dusting of the threadbare territorial issue, Kashmir. 

It has deployed its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to this end. From the headlines these days it can be inferred that the ISI has succeeded beyond its wildest imagination. 

The more significant affect has been at the political level. Using the terrorism the ISI indulged in as leverage, black operations by India's majoritarian extremists have in some measure led up to the capture of power in India by cultural nationalists. 

One prop that enabled Hindutva champion, Narendra Modi, gaining a national profile was that ISI instigated home-grown terrorists were out to get him when he was at his provincial perch. Four years into the Modi era, the Indian Muslim - having been driven into a corner - would makes for an implausible foe. Thus, the ploy is reportedly yet again in play but with a new bogeyman, the urban naxal. 

The Othering of the India Muslim and electoral dividend of polarization originated partially in the ISI scare of the eighties and nineties. While this is the ISI's handywork at the political level, collateral damage from terrorism has had an operational level impact too. 

Out in Kashmir, brutalization is underway with potential to impact the professionalism of the army. The army - as its veterans constantly remind - is India's last defence line. If the army loses its sheen, India loses. That ISI appears to be scrubbing off the army's sheen is reason enough for the army to step back from the brink.

The defence minister - perhaps suffering from an appreciation deficit - let on at a TV talk show that Indian army has been head-hunting on the Line of Control. Thus far, it has been a rather well-kept secret. 

This could well be the usual braggadocio on part of the defence minister. Or else it could have been equally brought on by a - unnecessarily - perceived need to compensate for being a woman in what is - again unnecessarily - perceived to be a man's domain. 

Be that as it may, it is clear the Indian army has been giving as good as it gets, even in emulating terrorists. Unlike with the 'surgical strikes', the defence minister admits we have not been owning up to these. 

Evidence in the open domain suggests that this conduct predates the current government with documents relating to a certain Operation Ginger, dating to 2011, accessed by the media. Reportedly three Pakistani heads were carted to India as booty in that operation. Perhaps, the momentum of tit-for-tat actions on the LC over the past three decades has been such as to by now make the 'chicken and egg' question - as to who cast the first stone - moot.

It is understandable for terrorists to undertake such inhuman action. Terrorism, by definition, requires an audience. The more flagrant the violation and criminality, the more the fear induced and its reach widest. Mumbai 26/11 is example. Mutilation of victims fits well with the definition. Its what terrorists do. 

The ISI's backing however suggests there is more. There is a strategy to it. The resulting brutalization is to reduce the India army to their level. The hope is that an angered army will lash out, within: in Kashmir. 

On the LC, the Pakistan army has also likely acquired a few comforting trophies - that cannot be exhibited in an officer's mess - by having its members mentor and participate in border action team activity. No doubt it has paid in lost heads for this. 

As an army it has read its Clausewitz. It is aware of the nature of war and that it cannot go against the grammar of war. This perhaps explains its hiding behind the 'ceasefire' on the LC when the going gets tough, even as it outsources violence to terrorists. 

It is the Indian army that has given currency to the term 'moral ascendancy'. This implies that the army thinks it needs to land the last blow and the heavier blow to get the better of the other side. This has the interconnected psychological connotations of putting down the other side, while boosting oneself up. 

While calling what's on at the LC as war may be overblown, but a low intensity conflict has been underway for three decades. Exchanging blows on the LC is what makes it so, even if - for the squeamish - some blows appear to be below the belt.

However, there is a strategic underside and it is this that attracts Pakistan's ISI. The dividend Pakistan seeks is not on the LC. 

The disaffection in Kashmir offers a setting for over-the-top response by the counter insurgent, such as the human shield episode and the rewarding of its perpetrator by no less the army chief, albeit for a different set of actions. 

An officer whose name found its way into a first information report for killing of stone-pelters was soon thereafter awarded a gallantry medal, with perks such as a lifelong railway travel permit thrown in, albeit - yet again - for an action that preceded the stone-pelter killing incident by his patrol. 

The latest twitter-storm has a terrorist's body being dragged in full media view after an encounter in which he was killed. Perhaps the army was wanting to send the message across that such a fate awaits terrorists. The terrorists involved in the latest encounter were from Pakistan, attempting to get into Kashmir no doubt to bolster the local militants who have comparatively shorter lifespans. It is moot whether such a message serves to deter or energise them. 

This time round, the army has initiated inquiry, even though its apologists have gone to town explaining the action as a prudent one intended to set off booby traps. The inquiry indicates that it is live to the prospect of brutalization that stares it in the face. 

That brutalization has raised its ugly head is unmistakable. The retaliatory killings between the local militants and the Kashmiri police are indicative. Police, paramilitary and army men on leave have been abducted and killed. Likewise, there was a case of an alleged over ground worker being found by the wayside with his throat cut. In the event, he survived to tell a tale of torture. 

Notable is that the threat of brutalization is in a period when counter insurgency experts remind us that there is no existential threat in Kashmir. Operation All Out has put paid to indigenous terrorists at the pace of some 15 a month in its run over the past two years. It is a period tailor made for employing the doctrine of 'iron fist in a velvet glove'. 

Take, for instance, reports in the aftermath of searches, of houses left upturned and possessions damaged. The longstanding aping of Israel in taking down houses where terrorists are apprehended or killed - supposedly as collateral damage in the firefight - continues. The report of the global human rights watch dog on Kashmir, even if trashed by the government, has drawn blood. 

The lesson is that brutalization of the counter insurgent leads to loss of moral ascendancy and drives insurgency.

At the political level, the ISI has already won. It has had a hand in India losing its democratic sheen. But at the operational level, it can yet be bested, and the army's sheen can yet be preserved. 

The army needs to view its Kashmir predicament afresh in this light. That its operations will not be called off by this government is a given. The madam defence minister appears set even to declare the JNU campus as a disturbed area as precursor to AFSPA over it! 

However, how the army conducts operations are within its own remit. It should not be that the army dances to an ideological and opportunistic hardline tune of its political masters. A strategic view would suggest revising the laxman rekhas and renewing respect for these.