An unpublished article - April 2020
India-Pakistan: The price of information warfare
The death of a commanding officer of a Rashtriya Rifles battalion, followed by the killing of the Hizb ul Mujahedeen (HM) chief, indicates that the usual summer insurgency and counter insurgency is well into its thirtieth year. On the Line of Control (LC), in a fierce hand to hand fight, ten perished, five of whom were India’s Special Forces’ troops. The war of words continues with Pakistan’s prime minister tweeting out his concern over escalation resulting from, in his words, a possible Indian ‘false flag’ operation. For its part, India protested Pakistan’s closer embrace of Gilgit-Baltistan when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled on elections there and has since begun coverage of the Pakistan occupied areas in its weather bulletins.
All this was altogether predictable with the change in status of Jammu and Kashmir mid last year into a union territory and persistent lock down conditions since. It can reasonably be said that had the corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic not occurred, the situation could well have bordered on war. A provocation-surgical strike crisis could have escalated in the circumstance of an increasingly isolationist United States - the usual crisis-manager in South Asia - distracted by the challenge posed by China, and busy with creating the conditions for exiting its longest war, in Afghanistan. COVID-19 has aborted a plausible scenario this summer in Kashmir.
Even so, the situation is serious enough to prompt an establishment leading light, Ram Madhav, to warn. “It will be in Pakistan's own interest to change its actions in (the) emerging new world order and India knows how to handle such nations (Madhav 2020a).” Since the strategy currently unfolding appears to be one of coercion, how that helps ‘handle’ Pakistan remains to be seen. This article deals with what could be the outcome for India.
Within Kashmir, suppression of dissent is in evidence. The COVID-19 pandemic led to easing of detentions of politicians and political workers, held since August last year. The security forces are busy with neutralizing the militancy. India pushed in the paramilitary in significant numbers last year in anticipation of the outbreak of a rebellion. The paramilitary troops have been used in strengthening the counter insurgency grid. It has empowered the central armed police forces to the extent of impunity for routine transgressions on human dignity, such as by not affording a decent burial by families not only of militants, but also victims of security forces’ retribution. Highhandedness in operations is much in evidence (The Citizen 2020). With the courts looking on, India, using the security card liberally, has restricted freedoms such as of speech and expression in its control of internet and by pursuing cases under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act such as against photojournalist Masrat Zahra.
Against Pakistan, the strategy of deterrence remains in place. The strategy calls for surgical strikes of differing magnitude against provocations, supplemented with the promise of retribution by conventional military means to deter escalation by Pakistan. However, in the post COVID-19 situation, a consensus is building up that deterrence is liable to dissipate (Menon 2020). The past few years have seen a decline in defence budgets relative to the proportion of the gross domestic product. The economic consequences of COVID-19 have put paid to any thought of diversion towards higher defence spending. The operationalization of the integrated battle groups has been setback (Hindu 2020). This implies that India stands to lose its swagger over dampening the Pakistani threat of escalation in case of India’s surgical strikes.
The corollary is that Pakistan can be more venturesome in fueling the Kashmiri insurgency. The recent spike in violence in Kashmir suggests that it has taken cue. Adequate tinder exists to keep the insurgency going for another generation, with new, seemingly indigenous, outfits such as ‘The Resistance Front’, at the vanguard. In short, the option that India appears to be exercising sustains the suppression-alienation cycle, but under conditions of decline in efficacy of deterrence.
The status quo is sustainable for India. It has the security forces for suppression in Kashmir and to keep deployment along the LC indefinitely. Forced by an adverse economic circumstance even prior to COVID-19 advent, it abandoned the intent to stare down China by doing away with the intended Mountain Strike Corps and instead invoking the ‘‘Wuhan spirit’’ (Print 2018). Downplaying the two-front threat, it can afford to focus on one front, further attenuated to only the Kashmir theatre. It would mean a reversion to the nineties when internal security operations continued in Kashmir, with conventional deterrence then at low ebb.
Such a strategy is not an implausible from the lights of Ram Madhav, a leading right-wing intellectual. Kashmir fits in well with the decades-long narrative of the Indian Muslim minority as an internal security threat. This narrative acquired further impetus under conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown, with the Tablighi Jamaat episode as evidence. It serves to keep up the diversionary drumbeat away from significant national priorities as the lockdown brought on migrant crisis in the near term and that of revival of the economy over the long term. The diversionary strategy succeeded handsomely once before when the economic downturn that foreshadowed elections was papered over by recourse to the Pakistani bogey in the Pulwama-Balakot-Naushera episode, allowing Modi to sweep back into power.
The diversionary strategy is now a default one in the repertoire of the regime. Tactics used in diverting the attention of the middle classes during the COVID-19 crisis included beating utensils, lighting lamps, showering petals on hospitals from helicopters, aerobatic displays with no spectators under lockdown conditions and band concerts in hospital silent zones. Another illustration is the regime’s resort to anodyne protestations of good faith in relation to minorities when confronted with ire in West Asia at the Islamophobic epidemic in India. The prime minister led India’s diplomatic damage limiting exercise with a tweet, joined by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader, Mohan Bhagwat, belatedly intoning similar sentiment.
In relation to Kashmir, Ram Madhav, has it that, “the people of J&K decided to give the new status a chance. That is the reason why the region has been largely quiet in the last nine months. The detractors would attribute this calm to the excessive presence of security forces and arrests of leaders (Madhav 2020b).” There being no mention of COVID-19 in explaining why, “people are not on the streets pelting stones and shouting azadi,” is dead give-away of the information war underpinnings of his article.
India’s strategy can thus be taken as being information warfare led, which in India’s favoured Kautilyan framework has Pakistan as the external abettor of an internal threat, considered in the framework as most dangerous. The point is that what is good for the right wing is not necessarily good for the country. Even though in the constitutional scheme a democratically elected government can exercise its mandate of setting the national agenda, it cannot be taken as self-evident that it would do so in the national interest. Instead, political interests prevail in national policy and decision-making, in this case, the need for a majoritarian hold on polity and governance in perpetuity.
India’s Pakistan strategy therefore has little to do with the arguments of Realists, that balances of power and the constellation of forces and threats in the external environment are strategy determinants. Instead, national security strategy in the India-Pakistan case emerges from internal wellsprings in domestic politics. Factors in the external environment, such as an inimical neighour, Pakistan, at best provide a rationale for strategies that are instead predominantly internally motivated and directed, with the dividend also being sought in the internal political domain.
This is truer for India’s Kashmir strategy, that is doubly damned, linked as it is with Pakistan and, lately, with the downward trajectory of India’s Muslims. That Ram Madhav attempts to delink Pakistan and Kashmir, writing, “The most significant change that has been brought about by the Narendra Modi government was to stop looking at Kashmir from a Pakistani or a terrorist prism (Madhav 2020b),” is evidence of information war obfuscating the linkage. Else why would he project next steps as being to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for fulfilling the Akhand Bharat concept (PTI 2020).
In effect, India is increasingly aping its neighbour, Pakistan. Just as the Pakistan army has appropriated the national agenda to serve its interests, the Indian state has been captured by the right wing for its own purposes. Since both profit from the status quo, it is set to continue. In both cases, information warfare directed internally shall be the main line of operations of this strategy, besides a relatively low-cost proxy war and its counter.
In case of Pakistan, the hit Pakistani tele-serial, Ehd e Wafa (You Tube), produced by its propaganda arm, the Inter Services Public Relations, provides a clue. The climax is picturised on the LC with the uniformed hero depicted as getting the better of his Indian opponents in a tactical level engagement. Healing from his wounds, he gets a hero’s welcome at his alma mater. In his speech to wide eyed school boys, he says, “I believe I cannot perform my job until the entire country’s prayers and backing are not with me…When all of us come together, only then the nation will progress.” The Urdu serial has an actor comically depicting Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian fighter pilot, who was shot down in the skirmish over Rajauri-Naushera post Balakot. India serves the Pakistan army well as an increasingly credible bogeyman, enabling that army’s ostensible aim of furthering national cohesion, as also its covert purpose of perpetuation of its institutional interest.
In India, information operations must be called out for what they are. The famed troll army of the ruling party is well known. Information warfare targeting citizen-voters will likely continue to divert attention from the uphill economic battle ahead. Policy missteps, such as the return of migrant labour to home states, will need obscuring, as will the differentiation in the shouldering of the pain of recovery in favour of the corporates as against the masses. The ongoing scapegoating of Muslims, including calls for an economic boycott, can be expected to worsen. Marginalising the minority, a prerequisite for normalising a non-secular, Hindu, India, requires intensification of information war.
Information war is also a facet of India’s transforming into a national security state. The glorification of martyrs, as battle casualties are unreflectively referred to in the media; the militarisation of the police; and ubiquity of police brutality, best displayed on the library precincts of a central university in the national capital, Jamia Millia Islamia, are illustrations. Rather than politically ministering problems under the cabinet system, the national security adviser, operating out of the prime minister’s office, eclipses relevant ministers. The intelligence background of the national security adviser foregrounds perception management, making information war a favoured instrument.
Examples abound of instruments of state being appropriated as information war conduits. Take for instance, an example is of an article on bio-warfare on the website of a military think tank under the headquarters reporting to the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, the Center for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS). Innocuously timed with the Tablighi Jamaat episode, the article egregiously notes, “the terrorist with fidyan (sic) mind set on getting infected will try spreading it to the target groups by intermingling with them….He however, may take care not to infect the group / community whose support or sympathy he continues to seek in achieving his larger aim (Sharma 2020).”
In another instance, the Kashmir police’s director general implausibly averred that Pakistan was sending in COVID-19 inflicted to spread the disease in Kashmir. Though not as explicitly, the corps commander in Srinagar also made a similar allegation (Scroll 2020). A third illustration is the arrests of left wing and anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act activists on trumped up charges of sedition, unlawful activity and, in case of the former, improbably conspiring to assassinate the prime minister.
In strategic circles, there is a marked absence of sensitivity to the primary internal security threat faced by India - Hindutva extremism - that has hollowed out national institutions. For instance, in a security overview, CENJOWS, lists only Jammu and Kashmir, North East and Left Wing Extremism, as internal security challenges (CENJOWS 2020). Since Hindutva extremists are not listed as a threat, and instead, what Hindutva extremism takes as threats constitute the threat perception, information war sets the agenda in the security discourse.
Whereas for Pakistan, information war is largely external-foe centric, in the Indian security discourse, purveyed by a subverted media suitably embellished, the external and internal foes are increasingly being collapsed into one: Pakistan and India’s Muslims, including Kashmiris. This makes the Indian information war worse than the one conducted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The targeting of Indian citizens, through a pliant media, with information war is not in the national interest but is in the interest of the right wing political formations. Therefore, information war that makes this possible and the extent of security institutions’ participation in such information operations is ‘anti-national’, rightly defined.
The stakes of falling to information operations of the state’s instruments are high for India. It can imperil liberal democracy, constitutionalism, secularism, federalism, unity in diversity and its freedom and equality. A check on the ruling formation’s agenda from within the government is unlikely. There is little incentive for the government with a parliamentary majority and an agenda for national transformation into a majoritarian state, to change course on ways and means that have yielded political dividend so far. Citizens as enlightened voters must reckon for themselves whether they consent to continue as targets of information war. If not, then they need to use their vote appropriately to push back.
Madhav, Ram (2020a): “India knows how to handle countries like Pakistan: Ram Madhav,” 3 May, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/75519345.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
Menon, Prakash (2020): “Dealing with adverse impact of COVID 19 on India’s military planning,” United Services Institution of India, 9 April, https://usiofindia.org/publication/cs3-strategic-perspectives/dealing-with-adverse-impact-of-covid-19-on-indias-military-planning/
Hindu (2020): “Roll out of Integrated Battle Groups delayed due coronavirus pandemic: Army chief,” 10 May, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/roll-out-of-integrated-battle-groups-delayed-due-coronavirus-pandemic-army-chief/article31550377.ece
Print (2020): “Indian Army puts Mountain Strike Corps aimed at China in cold storage,” 12 July, https://theprint.in/defence/indian-army-puts-mountain-strike-corps-aimed-at-china-in-cold-storage/82319/
Madhav, Ram (2020b): “It is time to allow J&K full-fledged political activity,” 21 May, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/jammu-kashmir-article-370-abrogation-kashmir-4g-services-internet-restoration-domicile-certificate-ram-madhav-6419914/
Hum TV: “Ehd e Wafa (Last episode),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGGN_HLJ2g0
PTI (2020): “Taking back PoK is next step towards achieving Akhand Bharat,” Times of India, 22 February,https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/taking-back-pok-is-next-step-towards-achieving-akhand-bharat-objective-ram-madhav/articleshow/74258970.cms
Sharma, GD (2020): “Bio terrorism: A non-traditional threat,” 6 April, https://cenjows.gov.in/article-detail?id=257
Scroll (2020): “Covid-19: Pakistan ‘trying to push’ infected persons into Kashmir, says J&K police chief,” 23 April, https://scroll.in/latest/960017/covid-19-pakistan-trying-to-push-infected-persons-into-kashmir-says-j-k-police-chief
CENJOWS (2020): “Future ready India: Structures to meet non traditional security challenges/ threats,” 23 April, https://cenjows.gov.in/article-detail?id=268
The Citizen (2020): “Havoc in Kashmir,” 21 May, https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/4/18769/Havoc-in-Kashmir