Thursday, 7 January 2021


In Kashmir, the GD Bakshi way

Maj Gen GD Bakshi has been a very visible face on the idiot box over the past decade. While in military service he was perhaps one of the most prolific of writers of his generation. Though his writings dot the gamut of military publications over the years, one piece that did not see light of day back then has recently surfaced.

In a close look at the defence staff college in Wellington, an American author, David O. Smith, made a reference to this unpublished article by GD Bakshi. Interestingly, Smith first came across the article, ‘Low Intensity Conflict Operations: The Indian Doctrinal Approach’, while undertaking his earlier study of the Pakistani joint command and staff college at Quetta.

Apparently, there it was among the readings for students, quite like in India. It is likely that American attendees at Wellington receiving the article in their pre-course material package, shared it with fellow American military officers attending the staff course at Quetta, which is how it trickled into the recommended reading there.

I came across the article in the readings package while attending the staff course some twenty years back. Efforts since to trace the article in service journals did not bear fruit, indicating that editors possibly balked at publishing it for some reason. That it found its way into the staff course reading material perhaps owes to GD Bakshi, who taught at the college as a colonel causing its insertion into the bumpf.

That it was not carried in service journals (to my knowledge after years of trying to track it down) tells a story. The article then amounted to a counter narrative. While the narrative up-front had it that counter insurgency operations centered on ‘winning hearts and minds’ (WHAM), the counter narrative was that these were part of low intensity conflict (LIC), as GD Bakshi puts in it in the title.

While LIC draws on a kinetic approach associated with Americans, counter insurgency tilts towards the British way of countering insurgency, encapsulated by the Templar-Kitson model, the former, Gerald Templar who as governor in Malaya applied its tenets while Frank Kitson subsequently articulated these in his writings. In the late nineties, there was considerable doctrinal ferment in the Indian military over the two terms – LIC operations and counter insurgency - beset as it had for over a decade in subconventional operations in Punjab, Sri Lanka, Assam and, significantly by then, in Kashmir.

The official narrative was in favour of WHAM, but the ground reality was split between the kinetic approach and a nuanced one. It is best reflected in GD Bakshi’s paper. To him, his articulation of the hardline constituted India’s LIC doctrine. An easy to spot difference between the official narrative on counter insurgency and the GD Bakshi version is on the place of the tactics, cordon and search operations. For Bakshi these were to exhaust the populace in its support for the insurgents. Repeated, extensive and continuing sweeps were to serve as a punitive measure against people, the proverbial ‘sea’, for their support to militant ‘fish’. The Bakshi paper goes on to talk of employment of proxy groups, such as the Ikhwan, the Salwa Judum and the surrendered Assamese fighters. Tellingly in the course material at the defence staff college this page is blanked out, presumably for being rather radical even by the standards of Bakshi’s own paper.

For adjudication, there was a older edition of the counter insurgency pamphlet that relied heavily on the British model and informed by the army’s conduct in the north east. It was only sometime in the nineties, a fresh edition of the counter insurgency pamphlet was put out bearing the imprint of the army’s subsequent experience, particularly in Sri Lanka of the simultaneously hapless and innovative Indian Peace Keeping Force. The pamphlet was less elegant since it was more fleshed out and with tactical operations in greater detail. The newer version too was fairly WHAM friendly. 

It was only in the mid 2000s, that the army came up with a self-regarding doctrinal product on counter insurgency, ‘The Doctrine for Subconventional Operations (DSCO)’. The early 2000s saw the army writing up its doctrines at long last, with the doctrine on conventional operations of 2004 superseding its first edition of 1998 without so much genuflecting to the predecessor doctrine product.

The new subconventional doctrine was also in favour of a people friendly approach, perhaps under influence of the then army chief, JJ Singh, who had once famously teared up on national television. It was also released in a race with the Americans, then writing up their doctrine under tutelage of David Patraeus, and therefore presumably needed to emphasise its distinction from the American approach, then sliding into discredit in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even so, the dissonance on ground was reflected in doctrine. The DSCO ruled in favour of kinetic operations initially to gain ascendancy over militants and, with stability restored, shifting to population sensitive intelligence-led operations. While it echoed the Supreme Court on ‘minimal’ use of force, the joint doctrine – hierarchically a higher one – called for ‘optimal’ use of force, seemingly a larger latitude to use of force.

Whereas earlier there was dissonance within the service between the official narrative and the counter narrative, today the very name ‘Operation All Out’ and the manner of its conduct over the past five years suggests that what was once the counter narrative is now the officially sanctioned one. National Security Adviser Doval’s protégé, General Bipin Rawat, early in his tenure signified the shift unapologetically in his wanton defence of Major Leetul Gogoi’s infamous use of a human shield.

Today the trend is starkly manifest. The police figures for militants killed in Kashmir last year is 225. Only late in the year at long last, they let on surrenders were being accepted, with some nine militants surrendering. This level of kinetic operations must be seen in light of a mere 200 militants operating across Kashmir and reportedly under considerable material shortfalls.

Clearly, the earlier self-effacing counter narrative that was in any case alive and kicking even when people were reputedly at the heart of India’s counter insurgency effort, has been ascendant in the Modi era. That it is blatantly so is evident from the Shupian encounter late last year in which three innocents were killed and guns planted on them. Since the crime was called out then, resulting in military justice consequence for the perpetrators, there is yet another in-your-face crime, this time the killing of three at Lawaypora is sought to be justified by the police alluding to the victims being ‘associates’ of militants.

Whereas the official doctrine called for neutralization of over-ground workers (OGW), it appears that now such action includes elimination of OGW. The timing of the latest crime, coinciding as it does with the legal developments in the Shupian case, specifically filing of a charge sheet filed in the court of chief judicial magistrate Shopian, indicate brazenness, reminding the target population, long beset Kashmiris, that they continue in the corner, lest emboldened by small victories as in exposing the uniformed killers of Shupian, they attempt a break out.

The dissonance within the military as to how to view counter insurgency persists. The counter narrative on taking over the intellectual high ground characterizes insurgency as hybrid war. Hybrid war is now the catch-all, a proxy war waged in the ‘gray zone’ with information war as its motif for relatively stable times. Information war includes propaganda by deed, to borrow a phrase from the terror lexicon, which in this case includes deliberate human rights infringements, with impunity broadcast, to show a populace its place as subjects.  

Observers such as David Davidas in his book, Rage, have showed up the strategic price the country has paid. The case he makes is that the violence the departure from official doctrine wrought in Kashmir in the nineties has given rise to the generation of rage today. Under a right wing government’s will to power under what Yashwant Sinha called the ‘doctrine of state’, the counter narrative has won out. The price shall be into this decade, when GD Bakshi is well into his dotage.