Friday, 18 June 2021

Counter insurgency is not a policeman’s job

One of India’s leading civilian experts on counter insurgency, Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan,[2] has recently articulated a cogent case on handing over of the Indian army’s counter insurgency commitment to the central armed police forces (CAPF). He argues that the two-front threat having materialized over the last couple of years in Chinese belligerence on the Line of Actual Control, the army, that is primarily meant for tackling external threats, cannot continue to be tied down by counter insurgency commitments. It must focus on the conventional threat to redress the power asymmetry with China. Consequently, it needs to disengage from its internal security commitments and concentrate on its primary task of deterring and when necessary militarily tackling the nation’s external foes.

This is not a new idea, dating as it does to the NN Vohra task force report to the Group of Ministers’ (GoM) that was formed after the Kargil Review Committee suggested a review in its eponymous report after the Kargil War. The task force, stated: “The ultimate objective should be to entrust Internal Security (IS)/Counter Insurgency (CI) duties entirely to CPMFs and the Rashtriya Rifles, thus de-inducting the Army from these duties, wherever possible.”[3] Over the years, this has been largely operationalised, with the army-led paramilitary forces, the RR and Assam Rifles (AR) deployed in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and North East (NE) respectively and the CAPF operating in Central India. Some army formations also operate in both theaters and the paramilitary – the RR and AR - is under the operational control of the army at both locations.

CAPF are central armed police forces that are officered by their respective cadre officers and have representation of the Indian Police Service in their higher echelons. Central Para Military Forces, a term used by the Group of Ministers, include the CAPF and the RR and the Assam Rifles. Whereas army officers tenant all appointments in the RR and the force answers to the army chain of command, the AR has its own cadre of officers, with army officers also in the echelons of command, company upwards. It is operationally under the army, but administratively under the Ministry of Home through the Director General AR located at Shillong.  The army prefers to use the term CAPF, that includes border guarding forces, but does not include the AR and RR, preserving the term ‘paramilitary’ for the latter two in light of the army officer representation in their hierarchy.

Whereas Prof. Rajagopalan plugs for the RR to take on a conventional role in light of the increased threat, the GoM had only envisaged the CAPF – specifically the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – taking on counter insurgency, being trained and upgraded accordingly. Pulling out of the army implies the RR and AR would come under the police framework, reporting to state authorities and the home ministry. Army formations in a counter insurgency role would be substituted by the CRPF, for which the force has been under training for the last two decades.

The RR was raised in order to tackle Pakistan’s proxy war and rear area security. The intensity of the situation having considerably subsided, attributable in part to the RR, it is possible to hand over the situation to the police and reassign the RR for conventional tasks, for instance in the communication zone or relieving regular troops deployed in less threatened sectors and in depth. This is practicable and is being done to the extent possible with reports having it that some formations, equivalent to a RR Force, have already been deployed in Ladakh. Reports also have it that some 200 CAPF companies have been inducted into J&K, though these have been played down as companies returning from election duty.

As to whether the RR can thin out from other areas, it is a question of threat perception. Currently, the operations are at ebb as Pakistan is calibrating its proxy war to its aims in the Afghanistan end game. It has therefore refrained from its usual summer campaign of infiltration. However, the post Afghanistan peace process period is uncertain. Since the RR has a well-consolidated presence in Kashmir, it may be prudent to see if the potential ‘first step’ in the India-Pakistan peace process is liable to birth a credible India-Pakistan peace process. It would not do to disturb the grid prematurely.

Though the two-front threat is live, the two-and-half front threat cannot be discounted too soon. This is particularly applicable for the NE, where in case ‘push comes to shove’ with China, the potential for instability in the NE – the ‘half front’ - could be exploited by China to activate the rear areas. In such a circumstance, whereas there would be a need to pull the army elements deployed out for a conventional role and substituting these with the CAPF, the command and control will need to continue under the army in keeping with the Vohra task force recommendation that reads: “where the Army is involved, the senior most Army officer should have the clear responsibility and authority, for all operational planning and execution).”

Significantly, the CAPF do not have the appropriate operational ethos for counter insurgency. Counter insurgency – to paraphrase the quip regarding peacekeeping – is in principle not an army task, but only the army can do it. One does not need to look further than the recent ambush in Bastar of the CAPF in which some 25 troopers were lost. The ambush was virtually a repeat of one a decade back in which some 75 policemen lost their lives. Whether this professional deficit can be mitigated by training is debatable considering that the lessons learnt from the 2010 ambush mentioned appear not to have made a difference a decade on. Recall also it’s taking over of duties from the Border Security Force in the Valley in the mid 2000s, in compliance with the GoM recommendation that border guarding forces revert to their respective borders and roles, had caused considerable turbulence.

There is no doctrinal pamphlet of the CAPF on counter insurgency. Little is known as to the policy planning division in the ministry of home affairs that the Vohra task force had asked be rekindled. It is well known that the parachuting of the Indian Police Service (IPS) officers with no ground experience into the higher echelon of the CAPF is its Achilles heel. The CAPF are liable with their usual highhandedness to worsen the situation, resulting in army deployment at a later, much-vitiated stage.

There is the indelicate matter of command and control and turf. In the North East, the AR would require giving its Shillong headquarters an operational role, and the headquarters answering in its operational avatar to the Eastern Command, and in due course to the theater command to come up facing China. Since the CRPF can at best supplement the RR in Kashmir, rather than substitute it, the operational control of the RR would continue with the army. There is a requirement to disengage the corps headquarters from counter insurgency role, as had been done on an ad hoc and controversially unsuccessful basis in the Kargil War. The RR headquarters has moved out of Delhi and is now an appendage to the Northern Command. It can take on an operational role, under Northern Command, but collaborating extensively with the state police and CAPF under the unified headquarters framework that was earlier chaired by the chief minister, and now, presumably, is headed by the lieutenant governor of the union territory.  

Finally, as the leading realist theoretician in India, Prof. Rajagopalan, rightly sees the power asymmetry in a two-front situation necessitating the army hand over the half-front to the CAPF, including the AR but without the RR. In case of an active two-front situation, there could potentially be two half-fronts, together making for three fronts. While the professor calls for responsiveness through upgrading the CAPF, prevention may be better.

Prevention entails a doctrinally-compliant political ministration of insurgency problems now that the kinetic indices in all three theaters – Kashmir, North East and Central India - are relatively negligible. The Nagaland ceasefire framework needs to be taken to its logical conclusion, while in Kashmir the applicability of the Nagaland template can be explored. The numerous ‘suspension of operations’ agreements in the North East must be speedily wrapped up and the outreach to the outlier Paresh Barua faction to culminate in an agreement soon.


The professor is right, that India cannot have its cake and eat it too. For him, the conventional threat merits a disengagement of the army. The problem is that the CRPF cannot be relied on to substitute the army, particularly when the threat of proxy war can be expected to heighten in a conflict situation. Consequently, the new threat environment entails India end its interminable insurgencies applying political imagination and the political capital from its parliamentary majority at the government’s disposal.

[2] Prof. Rajagopalan is author of the well regarded, Fighting Like a Guerrilla: The Indian Army and Counterinsurgency, New Delhi: Rouledge, 2008.

[3] Quotes are from National Security Council Secretariat, Group of Ministers’ Report on National Security,, pp. 50-51.