Six decades of looking away - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 14 August 2007

Six decades of looking away

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 14th August 2007

Independence Day tomorrow will witness the crescendo and then, mercifully, the end of an orgy of collective self-delusion that rivals the BJP's Shining India run-up to the 2004 elections. India's 60th birthday has occasioned nostalgia, patriotism, jingoism, and a rash of polls to determine data like India's favourite song. Absent, surprisingly, is any hard-headed evaluation of the exercise in nation building that began in 1947 when some 562 princely states chose between India and Pakistan, the two entities created out of the 11 provinces and various tribal areas of British India. Such an evaluation would highlight the unpalatable truth that even today J&K, Nagaland and Manipur are held within the union through armed force. Assam and Tripura face serious separatist challenges; the Naxal threat is spreading; and a terrorist challenge, springing from our own alienated minorities, has increased the numbers of armed men on the streets of India.

If the map of India has not yet been reshaped, it is because of the sheer manpower that New Delhi can muster: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today. But separatist sores continue to fester because armed forces can only create safe conditions for engineering political settlements. Those political initiatives are nowhere in sight; successive governments in New Delhi focus their political energies, not on outlying provinces, but on the big vote banks that ensure their survival in power.

This attitude of dealing with separatism by throwing manpower at it stems, ironically, from India's past success in the northeast against ethno-religious separatist movements by using a crude combination of military force and political buyout. Success in states like Mizoram rested on the prolonged use of military force over years, offering negotiations when separatist stamina was running low, and then buying their leaders over with the promise of power in a post-conflict polity. This old strategy is no longer viable against new globalised structures of ethnic and religious separatism. It has failed in J&K because terrorists can replenish, materially and ideologically, by plugging into the structures of global Islamist jehad. But it hasn't been replaced with an alternative strategy.

Also reinforcing New Delhi's tendency to look away is the political psyche of India's power elite and the voting public. In a relatively young country and a rising power, national attention is focused mainly on changing lifestyles, economic opportunities, and caste and religion based politics. We appear psychologically uncomfortable with bringing issues of disaffection and alienation into the national political discourse. Instead, we resort to our convenient national cop-out: deflect the blame and hold external forces responsible for our internal violence. Over the years, India has blamed China, Myanmar and Bangladesh for separatism in the northeast, Pakistan for terrorism in Punjab and J&K. Enterprising government spinmeisters have even tried to pin blame for Naxalism on Nepal.

With the "foreign hand" as a convenient scapegoat, strategy has followed the rhetoric; India's military planning has always been directed towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in military and paramilitary uniform, barely 5000 are anti-terrorism specialists. Regular army soldiers, primarily trained for full-scale war, man even the so-called "counter-insurgency" forces, the Rashtriya Rifles. Effectively, India uses makeshift means to deal with terrorism and militancy up to a point; beyond that it threatens war. When Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacked Parliament in 2001, New Delhi had little to show by way of a counter-terrorism response. Instead, India's military moved into battle positions and readied to invade Pakistan. Then, as now, the only lever in India's terrorism tool shed was full-scale war.

This shortage of specialist forces trained and equipped to deal with internal security looks set to continue, if India's weapons procurement programme is any indicator. Most ongoing weapons purchases are platforms needed for all-out war: an aircraft carrier, a submarine line, amphibious assault ships and heavy battleships for the navy; multi-role combat aircraft, mid-air refuellers and airborne cruise missiles for the air force; and tanks, air defense guns, medium artillery and intermediate range strategic missiles for the army. Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India's establishment still believes that if the military has credible warfighting capability, everything else will follow.

Unlike India, though, the United States is adapting quickly to fight its new wars. The Pentagon's new counterinsurgency doctrine (published in December 2006 as Field Manual 3-24) would make instructive reading for our leaders. FM 3-24 notes that the armed forces cannot succeed alone in counterinsurgency; such operations "involve the application of national power in the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure fields and disciplines." The US doctrine also points out that success in counterinsurgency operations means that forces can be reduced and more risk accepted.

New Delhi, however, has little time for the careful political and economic initiatives that are needed to build on the security forces' success. And reducing forces in J&K is seen not as a step towards political settlement, but as surrender to Pakistani pressure.

Sixty years after independence, there is indeed much to celebrate. But if there is no consideration of how the nation-building project is doing in the outlying, the unseen and the less affluent parts of the country, the party will continue to be spoilt by the discordant shadow of alienation.


  1. Mr. Shukla, insurgencies are covertly supported by politicians also. An armed militia, out of reach of police, which can smuggle precious resources like teak, minerals, etc. is desirable for any political party. It also acts as the militant-wing of that party.

    It may be noted that a few legislators in J&K have definitely been known to have links with LeT and Hizbul Mujahiden. Bodo militants have also joined active politics in Assam. Even before that, they were known to have affiliation to a particular political party.

    As another example, only 5-20 men led by Veerappan armed with country rifles, were not caught for more than 2 decades. His sandalwood smuggling ring is as yet uncracked. Similar is the case with dacoits like Nirbhay Gujjar and others in MP-Jharkhand belt.

    ULFA is known to be involved in smuggling of oil and gas by sabotaging pipelines. Why don't they attack Bangladeshis, and why only Bihari migrants is unclear. Naxals too have never protested against numerous mining and SEZ proposals in Orissa where their opposition was expected to be violent, instead of inaction. Anyway, more than so-called "people movement", Naxals are in reality smugglers and traffickers just like Colombian 'revolutionaries', who in reality are narcotic smugglers.

    These poorly armed groups can be exterminated by the army, even if operations are not undertaken on a war-like footing. However by enjoying patronage of politicians, they may be shielded.

    Thank you.

  2. I may add the following news report to my previous post :-

    Politician-militant nexus uncovered in Manipur

    Manipuri terror outfits also have links with politicians. Thus, it is unlikely that the army cannot even be asked to begin operations on a larger scale in Manipur. The same can be the case of ULFA, Bodo and Naxal militants.

    India spends a few billion dollars annually to import foreign military hardware. In a fraction of this amount, an internal operation can easily be launched to eliminate ULFA, Bodo and Naga millitants. However, due tot he political patronage that these groups enjoy, the army operations are kept limited.

    Thank you.


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