Confusion in command in Jammu & Kashmir - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 8 December 2014

Confusion in command in Jammu & Kashmir

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Dec 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shocked the army, and possibly alienated it seriously, with his statement in Srinagar on Monday that, under his BJP government, “for the first time in 30 years, the army admitted its mistake.”

Already junior field commanders were simmering at the restraints placed on them by top generals in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In a furious WhatsApp message that whizzed through army networks, junior officers blamed the deaths of eight soldiers in a militant strike near Uri on Friday, on tight operational restraints that were allegedly blunting the combat edge of frontline units.

The perception that unit and sub-unit commanders’ hands are tied is rooted in two recent events. The first is the public admission (referred to by the prime minister) by Lieutenant General DS Hooda, the army’s top general in J&K, that soldiers at an army checkpoint made a mistake in shooting dead two Kashmiri boys on November 3 after their car ran an army check post near Chhattergam village in South Kashmir. An immediate court of inquiry swiftly found nine soldiers culpable and further disciplinary action will follow. The second event on November 15 was the awarding of life sentences by a court martial to five soldiers, including two officers, for cold-bloodedly murdering three innocent Kashmiri men who were cynically labelled terrorists. This perception will only be reinforced by the PM’s ill-advised statement.

In fact, while these events sent a powerful message through the army, there is nothing to support the allegation that soldiers unnecessarily died in the Uri attack because sentries hesitated to shoot at the militants as they approached the army post. The army rightly insists that soldiers manning a vehicle check post on a busy public road in broad daylight should be restrained in opening fire, even when suspicious behaviour is observed. Yet no commander has, or would, demand restraint from a sentry at an isolated post near the Line of Control when he sees figures approaching him during a night curfew. Army media managers have been active on social media, highlighting this crucial difference.

Even so, this has highlighted crucial issues for the army. The first is the contradiction between the generals’ insistence, on the one hand, that the army must operate with restraint, winning over the populace by avoiding collateral damage; while on the other hand demanding a high operational tempo, with the performance of field commanders measured largely in the currency of militants killed. Junior officers are confused and angered by irreconcilable demands for both “kills” and winning hearts and minds.

There is also contradiction between demanding a soft touch from the field; while simultaneously professing that the army cannot operate without the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This act, which allows even non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion, was designed for mass insurrection where public order evaporates. To insist upon it in today’s Kashmir sends a confusing message to the frontlines: “If you shoot the wrong person or destroy the wrong house, you are protected against the criminal justice system and the law of the land. But, nevertheless, we will court martial you under military law.”

The bull that nobody wants to take by the horns is the reality that, as long as Kashmir remains a battleground between two opposing sets of heavily armed men, with both sets wary of being attacked any moment, errors like the one at Chhattergam will take place. No army conducts a serious counter-insurgency campaign in a heavily populated area without collateral damage. Mistakes will have to be condoned, or else transform the army’s mission to armed policing.

If the generals were really serious about eliminating collateral damage, they would think seriously about lifting AFSPA from select areas. This would break a negative spiral by boosting public confidence in a positive future; reduce support for armed militancy; and create a climate for progressive demilitarisation; which is the best way to diminish the possibility of damaging errors by the security forces. Operational errors cannot be eliminated by orders from headquarters.

Even as the generals have ignored the possibilities of this virtuous spiral, New Delhi has failed to understand that hard men with guns cannot manage Kashmir forever. The army can only create the security environment for a political settlement, something that it has already done several times at enormous cost. Yet, each time, the opportunity has been squandered through political lassitude; and instead of transforming the Kashmir narrative into a peace dialogue, it has reverted to accusations of human rights violations, fuelled by incidents like Machhil and Chhattergam. The army’s convoluted attempt to retain both AFSPA and restraint stems from its recognition that, while minimising the possibility of collateral damage, it must retain legal cover in case Kashmir goes up in flames.

Thirdly, this has underlined the need for the military to come to terms with social media like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, which will inevitably become forums for the voices of junior ranks. The army’s top command has long been blessed with a rank and file that keeps its opinions to itself. Today, the anonymity of social media has given a voice to even the most supine juniors. These voices will be increasingly heard over social media unless the army transforms its deeply unequal and hierarchical relationship structures into ones that cater for the expression of dissent over issues like operational restraint. With few signs of democratisation, the army’s media managers need to reflect on how they will manage anonymous dissent. The reflexive urge to restrict social media is unlikely to succeed. Only a vibrant internal discourse that allows a frank exchange of views and an outlet for grievances will prevent those from being increasingly leaked into the public space. Today the junior officers are venting angst; tomorrow it will be the increasingly techno-savvy rank and file. 


  1. Good article. Hits a nail on the head.Cringy generals wake up. Be man enough to stand up.Call a spade a spade. If the need be call a spade a bloody shovel. Come on guys twirl your mooch and tell the politicians incl PM and RM what they should hear and not what they want to hear. You have lost your bloody balls.remember your precedesors great men like Sam, Prem Bhagat. Inder Gill, Chottu Sen, SSP Thorat, Harbaksh, Satinder, Thammiya, and many more. Can you fill their shoes? Nope. We feel sorry for you. Don't follow this VK Singh, who under duress gives it twice in writing and then cries victim that his honour has been compromised ! Where was his honour when he gave a written undertaking.

    K J Singh .

  2. Agreed that this is a terrible mistake by PM. He cannot praise the slain men of Uri and denigrate those who defend the country elsewhare.


  4. Dear Mr Shukla stop this rumor mongering you are not being responsible in your writings...

  5. The advent of social networking sites has two dimensions. While it does give a forum for the younger generation to voice their views and vent their anger, intelligent analysis of the same would also provide the senior commanders an insight into the ground situation. But then one requires sensible, balanced and impartial staff officers to act professionally and provide the relevant inputs. Does the Indian Army have it in them?

  6. Sachin Khandelwal9 December 2014 at 05:02

    I agree that PM Modi should not have made the comment on Army admitting its mistake. When he was not ready to criticise Pakistan who is a terror monster then why single out isolated Army wrongoing? Its dangerous to take the Army for granted.

  7. A balanced analysis. The basic problem is that most of the security forces are not from Kashmir. They have no empathy with the local population. Ask yourself this, would these officers be willing to shoot as easily, in say Gujrat? The Indian army feels and hence behaves like a foreign occupying force.

    Indian army knows it cannot win the hearts and minds especially when the politicians have no clue otherthan blame Pakistan. The young generation of Kashmiri's has already given their hearts to another. Some call it freedom.

    These young officers are doing Pakistan a great favor. After getting a bloody nose on the LoC, they take it out on the civilians. Guess who they support, after you kill their loved ones.

  8. On the ball, Ajai. Keep speaking your mind. Brilliant and courageous analysis.

  9. NSR says ---

    Look at some pictures on web as to what kind of armored small, medium, and heavy trucks with heavy caliber weapons Pakistan using in North West...

    It is really abominable to lead the charge in an open small jeep and getting killed...many soldiers going to battle in big open canvas trucks...

    Soldiers with guns are in the open field and with sniper scopes, they will be mince meat...

    All India has to do is send the APV/APCs with heavy guns and fire at rapid pace to the point from where a terrorist will be shooting...Very foolish of India to lose so many soldiers...

    I think Indian army is not thinking and planning wisely...There is definitely something wrong with the responses to infiltrations and letting battles continue unabated way for long time...

    Time for a real change...may be ask Israelis for some help...

    Buy lots APC/APVs with high caliber and high velocity guns to pulverize the area of terrorist fire...

    Very sad to let so many soldiers die repeatedly...

  10. The bull that nobody wants to take by the horns is the reality that, as long as Kashmir remains a battleground between two opposing sets of heavily armed men, with both sets wary of being attacked any moment, errors like the one at Chhattergam will take place. No army conducts a serious counter-insurgency campaign in a heavily populated area without collateral damage. Mistakes will have to be condoned, or else transform the army’s mission to armed policing. - VERY TRUE


  11. welcome to the ache din it a hype that was created modi sarkar will solve all problem.

  12. NSR says...

    It is not a Bollywood movie in which the inspector hops in a open jeep and takes of for fight...

    These guys are monsters in the art of war and deception...

    Fighting this kind of special forces types of militants needs specialized equipment like Humvees, APC/APVs, etc with heavy armor and heavy caliber guns, and specialized thermal and image enhancing equipment to locate their location and pulverize them with the heavy fire...

    They are in Indian territory and there is no excuse to let so many soldiers to dies and fight them without cover...

    Soldiers must be in the back of Humvees, APC/APVs, Tanks, etc...

    Look at some pictures from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan NW, etc as to how they are protecting their soldiers...

    Plan and get some help from countries like Israel who are experts in couter terrorism...

    My heart goes to all those slain soldiers now and in the past...


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