Book review: India’s tryst with counterinsurgency - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 15 March 2023

Book review: India’s tryst with counterinsurgency


Book title:  Internal Security in India: Violence, Order and the State

Edited by:  Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur

Publisher:  Oxford University Press, 2023

Length    :  393 pages


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th March 23


The Indian Army has expended more time and effort in fighting separatist insurgencies than any other contemporary army. It began with fighting Naga separatists since 1956 and then Mizo rebels for two decades, from 1966 to 1986. In 1971, even as it geared up for war with Pakistan, the army participated in a major operation against Maoist “Naxalite” rebels in Eastern India. Having seen off Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh in 1971, the army tackled new insurgencies in the states of Manipur and Tripura. In the 1980s and 1990s, the army was called in to combat Sikh separatists in Punjab, Tamil guerrillas in Sri Lanka; and then Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), all the while keeping the lid on varied insurgencies in the North East.


With the sole exception of the 1987-90 counterinsurgency operation in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers, every one of these campaigns were fought within the borders of India. Indian soldiers and armed police have paid a heavy cost as evident from the growing military fatalities. Between 1947 and 1990, the army lost 1,902 personnel in internal security operations. Casualties tripled over the next two decades, when 6,206 soldiers died fighting insurgents.


Yet, only now has a comprehensive study emerged of India’s experiences with internal security. In this edited volume, Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur – two of American academia’s most perceptive writers on Indian security issues – have brought together into 15 chapters the work of 18 scholars (including themselves), journalists and practitioners who have explored varied dimensions of India’s internal security. The well-considered distribution of sub-topics between the authors has successfully ensured that the subject is covered in breadth as well as in depth.


In the opening chapter, the editors briefly enumerate various dimensions of internal security – including armed separatism, organised crime, political and electoral violence, communal violence, labour disputes, homicide, gender violence and so on – before zeroing in on a statist view of internal security as the book’s main focus. They say at the start: “This book has a narrower focus: How has the Indian state managed the core concern of internal security – violence and order.” 


As with all of Messrs. Ahuja’s and Kapur’s academic work, this book offers a cornucopia of invaluable data. It includes 47 charts on diverse subjects such as disaggregation of security force casualties; police training and modernization; strength comparisons between army, armed police and paramilitary forces; police-to-population figures across India’s states, and revealing breakdowns of the growth of the security worker sector in the country. There are also 10 tables of data such as breakdowns of central government spending on police, and a state-wise landscape of security work in India.


An interesting chapter titled “Internal Security and India’s constitution” explores the legal, institutional and financial framework within which security forces are required to operate. The drafters of India’s Constitution established a strong Centre, with a powerful executive government that had the tools needed to act decisively against internal security threats. In addition, there is a range of anti-terror laws (read preventive deterrent) that the state has framed citing negative events. Soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the government passed the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1985, or the infamous TADA. That remained on the statute books for a decade, until it was repealed in 1995. Following the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, TADA was replaced by the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (called POTA), which was itself modeled on an infamous Maharashtra state law: The 1999 Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). Public criticism of POTA led to its repeal, but the most draconian aspects of POTA remained, shoe-horned into another controversial law: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA), which remains on the books.


No book on internal security would be complete without discussing another “black law”: The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, widely known as AFSPA. Originally promulgated in 1942 by the British Raj to suppress the Quit India Movement, AFSPA was resurrected in 1947 and then promulgated in 1958 by the government. AFSPA has become a watchword for human rights violations in troubled areas. Anubha Bhonsle, a journalist who has studied the application of AFSPA in Manipur, explains how the law is imposed on an area after its notification as a “disturbed area” under the Disturbed Area Act 1976.


Paul Staniland of the University of Chicago looks at India’s internal security environment from the perspective of three sets of actors: armed insurgents, counter-insurgent militias and disciplined political parties operating in militarized elections. His disturbing conclusion about India’s internal security: “It is difficult to think of a more extensive and complex wave of insurgencies, over such long periods of time, in a non-failed state.”


Staniland notes that all insurgencies are not treated the same by New Delhi. J&K and Punjab possessed two core triggers that evoked a harsh clampdown: Both revolts were along minority religious cleavages and both represented challenges to the idea of multi-religious, secular India. Secondly, both movements enjoyed strong support from Pakistan’s security establishment. This heightened threat perceptions and encouraged a vigorous security response.


The broad conclusion reached by most contributors to this excellent book is that India’s counterinsurgency posture does not consist of a single set of rules that is mechanically applied to a situation. Rather, New Delhi’s response is calibrated depending upon the nature of the insurgency – for example, ethno-linguistic, nationalist or religious. The book presents a nuanced set of arguments and that, along with the usefully arranged data, will ensure its place in the reference library of any serious scholar of South Asian security.

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