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Thursday, July 08, 2010

IPCS article
#3152, 21 June 2010
Countering the Naxal Threat-IV: Military as an Option?

The Times of India headlines has it that the ‘Army is bracing to take on the Naxals’ (17 June 2010). The report informs that up to five divisions of the Army are being readied for deployment. A training center is planned to be opened that would put through other ranks of the supporting arms such as armour and artillery. In the traditional way the Army does counter insurgency, a grid is apparently to be deployed and the Maoists isolated from the populace. Brigadier level advisers have been earmarked. Earlier last month, the cabinet committee on security had debated Army deployment and at that time, the Army deployment had been ruled against, to prevent it from being over-stretched.

Preparations as reported may be contingency planning on part of the Army. The training center reported could even be one being opened by the Army for training the paramilitary troops. However, it’s possible that in light of the inadequacies of the police leadership and paramilitary sub-units revealed by the EN Rammohan enquiry in the Chintalnar episode, the government may have decided otherwise. The government has been persuaded of the need to use the right tool for the job of gaining control over the massive area comprising difficult terrain. The preparations would in any case be useful in buttressing any political reaching out that may be underway, behind the scenes to Maoists, to bring them to the table under threat of unleashing the Army.

On the issue of whether the Army ‘should’ be deployed at all, it is quite apparent from the recurring losses sustained by the paramilitary that there are shortfalls in its organization, leadership, ethos and training. The argument, usually heard on air waves, that the Army should not be used against its own people implies that where it has been so employed such as in J&K and the North East, the people are somehow ‘different’. Even in Kashmir, the operations were in a human terrain comprising Indians, if alienated Indians. If the Army is to be deployed, it is best to rehearse counter-insurgency lessons in a timely manner. By this yardstick, the mental and training preparedness as reported being undertaken by the Army is a commendable start.

The foremost concern, however, remains human rights. The killing of three ‘infiltrators’ who later turned out to be men lured by the TA (H&H) in Kashmir recently is not a one-off incident. Note that the crime occurred in the present environment of human rights watchfulness in Kashmir. There were also earlier reports of the fake action in Siachen and of the ‘ketchup’ Colonel in Assam. The lesson is that the state would require being wary from the outset. The understanding that operations are an independent military domain is in light of the past experience, unpersuasive.

It follows from this that political over-watch would be required. This cannot be expected at the provincial level. The very fact that the situation has been ‘handed over’ to the Army would lead the weak political class at this level to abdicate responsibility. Delhi is indeed too far and the indefatigable Minister for Home Affairs over-burdened; his latest additional responsibility being to head the GoM on the Bhopal tragedy! Given that the required levels of supervision would be absent; can the military be expected to exercise suitable self-regulation?

This is not impossible to conceive. The opposition expected is unlikely to be of the order the military has experienced elsewhere. The dimension of external interference is missing. The military has an ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ doctrine, dating to 2006, as a guide. The military values the difference in approach to insurgency with that of other armies in the close vicinity, such as the US and in particular the Pakistani Army. Beginning the new mission on a clean slate, it is in a position to build in best practices from the outset itself. Knowledgeable sources have it that the in-service reputation of the commanding general, head of its Central Command, inspires confidence on this score.

Nevertheless, pathologies need pointing out. One is that quantification of the officer promotion system - reportedly under re-examination on priority on order of the new Chief - could lead to a ‘numbers game’. Second, the need to show ‘results’, particularly to distinguish its deployment as an improvement over the paramilitary, needs being guarded against. Third, military recruitment practices favour officers and troops from a particular strata and region. The impact of this on their perception of the tribal people needs factoring in. Fourth, the ‘grid’ system contemplated indicates a lasting deployment. Instead, the grid could be furnished by the paramilitary. Staying on as the grid suggests, implies avoidable militarization in which the military would over time gain a vested interest. Lastly, theory on primary group cohesion, reinforced by the earlier experience of the Rashtriya Rifles, warns against using subunits of amalgamated troops.

Even if the Army is seemingly the best instrument, a far better approach would still be political first, negotiations based, development led and precluding violence.

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