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Thursday, June 08, 2017
Reading the Army Chief's words

Luckily for the army chief, the government had earlier let on that he was chosen for his operational experience, the subtext being that strategic acumen was not to fore in its choice. The chief in his recent utterance in an interaction with PTI has proven the government right. He averred that the morale of the army's junior leaders in Kashmir needed lifting and he had awarded Major Leetul Gogoi to help with this. His inability to rise above the operational level prevented him from seeing the strategic hit-wicket he has done in that the award was at the cost of regard for Kashmiris, the good Major having been awarded despite of his being under inquiry in the 'human shield' case. 

The chief did not end with that, going to rue that Kashmiris had taken to stones instead of guns. Their taking to guns would have leveled the playfield for him. His troops would presumably have been able to fire back, instead of waiting - in his words - to die; even though there has been no death on the side of security forces from a stone hit. On the contrary there were close to a hundred deaths on the civilian side and many going blind due to retaliation by pellet guns. 

What the public rumination of the army chief tells us is that almost nine years since full-throated stone throwing made its advent in Kashmir, there has been no doctrinal, organizational and tactical effort on part of security forces to meet it. Granted, the army has not been at the receiving end for most part, coming in with two brigades only for a while to pacify south Kashmir late last stone throwing season. Those in khaki uniforms have borne the brunt instead. 

It would be too much to expect of them - and their IPS leadership - to have come up with a suitable, people-sensitive strategy. True to form, the home ministry set up a committee to assess efficacy of pellet guns last year. Any other country would have turned out police forces suitably equipped with protective gear, trained in phalanx formation and with humanitarian law compliant weapons. The winter's respite has not led to any change of tack from their inheritance dating to handling the Quit India movement. The innovation if any is in the use of catapults to give a taste of their own medicine to stone throwers. They apparently miss Mr. KPS Gill and his tactics. 

All they needed doing was to look up on the manner, say the South Korean riot police handles mob violence or even the statelet Kosovar police handles the opposition's Molotov cocktail charged challenge. Given India's advantages of manpower, such forces could have been deployed in each district for easy access to stone throwers in real time, dispersing them with a routine finality but with fewer casualties. Suitably deterred and with no casualties to appreciably boost their angst, stone throwing - reminiscent of the intifada - might have dissipated. 

With girls straining their arm in like pursuit this season, the army appears to have been placed on call. It has already - under its new chief with a wealth of operational experience in the Valley - reverted to tactics abandoned over a decade and half back: cordon and search sweeps. On the Line of Control it has walked back over a decade to the pre-ceasefire days. Whereas it is on comfortable ground on the Line of Control, in the by-lanes on the Valley floor, from the words of its chief, it appears at sea. 

What the army chief therefore is really saying is that the army is in a position it would rather not be in. Explaining his innovative solution to the tactical cul-de-sac he found himself in, Major Leetul Gogoi was worried that he might have had to drop a dozen stone throwers to break his way out of their siege. By rewarding him, the army chief has seemingly agreed with him. Even if the army wants a fight on its terms, it expects instead to have a people-centric fight as Ramzan gets along. 

Clearly, it has been left with the can. This is what its minister has put them to - washing his hands off by saying that military problems needed military solutions. For a minister who is also handling the finance ministry, this would be an appropriate tack to take since he really would not have the time to supervise the defence ministry left vacant by a predecessor absconding at the first opportunity to his home state. With a heart operation behind him - dating to his last stint at managing both ministries at the beginning of this government's term - he can be excused. The ruling party is so thin on talent that it has no one to substitute. 

The problem is that whereas operational freedom for the military is understandable on the Line of Control - where the army in its element can be expected to do its bit - this is not so in respect of the 'war among people'. The minister is obviously oblivious to the 'strategic corporal' concept that attends such environments. Major Leetul Gogoi's action is an illustration of what may be lauded at the tactical level ending up as a strategic disaster. 

But there is an even more significant aspect of the twin reflections in the press respectively of the minister and his army chief last week. This is of a piece with the typically Indian civil-military relations dating to the Sino-Indian war. India's foremost military historian, Srinath Raghavan, informs that the civilians learnt the wrong lessons from the war, believing that the military space needs to be left entirely to the military. He explores how the conduct of the 1965 war reinforced this false belief, even though the result of the war itself did not suggest that the civil and military domains in war are distinct and without overlap. Be that as it may, the nuclear age is here. Any verities held over from prior naturally need rethink. 

Yet two decades into the nuclear age, for the defence ministry to believe that the military sphere continues to be distinct is an abdication of responsibility. Both the minister and his army chief opined that there is little possibility of war. To the minister, the army's dominance of the Line of Control ensures this, while the army chief ruled out 'limited war'. It bears reminding that for his part, the air force chief in emulating General Sundarji sent a demi-official letter to his officers exhorting war readiness. Getting hold of a copy of this missive, the Pakistani air force activated its forward airfields and buzzed Siachen. Throw in a surgical strike or two, and there could be yet another India-Pakistan crisis, a throwback by a decade. 

Since this is all too easy to observe, this analysis opens up an interesting possibility. If all this gets to a shooting stage, either the army can fetch the government kudos - a'la the short term benefits 1971 and Kargil did for the political heads at the time - or in case the army messes it up, the 'military solution for military problem' thesis provides an alibi for the civilian national security apparatus. A short, sharp war might be good for Mr. Modi's image, lacking as it does warlord credentials currently. Navigating such political waters, the army chief needs to keep his head up and not look down, as appears to be his wont.

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