War and peace

Print edition : June 18, 2004

The notion that India is at peace is in fact the consequence of artifice: a trick perhaps unprecedented in its scale and sheer audacity.

"INDIA," said General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former Chief of the Army Staff and Rajya Sabha Member, at a recent conference in New Delhi, "is at peace." It was a throwaway remark, made in the middle of a thoughtful presentation on India's military modernisation priorities - but does illustrate how insidious illusions can be.

Draw an arc on the map from Jammu and Kashmir to Tripura. Almost all the areas within it are besieged by some form of violence. Despite Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's energetic efforts at making peace with Pakistan, levels of violence in Jammu and Kashmir remain appalling. Small arms inflows from Nepal could well lead to a sharp escalation of violence between caste militias in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. West Bengal's government has expressed concern over the growing influence of Islamists in Bangladesh, as well as that country's reluctance to act. Almost the entire northeastern region is torn by strife. Trace another arc, this one from the northeastern region to Tamil Nadu, and it is much the same: Maoist violence in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh; the uncertain impact of events in Sri Lanka on Tamil Nadu.

Alarmist? In all, 4,374 people - civilians and Indian security personnel; terrorists and insurgents - died in major conflict zones in India through 2003, a figure which excludes the dozens more eliminated in the course of caste and communal skirmishes, as well as terrorist bombings inflicted by Pakistan-backed terrorist cells operating across the country. It is only in India that the scale of carnage witnessed year after year could be described as a time of peace. Like the National Democratic Alliance's "Feel Good" campaign, the notion that India is at peace is in fact the consequence of artifice: a trick perhaps unprecedented in its scale and sheer audacity. Now, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government faces the unhappy task of trying to set right the mess.

Tragic as it was, the May 24 bombing of a bus carrying Border Security Force troops and their families at Lower Munda, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, served one useful purpose. It provided the just-sworn in Union Ministers for Defence and Home, Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil, a stark illustration of the challenges confronting them in Jammu and Kashmir, India's single largest security challenge.

According the Union Ministry of Home Affairs' internal data, the basic truth is this: more than four months after the initiation of the ceasefire along the Line of Control, Vajpayee's peace initiative has not yet led to an improvement in the ground situation. As many as 106 Indian soldiers, policemen and militia members were killed in combat between January and April this year, up from 93 in the same months of last year. It is true that the numbers of civilians killed in these months fell to 232 this year from 246 last year, but this reduction is of no great statistical significance. Crucially, however, fewer terrorists have been eliminated in the winter and spring of 2004 than in 2003 - figures that debunk the Indian Army's claims that terrorists are facing imminent decimation.

None of this, of course, is an argument against deepening the dialogue with Pakistan. It does, however, illustrate the need for a structured and introspective decision-making process. Much of the dialogue was carried out by a small group within the Prime Minister's Office, notably Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra. For the most part, the Ministry of External Affairs, along with the military, the intelligence services and much of the Union Cabinet, was kept out of the loop. No one really knows what Mishra was up to, but some disturbing signs are evident. Pakistan believes India could concede some variant of the Chenab Plan, which contemplates a communal division of Jammu and Kashmir. Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz even claimed that R.K. Mishra, a long-standing Reliance Industries employee and Vajpayee's chosen back-channel negotiator during the Kargil war, had made a commitment to this effect. In Pakistan's strategic imagination, this communal carve-up could be delivered as part of a quid pro quo for an oil pipeline through its territory, key to securing and developing Reliance's oil interests in western India.

WHAT needs to be done now? First, the UPA government needs to draw some red lines: lines that cannot be crossed without jeopardising the detente process itself. One red line, quite obviously, must be terrorism. The Hizbul Mujahideen, which carried out the Lower Munda bombing, is based in Pakistan, as is its supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah. As such, Pakistan cannot evade responsibility for acts of terrorism, which are executed by the organisation. Second, India's new government will need to start pushing for delivery on promises on the winding down of terror training camps and action against jehadi groups. Organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba have resumed fund-raising and recruitment, a violation of express commitments made by Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf. One major obstacle Indian negotiators could face is that Musharraf has already received part of the prize he sought through dialogue with New Delhi - notably, international legitimacy and aid.

Similar problems could confront the UPA's negotiators in both Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern region. Although the NDA initiated dialogue with the Maulvi Abbas Ansari-led centrist faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, there is so far little clarity on the direction of future dialogue. In the northeastern region, too, two rounds of talks with Naga insurgents have not crystallised into a peace process of substance. New interlocutors may be appointed in coming months, but new vision is needed along with new faces.

What the UPA cannot afford to do is accord the northeastern region a relatively low priority. On the face of it, the situation is grim. Large parts of Manipur are no longer governed by the Indian state, for example, and are now ruled by a welter of warring tribal militia. Nagaland is somewhat well-governed, but the ongoing ceasefire between Indian forces and insurgents is at best fragile. Tripura remains a major conflict zone, a situation exacerbated by the use of terrorism as an instrument to undermine the Left Front government that now rules the State. Further crises stare the region in the face, notably the free flow of narcotics from Myanmar and the high incidence of HIV infection caused by the unsafe use of intravenous drugs it has brought in its wake. Corruption and inefficient governance have conspired to ensure that Prime Minister Vajpayee's generous aid package for the region has served mainly to enrich contractors - of a piece with past experience.

Benign neglect, however, is no longer an option. Bangladesh is emerging as a major base for both northeastern secessionists, as well as Islamist organisations. No coherent explanation has been given by Bangladesh of the massive recovery of weapons there (Frontline, June 4), but the Mayor of Chittagong publicly asserted that the weapons had been shipped in from Pakistan for the training of terrorist groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Large-scale gatherings and camps conducted by far-right Islamist groups have also aroused concern across the world. Dependent on Islamists for political support, the Bangladesh government has been hesitant to clamp down on their activities. Foreign policy means will, of course, be used to address the Bangladesh question, but methods need to be found to tighten up border policing. At once, political enterprise will be needed to address the complex mosaic of ethnic and religious conflicts that underpin violence in the northeastern region.

During a memorial service at their camp on the outskirts of Srinagar, on May 24, Border Security Force personnel place wreaths on the coffins of their colleagues killed in the bombing of a bus in Lower Munda on the Srinagar-Jammu highway.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

In Jammu and Kashmir, India's resolve will most likely be tested by increased terrorist violence. "Pakistan's military will see escalation as a means to place pressure on a new government," says former Research and Analysis Wing chief Vikram Sood, "and, quite frankly, I'd do the same in their shoes." Major carnage could bring immense pressure on the Congress, sensitive as it is to charges that it is unpatriotic. Intemperate action, however, will most likely prove counterproductive. India needs, in its own interests, to build on the progress made by the NDA regime in key areas like nuclear confidence building and people-to-people contact. Just as worrying, the United States' continued dependence on Pakistani cooperation for its operations in Afghanistan further limits India's options. Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil - as well as their colleague in External Affairs, Natwar Singh - will, most likely, be burning more than a little midnight oil at their new offices.

From Kohima to Kupwara, then, similar challenges are evident. "But before we can do what needs to be done," says the strategic analyst Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, "we first need to work out what we want to do."

For the past several decades, experts have debated just what India expects from its armed services. Will their principal roles in the foreseeable future be counter-terrorist? Or should their primary purpose be preparation for conventional, and even nuclear war? UPA leaders have promised to address several short-term issues, including nagging delays in defence procurement, caused by cumbersome procedures and the fear of scandal. In its party agenda, the Congress also noted that "despite tall claims about the high priority being given to defence, expenditure on defence as a proportion of gross domestic product has fallen to an all-time low of 2.12 per cent", and asserted that the NDA had "failed even to effectively utilise resources amounting to nearly Rs.24,000 crores sanctioned by Parliament to modernise our defence systems." Progress is now expected in several strategic capability initiatives, including India's nuclear submarine project, which has been without a head since January.

Yet, equipment and funds are a secondary question - and putting off the effort to find answers to the big questions could have dangerous consequences. Several roadmaps for change were prepared by the expert committees formed by the NDA government after the Kargil war, but progress has been slow and patchy. Internal security management has, for one, changed little. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops were scheduled to phase out the Border Security Force in counter-terrorist operations, but the organisation does not yet have the capabilities it needs for the task. Its personnel in Srinagar, for example, do not have dedicated signals or intelligence apparatus, nor heavy weapons. Little effort has been made, either, to transform the CRPF's ageing ranks, or to give it the autonomy to operate without the close officer support of local police forces. Progress has been made in giving the police new equipment - but not in giving officers security of tenure and freedom of operation, both essential for meaningful field success.

INDIA'S intelligence services have fared little better. The Intelligence Bureau's (IB) Multi-Agency Centre, which was intended to become a state-of-the-art computer centre capable of gathering and analysing information in real time, consists of a handful of Pentium personal computers. The problem? A war with the Union Finance Ministry, which is unwilling to pay salaries for the personnel needed by the IB. State police forces are often loath to work with the IB. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), founded with much fanfare in 2001, is dysfunctional. Intended to be led by the Chief of Defence Staff, a new post, which was to have been set up to coordinate the three armed services, the DIA at present is an orphan in the military family. For the most part, the Military Intelligence Directorate resists cooperation with the DIA, as do the other armed services intelligence organisations.

Again, the problem is not one of management, alone: core issues need to be answered, and the new government needs to take an honest look at what options exist to deter Pakistani sub-conventional war. After the Pokhran-II nuclear tests of 1998, it was evident to all that India could not respond to Pakistan-backed terrorism by unleashing the Indian Army's perceived conventional might. Under the protection of its nuclear umbrella, Pakistan was able to pursue low-intensity warfare with increased confidence from the late-1980s, certain that the risks to India of a full-blown war outweighed its potential benefits. Put crudely, the costs of small war in Jammu and Kashmir were lower than the risk of one that could lead to an annihilation of New Delhi or Mumbai. After the collapse of Operation Parakram, the massive military build-up ordered in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament House, strategists have been mulling over their options.

One option will be presented to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the coming weeks. Like his predecessors, the Prime Minister will receive a briefing on the offensive sub-conventional capabilities India possesses, and shall be asked if he wishes them to be activated. The use of Indian sub-conventional assets, essentially covert groups capable of doing to Pakistan what it does in Jammu and Kashmir, are last believed to have been used under the regime of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. India is, in the mid-1980s, alleged to have carried out a limited sub-conventional campaign in Karachi as retaliation for Pakistani support for Khalistan terrorists. In the mid-1970s, tired of then-Pakistani premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's backtracking on converting the LoC into a border, India is also alleged to have lent some support to Bhaluch insurgents. In general, however, such covert enterprises have not been successful.

In the final analysis, it all boils down to politicians understanding and taking security issues seriously. Endless deliberations about national security challenges take place frequently in New Delhi, but Members of Parliament rarely, if at all, show any interest in them. Unlike the United States, for example, India has no aggressive political oversight system, and only a small number of politicians equipped to either interrogate or direct the services' actions. Responses to crises are much as they were in the Mughal era - when New Delhi sent out a Risallah [letter] to resolve troubles in the provinces. All those at the apex of the UPA's security and defence establishment are familiar with the problems - problems the Congress had no small part in creating during its decades in office.

Time, seminar circuit couch-warriors often say in New Delhi, is on India's side. Perched in an increasingly troubled corner of the world - and bracing for the aftershocks generated by Washington's ill-executed adventure in Iraq - India can no longer afford that illusion.

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