The Army’s Two Impulses in Kashmir
Military Doctrine and Departures
By: ALI AHMED
Below is advice for policy makers and Indian army strategists on the website of an armed forces think tank:
‘There is a need to implement few of hardline practices followed by Israel or USA in tackling terrorists. Policy of restraint needs a quick overhaul. SF personnel must have clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of stone throwing public. Collateral damage has to be acceptable in such cases, but a single SF casualty must not be tolerated.”
Superficially, it is merely explicating what the army chief once famously warned: that stone throwers would be taken as ‘over-ground workers of terrorists’ and disposed-off accordingly. The commentator wishes that they form part of ‘collateral damage’ here on, elaborating what the army chief included as the ‘harsh way’ to deal with stone pelting.
While, in light of killings of three stone pelters, including a sixteen year old girl, it is uncertain if the ‘harsh way’ was merely a threat held out or is being implemented, the army chief can be given the benefit of doubt on his assurance that security forces are mindful of ‘people friendly’ rules of engagement.
Rawat had claimed, ‘that the SFs (security forces) haven’t been so brutal — look at Syria and Pakistan. They use tanks and air power in similar situations. Our troops have been trying their level best to avoid any civilian casualty despite huge provocation.’
The commentator thus appears to be arguing against his boss’ view that the Indian way is different. The commentator, a former senior fellow at the think tank, instead wishes for a ‘quick overhaul’ of such restraint, now that the elected government in Srinagar has been sent packing and Kashmir is under governor’s rule.
This despite his army chief putting a stop to such hankering with his admonishing that ‘there is nothing such as stepping up … the army continues to operate with formulated rules of engagement.’
Clearly, there are two impulses within Kashmir.
One is the only sensible recourse that makes the army chief proud of the army’s human rights record. Dismissing the recently released report of a UN human rights body, he said that the army’s record is ‘above board’, well known also to Kashmiris. To nevertheless deter stone throwing, he occasionally vents his exasperation in the media on stone throwers, hoping that by repetition to convince Kashmiri youth that being ‘carried away unnecessarily’ after azadi is futile.
The second impulse leads up to references to the ‘harsh way’ being taken rather too seriously, for instance, in the case in which an officer ended up with a first information report lodged against him.
These two impulses have always been incidental in Kashmir, and indeed elsewhere in counter insurgency employment. Doctrine is expected to mediate between the two and the doctrinal tenets are to prevail. In this case, the thief appears to be referring to the longstanding doctrine, articulated in 2006 as ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. There is always present the second – perhaps subversive -counter narrative, referred to by the commentator in question as ‘open steel glove policy’. It is always possible for the second to overwhelm the first.
India’s Kashmir record provides instances when this has been so. While the official narrative has always been one of being human rights cognizant in operations, that these have not always been upheld is unfortunately also true.
A couple of extracts from missives dating to the early and mid-nineties from the Unified Headquarters, presided over by an adviser to the governor in J&K, to the security forces operating there is indicative: ‘Attitudinal change must take place. Indian citizens must not be degraded, ill treated or thrashed;’ ‘Merciless beating of one and all during cordon and search operations. At some times such beatings take place in full view of the public.’
The understanding behind such departures from tenet in practice is that perception management, including media management, can cover up. It is no wonder the commentator in question urges, ‘Media management is paramount…’
The counter narrative has a healthy following. Take the case where human rights has been taken seriously and its violation followed to its logical conclusion, that of the firing of about two score bullets into a car that sped past a check point at Budgam, killing its two youngsters. It was not particularly popular, requiring the army commander having to explain the action to his command in a demi-official letter.
Even so, later his prompt redressal action was harangued in a journal of the think tank in question by a former head of that think tank now with the Hindutva-linked India Foundation. The cultural nationalism-inspired criticism implied that the action of the army commander had ‘political considerations’ at heart.
This reading of the approach to human rights in the army implies that for the army to walk the talk, its commanders need to first be persuaded and must be exert accordingly to sensitise their command. This is easier said than done.
The army has a command culture which is considerably personalized. The tyranny of the confidential report keeps tactical level subordinates responsive to the command climate that the commander puts in place. The operational level commander could well put in place a laissez faire approach, escaping censure by scoring high on the bean count such as on terrorists killed. Since families alienated are not quantified, the army has in such periods settled for tactical success in return for strategic failure.
The phenomenon appears to be recurring. The army chief in his pitch against azadi admitted as much, stating, “These numbers (of militants who are killed in gunbattles with the army) don’t matter to me because I know this cycle will continue. There are fresh recruitments happening.”
It did not occur to the chief that his ill-advised condoning a brazen violation in the ‘human shield’ episode has arguably contributed to militancy continuing into Operation All Out’s second year though the operation accounted for some 225 terrorists.
It would not do to restrict the focus on the army alone. There are central police forces numbering in the six digits in Kashmir. There is no known doctrine that informs their conduct. It is well known that they have hands-off supervision. It is no secret that khaki-clad leaders such as late EN Rammohan are an exception. At the height of insurgency and its counter, he expressly forbade paramilitary combining in itself the roles of ‘judge, jury and executioner’. A leadership deficit lends itself to human rights short cuts; the most egregious of which is the slothful retention of pellet guns in a day and age of availability of substitutes in plenty and monies to access these.
While differences can be aired on pages of think tank wares, having divergences within the ranks over fundamentals requires greater vigilance in doctrine dissemination and implementation. Doctrinal dissonance cannot be allowed to take any more Kashmiri lives.