Debating India


Face The Facts

Praveen SWAMI

Tuesday 1 June 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

India is not, for all the hot air emanating from North and South Block, anywhere near winning the war on terrorism in J&K—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.

Several dozen articles have appeared over the last fortnight, outlining the sketches of what their authors feel ought to be done in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The ideas debated include, variously, deepening or going slow on dialogue with Pakistan; restricting negotiations with secessionists to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference’s (APHC’s) moderate faction or extending them to Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani; resuscitating the economy through public investment or the private sector; and initiating a unilateral ceasefire or not. Not one gives any reason to suspect that a particularly unpleasant armed conflict exists in J&K, or that there could perhaps be ways for India to fight it better.

Here is one basic military fact: more than four months after the initiation of the ceasefire along the Line of Control, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s peace initiative has not yet led to an improvement in the ground situation. 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. The numbers of civilians killed in these months fell to 232 this year from 246 last year, it is true, 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.

Here is another basic military fact: India is not, for all the hot air emanating from North and South Block, anywhere near winning the war on terrorism in J&K. In 1994, Indian forces - a term I use to include the Army, paramilitary forces, the police, and others batting, as it were, on the Indian side, like Special Police Officers and pro-India militia members - shot dead 7.70 terrorists for each person they lost. Since 1996, however, not in a single year have Indian forces even matched the ratio of success they recorded in 1990, 1:4.18. [The SF-terrorist ratio in year 2003 stood at 1:4. 05, and for year 2004, till May 13, 1:3.02].

Overall fatalities in violence in J&K have, of course, been falling steadily from their peak at 3,796 in 2001. The trend has been continuous, irrespective of policy postures of Indo-Pak tensions and periodic d?tente, since 2002, the year when Operation Parakram established that there was indeed some point at which India might be tempted to go to war in response to the sub-conventional battering inflicted by Pakistan. However, this has not translated into meaningful gains for ordinary people. Large parts of the Kashmir Valley, particularly the rim of the Pir Panjal, remain effectively dominated by jihadi groups. So, too, do several rural areas in Doda, Rajouri, Poonch and Udhampur. Terrorists may not be carrying out as many offensive operations as they did before 2002, but the fact remains that they, not Indian Forces, are the de facto arbiters of life and death in significant swathes of rural J&K.

Just how this skews political life was made evident in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections to the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat. Voter turnout was low in segments where the National Conference or Communist Party of India (Marxist) was expected to do well, and high where the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) prospects were good. No prizes need be awarded for working out the obvious conclusions. In effect, the PDP’s deal with the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin (HM)served it well. Handing out contracts to the close family members of HM cadre, and effectively ending action against overground sympathisers and harbourers, was the price the Party paid.

Indian forces must address three key issues if anything is to change. Many of these have been discussed endlessly over the years, but they are reiterated here in the hope there will actually be a serious debate:

First, there is no purpose served by scattering company-strength or larger pickets across rural J&K, if, as is the case at present, their primary objective is defending themselves. The effective cessation of random night-time patrols and cordon and search operations has been one of the more insidious legacies of the fidayeen (suicide squad) attacks initiated five years ago. Over a third of a typical unit’s effective strength is tied down in night-time perimeter protection. Terrorists have been able to use this situation to establish domination over villages at night, when scores can be settled with individuals perceived as informers, or just generally pro-India.

Second, the pattern of deployment needs to be reconsidered, particularly the manpower-intensive commitments in urban centres. Much of this is a legacy of the 1990s, which has not taken into account the fact that the character of terrorism has changed. Srinagar city has thousands of men who do nothing most of the time, for the good reason that there is not very much to be done. Much of the force in the city simply stands around in the day, providing a target to whoever wishes to use small arms or grenades against them. Elementary actions, like building elevated towers to monitor crowded areas and at once protect against grenade attacks, have not been taken.

Third, the Indian Army needs to accept that its principal focus, in the foreseeable future, will be counter-terrorist. It needs to work harder at building a cooperative working mechanism with the police and paramilitaries. The current ego-driven debates over command, which break out every year or so, are debilitating and fruitless. Successful officers have in general been responsive to these realities, but the lessons they have learned need to be institutionalised. At once, the police and paramilitaries need to engage in urgent action on their own severe limitations. Policemen who do not have mess to eat in or a home to go to cannot be expected to display sustained motivation in an unending war. There also needs to be a great emphasis on forensic and intelligence technologies that can bring a larger number of terrorist to conviction through the judicial process. A police force without a signals service of its own, moreover, is an anachronism.

Several meta-issues, of course, need to be addressed: questions of an effective and coherent Pakistan policy, long-term doctrinal reform, economic development, administrative reform, and unleashing India’s own offensive sub-conventional capabilities. Crucially, there are things that can be done today which are not being done. Admitting one has a problem is a necessary precondition for doing something about it. Historically, Indian politicians and bureaucrats have been loath to do this. Responses to crisis have changed little since the Mughal period, consisting essentially of throwing bribes at local chieftains and despatching an army if the trouble really gets out of hand. Underlying this is the assumption that time is on India’s side. Given the direction in which the United States’ policy on Pakistan is likely to develop, driven increasingly by the Iraq quagmire, this assumption may not remain valid for long.


Praveen Swami is New Delhi Chief of Bureau, Frontline magazine, and also writes for its sisterpublication, The Hindu. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

in Outlook India, Tuesday, June 1, 2004.

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