Bottomline | Clash of Interests

The army has no case for continuation of AFSPA in J&K

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

It saddens me to watch the Indian Army go to rack and ruin over its undesirable position on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir. Today, it seems so unlike the hallowed institution that I was commissioned into in the Seventies. What could have possessed it that it is doing the opposite of what it should. Instead of giving primacy to its tasks on the disputed borders.

It wants to continue garnering honours,laurels and promotions on internal security role.In army parlance, this ‘aid to civil power’ role used to be looked down upon, something of a necessary evil. All professional armies demand the ‘End State’ from their government; what exactly is expected of them. What military aims should they set for themselves to accomplish desired political objectives against their adversaries? This does not seem to be the case with the Indian Army. Its top brass is insisting on continuing with an elusive ‘End State’ task; the need to create an environment for governance and political process to commence. And just when that matrix is achieved, instead of going back to its primary task gladly, it has pitted itself as a stakeholder in the troubled state. It is army against the state government in Jammu and Kashmir with a hapless Prime Minister caught in his own national security ignorance whirlpool with little help from his senior ministers responsible for defence and home affairs. Let alone the motley people, the state chief minister, Omar Abdullah feels compelled to pay deference to what the army says. But, then J&K is no ordinary state; it has a 746km long Line of Control through which Pakistan continues to wage a proxy war since 1990. The credit goes to the army for consistently thwarting Pakistan’s nefarious designs of wresting Kashmir at huge costs.

Since 1990, the army has been fighting the proxy war tooth and nail. The then army chief, General V.N. Sharma wanted to go to war with Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in J&K. Unfortunately, the army was not ready. The unusual military activism of the Eighties that saw Operation Brasstacks, the Sumdorong Chu crisis, Operation Trident, and Operation Pawan had battered the army equipment and personnel so hard that it needed a year to recover. The next army chief, General S.F. Rodrigues’ tenure from 1990 to 1993 saw the biggest deployment of regular troops in internal security operations in the state. The army chief told me in 1991 (I was working with the Times of India newspaper), that he was unhappy with the army in such large numbers being in ‘aid to civil power’ with an undefined End State. His successor, General B.C. Joshi, reconciled with the obvious, was determined to fight the proxy war on his own terms. He met me the day he assumed office on 1 July 1993 (I was with the Indian Express newspaper then) to both share his daring plan of massive Rashtriya Rifles (RR) raisings, and to assure that the army would go back to its primary task once the situation stabilised for civilian government to function. A total of 30 battalions and 10 sector headquarters which translated into 40,000 RR troops were raised by him in a record time of nine months by milking existing army units. In hindsight, he was a towering figure with a vision and determination to take calculated risks.

Subsequent army chiefs have both refined and consolidated the CI ops to make it humane, and raised new RR units. Unfortunately, owing to prolonged proximity with civilians, the army along the way tasted blood. With the sole exception of the northern army commander in 2008, a man of rectitude who had a truncated tenure, all army commanders and their chiefs could not get themselves to decide when to recommend termination of the ‘aid to civil power’ role. Refuge has been taken in self-coined military phrases like ‘attack by infiltration’, ‘proxy war’, and recently, ‘agitational terrorism’. So much so, the army in 1996 offered to replace border areas officials with men in uniform. A major general rank officer was sought to substitute the divisional commissioner and a brigadier, a tehsildar. The bizarre offer, of course was declined. At present, the RR in J&K has 62 battalions and corresponding headquarters with a total strength of about 85,000 troops. In addition, there are three infantry brigades (each with 3,500 troops) also tasked on CI role. This is the largest professional CI force anywhere in the world.

So much was the army focussed on CI ops that it misread the 1999 occupation of Indian territories by Pakistani forces (Kargil conflict) as another large scale infiltration. This was the wake-up call for the army that it was losing sight of its primary role. Had Pakistan been militarily prepared to convert the Kargil conflict into a full-scale war, the Indian Army in my assessment would not have fared well. Rather than heeding the warning signals, the army remained loathe to go back to its primary task, pretending all along that CI ops were its bread and butter. It is army’s good luck that when Operation Parakram (the 10-month military stand-off between India and Pakistan) happened in December 2001, the entire blame for not going to war was placed on the political leadership. The then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee later admitted that not going to war with Pakistan in January 2002, when GHQ Rawalpindi was not fully prepared, was a mistake. Few know that the then northern army commander had told the army chief, General S. Padmanabhan that he was not fully prepared to deliver desired military objectives. Giving the example of the 1971 war when the then army chief, General Sam Manekshaw asked the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for six months’ time, he sought more time before going to war.

Instead of learning the lessons, the army in J&K continued to ignore the turning points which were aplenty. One such was in November 2003 when the ceasefire was agreed on the Line of Control. The next one was in 2004 when maximum numbers of terrorist were killed on the LC; without Pakistani covering fire, infiltrations became increasing difficult. Moreover, fencing of the LC in 2004 created an additional obstacle for infiltrators. The army claimed to have broken the back of terrorists resulting which the year 2006 witnessed mass surrenders on the LC. The then GOC, 19 Division, Maj. Gen. Ramesh Halgali (present director general, military training) told me (FORCE, May 2007): ‘In my view, a minimum of two seasons (two summers) should determine whether terrorism has receded. Therefore, we should watch 2007 and 2008.’ Interestingly, the northern army commander in 2008 (the lone senior officer to have done so) had recommended a gradual lifting of the AFSPA arguing that the army had not entered cities and many towns in the last many years and that the state police was competent to take care of the urban areas. His suggestion was not accepted by the state chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad. However, his successor, the present chief minister, on assuming office, after the 2008 assembly elections which witnessed sizeable number of Kashmiris voting for governance, disclosed his intention of seeking revocation of the AFSPA. Even as the last three years witnessed a series of agitations, Omar Abdullah has consistently sought consensus both with security forces and with the Union government on AFSPA. While the army had no role in dousing the agitations of 2008, 2009 and 2010, it termed it ‘agitational terrorism’, making the point that it was premature to even partially lift the AFSPA. The moot question is why is the army opposing the lifting of AFSPA, when the Inspector General, Kashmir range, S.M. Sahai has publicly said that the J&K police is capable of dealing with the challenge of terrorism at its current level? He has under him 50,000 policemen and 55,000 armed CRPF (55 battalions) personnel in the Valley alone.

There is little gainsaying that Omar Abdullah would have consulted his police senior brass before announcing his intention to partially remove the AFSPA. It is thus a travesty of professionalism that senior army officers are gloating that the RR does the CI ops better than the state police and the CRPF. What is their desperation to keep doing CI ops, and are the army’s arguments to continue having the AFSPA in the whole of J&K justified? Unlike the rest of the country, the army stands 10-feet tall in the border state. Let alone disagree with the army, Kashmiris of all hues are extremely careful not to criticise the army for anything (I recently met a senior Separatists’ ideologue who refused to comment on the army, choosing to bash the state government instead). Ordinary people live in constant fear of it; a whole generation has grown up in dread of the army’s mighty boots; there are stories, both real and fanciful, of how army blew up houses in border towns where terrorists were alleged to be holed up killing entire families; and hundreds of young men are still missing, unaccounted by the army. The local media is cautious about what it writes about the army, army officers (of any rank) are treated like lords, whose words have to be reported, and media interactions with corps commanders draws as many media personnel as would the state chief minister. The army has an unequal say in the Unified Commands set up in the state. State police officers tell me that the reason why the Valley’s corps commanders’ tenure is never more than a year is because being a prize posting lots more are waiting in the wings. Given such clout, local traders are more than eager to please army officers. There are numerous stories about Sadbhavana and other financial bungling insiders have told me over the years.

To be sure, there is no smoke without fire. Then, we have the reported cases of ketchup colonels; my former colleagues in the army never tire of boasting about the number of kills to their credit. Insiders have told me that the RR would be hesitant to forsake the buildings that house various headquarters (being treated like permanent Key Location Plan constructions) that army has built in the Valley over the years, and go back to temporary tents. Once the RR vacates them they would go to the state police and the CRPF. All these are indicators that the RR needs to undertake a deep review within. Probably, the singular reason why the army does not want to reduce the RR numbers (once AFSPA gets lifted, the army would be compelled to reduce its CI role) is that it has been raised as a temporary non-field force, equivalent of paramilitary forces, under Composition Table Part-II. Not being the authorised strength, the army would lose these numbers permanently.

Along with this, it will lose the numerous ranks that it fears may affect officers’ morale. However, a serious look would suggest that should the army focus on its primary role, this force could be the driver for the army’s Cold Start doctrine (to be discussed in the FORCE’s 100th issue in December 2011). Meanwhile, let us examine the army’s arguments for not lifting the AFSPA? It says that terrorists’ infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir remains intact, and to get accurate real time information on infiltration from its military intelligence it needs the AFSPA in cities and towns (which have not had its presence since a decade) as terrorists’ handlers are ensconced there. Any serious visitor to the Valley would inform you that best intelligence on terrorists in cities and towns come from the state police and Intelligence Bureau sources, and not military intelligence. There is simply no connection between anti-infiltration operations that is the army’s responsibility, and counter-terrorism operations (CT ops), and law and order (agitational terrorism in army’s language) in cities and select towns that the state police and CRPF are capable of doing.As the RR reduces its footprint, with the gradual removal of the AFSPA.

The corps battle school located at Khrew in the Valley, which can accommodate 1,500 troops at one time, could be utilised by the CRPF and state police personnel. If this happens, in one season alone, there will be substantive numbers of paramilitary and state police forces trained by the army in CT ops. The army’s other argument that it needs AFSPA for protection of 15 corps headquarters at Badami Bagh and other headquarters is not even worth commenting upon. In its defence, the army says that its approach to CI ops has become more humane and less visible. This is true. But, given the psychological dread the Kashmiris have of the army, does this help? When the state government feels that it has the wherewithal to take over Sadbhavna projects, why should the army hang on to them? It certainly need not run the various schools started by it when the state education department wants to run them now. The state recently had 85 per cent people voting in panchayat elections held after three decades, and plans to hold urban areas block elections as well.

Wouldn’t these elected representatives become the watchdogs of various backward and remove area projects now run by the army? Is not this what governance is all about? Now, the final argument, which has the state and the central government squirming. The army’s contention is that, if removed, it will be difficult for it to re-establish itself well in time should terrorism rear its head once again in J&K. This is exactly the argument the army gave to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding Siachen in 2005, when he was keen to convert the glacier into a zone of peace. The argument is valid for Siachen. Without any population, and given the fact that the Indian Army holds the Saltoro ridge in high altitude ranging from 13,000 feet to 24,000 feet, and that there is a single route for India to reach most posts, it would be nearly impossible for the Indian Army to force Pakistanis to vacate posts if they were to occupy Indian abandoned positions.Unless the Indian Army is satisfied with the Siachen deal reached with the Pakistan Army, India will get egg on its face for trusting Pakistan.

The case for gradual removal of AFSPA from cities and towns in J&K and the corresponding withdrawal of RR is not the same. There will be enough geopolitical, strategic and tactical level indications before a 1990 type situation happens in the Valley. In a worst case scenario, which is highly improbable, the state police and CRPF are capable of a holding operation before the RR numbers can be assembled in less than six months. If the army under General Joshi could raise 45,000 soldiers from scratch, why cannot it do so when it has enormous experience and expertise of CT ops in the state? An experience of 21 years does not disappear like odourless gas. The problems really are two: the army has developed a vested interest, and the political leadership is scared to take the call. This situation must change and soon.


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