First Person | Prejudice-Train

The enemy may be invisible but we know what he/she wears

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Two weeks ago, one of the national newspapers carried a report that the Indian Army’s Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) at Gaya intends to take training of cadets in counter-insurgency operations, which has been a part of the syllabi for several years now, to the next level; a level where the purported enemy would no longer be an amorphous concept like ‘red force’, but would acquire a physical form, ethnicity and, religion.

In a tender inviting bids to construct a training village inside the academy to simulate conditions of operations, the training team of OTA Gaya has asked for, among other things, structures of village huts with different specifications of material and sizes, a mosque and a church. It has also asked for mannequins to be dressed in pherans, burkhas (full body veil), pathani suits, skull caps, traditional clothing of women from the Northeast and robes of a Christian priest. Some mannequins will also be dressed in police uniforms; apparently, to teach cadets to distinguish between friend and foe. Or maybe because sometimes foes come in the garb of friends!

In the armed forces, training is akin to breathing, stemming from the philosophy that sweat during training saves blood during war. From the training emerges the standard operating procedures (SOPs) which are meant to become reflexes for soldiers, so hard must they practice those. The idea is that when faced with a situation, a soldier must instinctively respond, because if he pauses to consider his move, he may lose his nerve. The SOPs also instil a superficial sense of invincibility as the soldier with limited thinking faculties is made to believe that as long as he follows the SOP, he is likely to be safe. This is the reason, that in unfortunate situations when soldiers suffer unnecessary casualties, the blame is usually apportioned on not following the SOPs.

Training is also dynamic and must evolve with time and at the Indian military academies the curriculum has been revised frequently factoring in new challenges. Apparently, in the Indian Army thinking, the possibility of a conventional war has receded, despite the presence of two military-held lines. It seems that the army now believes that this is the age of sub-conventional or irregular wars mounted by Pakistan, and to some extent China, by stoking insurgencies and terrorism in various parts of the country.

There are two ironies here. One, if indeed the future belongs to only irregular wars, then the Indian Army will progressively become a defensive force, forever responding to the initiative taken by others. In terms of ethos and mind-set, wouldn’t this reduce it to the level of a paramilitary?

Two, alluding to irregular wars, or more specifically, terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the military at the Combined Commander’s Conference last year that the enemy is invisible. Yet, the army now seems to believe that not only can it ‘see’ the enemy, it can ‘show’ it to the young cadets too, right at the academy by creating a mock village with caricaturish people.

In the early years of the last decade, the army in Kashmir figured out that demonising the local population for the sake of cold and effective operations was yielding diminishing returns. Hence, it started a major outreach programme to win hearts and minds (WHAM) of the Kashmiri people under Operation Sadbhavna. While at the heart of the programme was improving intelligence gathering by winning the trust of the local people, on the surface, efforts were made to humanise the local population, so that an average soldier did not view Kashmiris as enemies. ‘Awaam aur Jawan, Aman Hai Muqaam’ (both people and soldiers desire peace), has been the army’s slogan since then.

Yet, now when even by the army’s own claims, the situation in Kashmir is almost ‘normal’, it wants to qualify the enemy as someone who wears the pheran or a skull-cap. Or a white priestly robe (representing the Christians of the Northeast), when the government of India has only recently signed what it calls a historic peace accord with the Nagas, thereby ending the oldest and the most protracted insurgencies of the country!

What could the army leadership be thinking of when it decided to stereotype insurgents and terrorists? Or is it possible that it did not think at all? That it just wanted to replicate a training village which some of its officers may have seen in some other country? Or does it reflect a prejudice which is increasingly becoming widespread in the country, that while all Muslims may not be terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims?

One of the biggest causes of insurgencies in various parts of India is political disaffection because some people feel alienated from the mainstream. Since Independence, this has been recognised as one of the biggest challenges to nation-building, hence the national integration programmes by various governments through the years. Religious and ethnic stereotyping completely negates the sentiment of integration.

Prejudice comes in many shades and forms; and the one which is inculcated in the formative years usually last a lifetime, despite positive experiences of later years, which are dismissed as exceptions. A cadet, who is trained to recognise a certain dress form as adversarial is likely to hold this perception for most of his service years. A prejudiced person can only alienate people, not win them over. And the cycle of insurgency will continue ad infinitum…


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