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Monday, December 26, 2011

To specialise or not?

26 December 2011 - The deliberations of the Naresh Chandra National Security Task Force are being deliberately kept off the headlines - perhaps because the conventional thinking is that national security is a non-partisan sphere from which politics is to be kept out. The dominant understanding is that there ought to be a consensus over the defence sector. This would be disrupted if its findings find their way into the headlines.


While these are weighty matters that can do without raucous political and ill-informed media attention, there is one aspect that is likely to figure in the report that requires open debate. This is the aspect of specialisation of the national security bureaucracy.

Currently, bureaucrats posted in the defence ministry are non-specialists. They acquire their knowledge and expertise to the extent that they finally do during their tenure in the ministry. They come from various ministries and state cadres, and there is inevitably a time lag before they can understand their role and the demands of the ministry. Their stay is usually of five years, at the end of which, when they finally acquire a certain degree of competence, they are out.

The argument for specialisation

The long standing argument, made particularly by the late K Subrahmanyam who was himself once a bureaucrat in the defence ministry, has been that this impacts the ministry's work negatively. With the bureaucratic layer having interposed itself between the military and the political master, the impact is more severe. The file system was reportedly earlier a 'double file' one in which the ministry duplicated the military's file that would come up for decision, thereby keeping the military 'out of the loop' and the logic of the decision. Their lack of expertise in the field of national security and in the procedural aspects of acquisitions, etc. has apparently led to much delay in processing cases, with corresponding implications for military readiness and defence spending.

Currently, bureaucrats posted in the defence ministry are non-specialists.


The advantages would be great - the ministry's ability to facilitate defence related projects such as acquisitions, infrastructure, defence industry and technology would rise dramatically. The usual stand-off between the bureaucrats and the brass would also become a thing of the past. The harmony in South Block will translate into synergy in the defence sector, including defence production and technology base and the services.

But there are risks

Of course there is a downside, and in persuading ourselves of the positives we should not miss seeing that. Socialisation into national security thinking will lead to bureaucrats adopting the 'party' line. In other words, group-think will set in.

This is not to hold fort for the current system. It does have the problems that the critics point out. But their solution to the problem, of bringing in uniformity in thinking in the national security system, goes against India's principal strength and characteristic - the ability to draw from its diversity. The selection and conditioning of the bureaucrats into the system would ensure that the dominant power-oriented view prevails. Dissent will be a casualty. The defence sector will end up a greater 'holy cow' than what it already is. The 'committed' bureaucrat, a phrase redolent with Emergency connotations, will be in demand.

Moreover, since India is a developing state, an overdeveloped defence sector will tend to overshadow the development sector. While national security may benefit in the short term, its long term consequence for democracy cannot be benign.

Consider the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has been in the headlines since autumn in Kashmir. The defence ministry has seconded the position of the army that it should not be tweaked in Kashmir. This has held up political initiative in Kashmir despite the home ministry, which is responsible for internal security, and the state government being amenable to change. In case of a ministry manned by a specialised cadre of bureaucrats, it would be so much more difficult to bring about changes such as this.

Currently the status quo owes to bureaucratic politics in the ministry, rather than the ministry being persuaded by the army's case. The political level is not strong enough to override the army's objection, beset as it has been with diverse challenges for the past six months. Batting to one script, they will not be able to bring their independent judgment, informed by a wider-than-defence world view, to their advice. In case the bureaucrats serving in the ministry of defence parrot the power-oriented national security line, the political level will not be able to exercise political control adequately.

The military chafes at the present situation in which the political master uses the bureaucrats for exercising political control. In case the bureaucrats and the military are of one mind, the minister would not be able to access contrary views that could help with informed decision making. The argument is made that the bureaucrats would be better able to tender their advice since they would be more knowledgeable. However, the problem is in their acquiring a uniform perspective through selection bias, training and personnel policies such as promotion, rotations and appointments.

The diversity of perspective that they bring to their task currently helps situate the defence sector in the wider national scheme. Creating a specialised cadre would cut them off from the rest of the national scene, making the defence sector an island and a law unto itself. The resulting political challenges can be quite severe.

One way to overcome this problem would be in integrating service headquarters with the ministry. While the uniformed element would bring in the expertise, bureaucrats, more familiar with how the government system works, will be able to balance any overly militarised input. Their exposure on military courses and on university courses will raise the respect for them within the military, thereby ending the feud between the ministry and the service headquarters.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater will only lead to us repenting at leisure.

Monday, December 05, 2011

#3505, 5 December 2011

Firdaus Ahmed

An army brigade has been deployed for its jungle warfare training to Chhattisgarh for the second round. Reportedly it is located closer to the forested area than the brigade that had trained there earlier. With another such deployment, troops would edge closer to the Maoist ‘liberated zone’ as by then there would be enough troops familiar with the terrain and the challenge. The decision to give a free rein to them to ‘liberate’ the tribals held ‘hostage’ by Maoists in the forests can be easily taken.

From the preliminary moves underway it is apparent that the option is open, subject to the army’s readiness. Though the army is not in favour since its engagement in Kashmir continues, leaving no troops to spare. The army deployment for training purposes is an internal variant of ‘coercive diplomacy’ - it is to goad the Maoists on to the table.

In the interim the window for talks is closing. The Maoists interlocutor, Azad, was shot last year. The new state government in Kolkata has resumed operations successfully in claiming the Maoist leader, Kishenji, after a short ceasefire. Fresh thinking on breaking the status quo is called for. Operations to open up ‘no go’ areas do not seem imminent. The paramilitary is doing a reasonable job of keeping the areas needed for extraction of minerals open, but at a non-trivial cost in lives. The companies accessing difficult areas are arriving at an arrangement with the Maoists. Maoists have been contained in their hold outs. The only ones suffering are the already marginalized tribal communities within and in the adjacent region.

In the meanwhile, the government has extended its tried and tested policy of dole to the region, empowering its administrators already burdened with the usual development load with another 25 crore Rupees per district. This may well end up with contractors, who will pay out some to the Maoists as protection money. Glacial operations are set to be indefinitely extended. This is good enough for security managers perhaps; but not so for tribal communities. They have been squeezed between Maoists and the state supported SPOs. The Supreme Court judgment on the SPOs has been undercut by the Chhattisgarh state enacting a law institutionalizing their employment.

Then, can the tribal communities be saved? The military option, in case mere military posturing fails, has precedent. The clearing of the Lakhipather reserve forests off the ULFA in late 1990 and Operation Sarp Vinash in Surankot in Poonch district are examples, which involved the army setting up a firm base and then moving in. In both cases the quarry had fled by the time the army closed the cordon. For Maoists to flee into neighbouring areas within time in case of military operations is possible. This will leave the resident village communities open to the attention of the SPOs, Koya Commondos etc, inevitably part of the vanguard of the operation. In case the Moaists are indeed trapped, with the military learning lessons from earlier operations, their plight will be worse. Pre-empting operations would also benefit the state and the military since jungle operations are known to consume troops and time, witness the operations of the IPKF in late eighties.

An idea is to apply the ‘Nagaland model’ to conflict resolution in Central India. In Nagaland the ceasefire is into its fourteenth year, even as talks continue. Loosely applied regulations enable the armed groups to coexist with the security forces. A parallel government of the no-longer-underground is in place that ‘taxes’ people. The good part is that the two sides are not shooting at each other. The resulting peace has proved addictive and chances of reversion to internal conflict are receding. The talks have been buoyed lately by ideas such as a ‘non-territorial’ or ‘supra state’ solution to the major holdup, Nagalim.

Maoists stand to make gains in legitimacy, visibility and power. This may tempt them down the democratic route. This is worth conceding for the state in exchange for protecting Indian citizens: their life and liberties and restoring a dignified life to the people. The state’s policies will get better implemented, with areas opened for development. The major gain, as in Nagaland, would be in backtracking being precluded by either side. It would make them lose out strategically in terms of losing support among the people, who would prefer that peace acquire roots. Peace would then be self-sustaining.

Over the past three years, there has been a lot of ‘talk about talks’. The problems of this strategy are that with a dwindling leadership, the insurgent groups break up. While easier to tackle, bringing the violence to end becomes problematic. The stated intent of the Home Minister needs translation into action. The Nagaland model exists. The promise of development will be easier to deliver. The elimination of the top Maoist leader, Kishenji, provides an opportunity for acting from a position of strength. Seizing it would certainly spare India’s tribal communities becoming a site for yet another unending counter-insurgency.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

#3483, 3 November 2011

Firdaus Ahmed

Head bureaucrats of the home and defence ministries and the cabinet secretary reportedly had a pre-Diwali meeting to attend to a divergence between the two ministries that needed attention at the political level. News reports carry unconfirmed reports of the CCS having met to settle the divergence. That no announcement of the retraction of the ‘disturbed areas’ status from parts of J&K have been made since means that the decision is to persist with the AFSPA in its present ambit.

The divergence between the two ministries was therefore not of a trivial level in which the army was merely disputing the disturbed areas status of a few areas. If that was the case it could well have been settled at the Unified HQs level. From governmental reticence it can be inferred that the divergence is more extensive. Self-evidently, the army has weighed in against the rollback of the AFSPA, irrespective of whether normalcy has returned to areas in question or not.

That no announcement has been made of any rollback as had been indicated by Omar Abdullah, reportedly after commiserations from the home minister, implies that the CCS is persuaded with the army’s viewpoint. What is the viewpoint and what are its implications?

The army argues that there are 2500 terrorists in 42 camps across the state. At seven of these camps there are 700 terrorists set to cross. It is no secret that terror infrastructure has not been rolled back by Pakistan. Pakistan is capable of reasserting itself in Kashmir and may do so once its current preoccupation to the west is over. It still has support in the Valley and terrorists inside have been instructed to survive till they are employed. Having the AFSPA rolled back in the interim will generate greater freedom of movement for resurgence in terrorism.

This presumably reinforces the input of agencies such as RAW and IB that the government is privy to. This also perhaps explains the lack of action from the suggestion made by Omar Abdullah that the AFSPA’s imminent retraction will only occur in select areas where the security situation is more permissive of it. However, if it was only a question of security then the government’s inaction could be received with equanimity. But the implications of inaction are graver.

The suggestion that emerges is that the government is unwilling to switch its ‘main effort’ from a military template to a political one. The understanding that the prime minister gave in his interaction with the all party delegation at the end of last summer’s tumult, that the problem in J&K has both internal and external dimensions that require to be addressed politically, stands nullified.

The confidential recommendations in the interlocutors’ report in early October provided an entry point into furthering a political solution. The practicable ones do not need to await the outcome of governmental deliberations. These could have progressed piecemeal along with a modification to AFSPA’s application in J&K, for instance by withdrawal of the disturbed areas status of areas south of the Pir Panjals. That this has not been done indicates not just a lost opportunity but a deliberate government strategy that disallows the switch from military to political.

In other words, the government is not interested in following up on its own tried and tested doctrine that conflict termination can only be through political initiative. The problematic aspect is therefore less about whether the disturbed areas status needs be revoked in some areas and more about the government’s unwillingness to comprehend a political opportunity. That this is not a case of inability is quite clear for India has not been better placed both internally and externally in two decades.

Two significant implications remain. One is that the government expects to be able to handle the external factor. Second, that it would consequently be able to manage the internal fallout, if any. This may well be true. Pakistan is under considerable pressure. However, the understanding that containment as strategy can result in changing its strategic posture is questionable.

But more worrying is the tacit acceptance of the government that it can withstand anything Pakistan throws across with diminished ability in Kashmir. This betrays a willingness to expose the hapless citizenry to machinations from without and the resulting consequences once again.

The AFSPA issue therefore has graver implications. If the understanding here is a misplaced one, then the implication is far worse, namely that the government lacks the credibility to over-rule its military. In other words the military has a veto, making it an issue in civil-military relations.

It is to dispel this unfortunate, if unwitting, message that the government needs to modify the sway of the AFSPA in J&K irrespective of whether it is persuaded by the military case or not.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mr. Bhagat: Please get off our backs, will you!

By Firdaus Ahmed, The Milli Gazette
Published Online: Sep 25, 2011

Gratuitous advice is better ignored. Nevertheless, the ‘Underage Optimist’, Chetan Bhagat, intellectual icon of Generation Y, needs an answer. His advice for Muslims in his latest column, is, ‘Don’t let them divide and rule any more’. The assumption is that Muslims are permitting ‘them’ to ‘divide and rule’. For ‘them’ to not to rule ‘any more’, his ‘urge’ is that Muslims ‘not commit (their) vote and loyalty to any political party forever’.

His version of ‘vote-bank politics’ is in the minority choosing representatives ‘because he is a symbol of hope for the minority’. To him, ‘Muslim citizens are wooed the most because their community is one of the largest in terms of actual numbers and ‘also as a community they are believed to vote en-bloc’. This does not necessarily get them any dividends, since the representative then kept ‘us busy with the Hindu vs Muslim debate, while they hid the fact that the entire country suffered due to their misgovernance.’

Chetan Bhagat’s seemingly unexceptionable counsel needs to be juxtaposed with his earlier utterances. In earlier columns this year, he had offered public advice, that hindsight suggests may not necessarily have been unsolicited nor innocent, to Mr. Narendra Modi requiring him to make a transition to the national stage. He had praised Modi’s development record, attributing it to Modi’s ‘firmness’ on development. Look and behold, barely six months on and the nation has witnessed the first steps of Mr. Modi to break out of his regional satrapi, Gujarat.

In terminating a fast that has unfortunately for his pains, gone unremarked into history, Modi declined to sport a cap, the cultural marker of a Muslim community, offered by a Muslim follower. The commentary that attended the gesture had it that Mr. Modi did not want to spoil his image favoured by his majority supporters. In effect, there is an even more significant ‘vote-bank’ out there, the Hindu vote. The effort is to get it to vote ‘en-bloc’, an effort that has been on ever since the ‘Optimist’, even if ‘Underage’, has been old enough to know of. Why does this escape Mr. Bhagat’s admiring, though undiscerning, eye?

Chetan’s right for soliciting supporters for his favoured candidate is not in question. For him to employ his not inconsiderable talents and use his Times of India column for the purpose is between him and his maker and the editors of that newspaper. But his bias needs outing.

That he thinks in terms of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ is clear. Note his advice, this time to his co-religionists: ‘We as majority members have to be extra cautious to not hurt the feelings of minorities.’ In other words, the division he rails against is one in his own mind, one that he needs working on when he is not too busy advising others in the Sunday Times.

Rightly, there is a division, but not one between religions, but based on vision for the nation. The Muslims, sensibly are against majoritarian democracy, especially one in which the majority is defined, as Mr. Bhagat has it, by a denominational majority. To prevent this if they are to cast their vote the way they do, it is what usually trounces psephologists, the traditional wisdom of the Indian voter.

In his earlier ‘demystification’ of Mr. Modi, Mr. Bhagat deems him to be at best a pardonable ‘opportunist’. While that may be so, Muslims having had a taste of the ‘opportunism’ of Mr. Modi cannot facilitate it at the national stage by following Mr. Bhagat’s advice, even if it is for the sake of the argument here taken momentarily as well meant and above board.

Mr. Bhagat had once made out Mr. Modi as one who ‘believes in action’. He needs being asked where was this man of action, when Gujarat was burning? Or that it burnt was evidence of his being a man of ‘action’? Should not then Muslims take the evidence seriously, or should they believe his millionaire-writer apologist, Mr. Bhagat? It must be admitted that to his credit Mr. Bhagat admits to an incapacity, writing, ‘i can never fully understand the feelings a minority person goes through.’ But surely that does not prevent him from empathy, the stock of which is known to be more than most others in authors.

However, it must be conceded, Mr. Bhagat is right in his call, ‘my dear Muslim brothers and sisters, you have been had.’ There are several reports that bring this out, the latest being Harsh Mander’s Center for Equity Studies report. This is not necessarily as Mr. Bhagat implies because Muslims have propped up the Congress. Their support has been for those championing the development and secular plank. Mr. Bhagat appears to support without voicing it, a party that is not secular, howsoever strong it may be on development – a questionable proposition in itself once its record in Karnataka is taken on board. Consequently, it cannot benefit from the enlightened vote of Muslims.

Therefore, Mr. Bhagat’s parting shot – ‘It is our nation, yours and mine, that has to be made great now. Are you on board?’ – sounds trifle like a Bushism – ‘Either you are with us or against us!’. By that yardstick, Mr. Bhagat needs being told off, ‘We are manifestly not on board!’ For all his ‘audacious’ pains, he deserves the reason: Any unilateral redefinition of India by those he supports is not in the national interest and therefore cannot be endorsed by patriotic Muslims.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Reply for Mr. Narendra Modi

By Firdaus Ahmed

Dear Mr. Modi,

You begin your letter by conflating the ‘government’ and the ‘state’ of Gujarat with yourself. This is a case of double whammy. You can shield yourself behind Gujaratis. Manipulating them thus also helps consolidate them behind you. The ploy is to deter Modi skeptics from tarring them with the same brush they would use to attack you.

The ploy cannot be allowed to work. Indeed, all three, the state, its government and the chief minister at the helm, are culpable to varying degrees. The government of Gujarat can be indicted for its unwillingness to ignore patently illegitimate directions to ‘look the other way’ as mobs incited by majoritarian extremists went on the rampage. It has taken a decade for policemen to finally start standing up for the truth. Second, interpreting the ‘state’ you refer to include people of Gujarat, they are answerable at the very least to their own conscience, and at a stretch, to their fellow countrymen for being manipulated into enabling your second term.

Your reference to the past decade in Gujarat as one of ‘peace’ misinterprets peace. Peace, as theory would have it, is of three types. ‘Negative peace’ comprises absence of direct violence. This is the peace of the grave or peace brought on by fear that obtains in Gujarat. But that is to discount the happenings in the Dangs district, the several ‘encounters’ and unexplained killings, such as that of no less than the former home minister, Pandya.

The second is ‘positive peace’ or absence of structural violence. This stands negated by Muslim ghettoisation, continued existence of displaced persons in camps and the continuing denial of justice. The third, ‘cultural peace’, is freedom of all to join in an inclusive march towards prosperity. Remembering harmony and unity in diversity ten years since its need was most acute is hardly timely.

The timing of your letter suggests panic as the case is now in court. The bombast is diversionary since surely, even if slowly, justice is set to culminate. Is your orchestration of public opinion a measure to influence the court? But there is hope that the courts in Gujarat may yet prove ‘satyamev jayate’, a hope that has been unfortunately been belied so far.

As for your ‘development’ record, firstly, Gujarat has been uniquely poised to benefit from the liberalization that has been ongoing for two decades now by its location, its entrepreneurial citizenry and its pre-existing economic base. This would have happened despite your presence. Secondly, any cohesion and administrative capacity it reflects owes in part to apprehension in the state apparatus and society. Watching the carnage and the blatant manner you have got away with accountability for it, would no doubt inform the common administrators attitude and output. After all, did not the great JRD Tata once remark that in the Emergency, trains were on time. India does not need and can do without the Chinese authoritarian model of development. Lastly, the record on development is to be judged independently of your record during the carnage. Harnessing it to suggest ‘forgive and forget’ is trifle self-serving.

Development is useful from restorative justice point of view that deals with restitution and reconciliation. However, that still leaves the demands of retributive justice, or punishment for transgressions, unaddressed. The ‘sad bhavna’ on display at government expense on Gujarat university grounds by preaching only to the converted is a patently political act and can hardly be called a compensation for an apology or acknowledgement of deficiency.

Your repeated references to the ‘nation’ betray instead that your act is the first volley of an attempted hat trick in Gujarat to prepare for a shift to New Delhi. Be reminded that the ‘nation’, comprising India’s voters, has proven far more sensible than politicians give it credit for.

Borrowing your salutation, ‘Always at your service’,
Firdaus Ahmed

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Please see

An open reply to Modi's open letter

Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat wrote an open letter to citizens of India on 13 September 2011, in it he resolved to fast for three days from, Saturday, the 17th September 2011, starting a movement of "Sadbhavana Mission." Here is a reply to it from a well-wisher of Gujarat.
By Firdaus Ahmed, The Milli Gazette
Published Online: Sep 18, 2011

Dear Mr. Modi,
You open your letter thus – “The unhealthy environment created by the unfounded and false allegations made against me and Government of Gujarat, after 2002 riots, has come to an end. For the past ten years, it has become fashionable to defame me and the state of Gujarat. These elements who could not tolerate any positive development of Gujarat have not left any stone unturned to defame Gujarat.”

Your attempt to conflate the government and the state of Gujarat with yourself is apparent. The opprobrium due to the government and its chief minister in respective measure in their deplorable reaction to the carnage in Gujarat cannot be escaped. The “state” of Gujarat, that presumably refers to fellow Indians belonging there, also have to answer to their collective and individual conscience in so far they have chosen you as their chief minister despite knowledge of your record in the carnage. Therefore, there is no escaping accountability of the three – the state, its government and you – in the Gujarat carnage, misrepresented in the media as “riots”.

The government of Gujarat is to be arraigned for its supine obedience to illegal directions that it restricted its damage control responses after the Godhra incident, the antecedents of which have been willfully misrepresented. The administration and the police required to react with professional zeal. This would have been possible had they had the moral fiber to disregard the directions allowing certain sections to vent their spleen. The second reason for the government’s culpability is in complicity of sections of it in suppressing evidence, propagating false accounts and pursuing justice selectively. These cannot be obscured by pointing to a development record.

The state of Gujarat, that is interpreted here as its citizens, bears the onus of not disciplining you at the elections. The one manner of expressing its displeasure at the events in their home state would have been to exercise their franchise bearing in mind the inadmissibility of the manner of your stewardship of the state during the crisis. Even if the details of your culpability were not as well known then as is now known, the fact that carnage was allowed to be perpetrated and its perpetrators continue in their midst is something that the society needed to have dwelt on while exercising their democratic prerogative. That they did not do so is apparent in their giving you a reprieve and allowing you to chalk up a development record to help paper over your earlier demonstration of incapacity and ill will.

Democracy requires an alert citizenry, one that is sensitive to manipulation attempts. The voters in Gujarat have to answer as to why they have allowed themselves to be misled. This is not to deny their democratic right to cast their vote to who they wish, but to remind them that it is a responsibility they owe themselves and their fellow citizens to cast the vote with due discrimination.

This brings one to your record. That you were in charge of the state when these events were allowed to occur rightly should have led to your tendering your resignation taking moral responsibility. That you did not do so indicates your continuing need to be in a position to address the aftermath, to manipulate evidence. As is well known, you were saved from dismissal since the Centre was being run then by your own party and you had a well wisher as the Union home minister.

As for the development record, questioning its under-gridding drivers is in order. Firstly, Gujarat has been uniquely poised to benefit from the liberalization that has been ongoing for two decades now by its location, its entrepreneurial citizenry and its pre-existing economic base. This would have happened despite your presence or leadership. In fact, the development record stands blemished by the blot on Gujarat that you were principally instrumental in placing on its fair name. Secondly, any cohesion and administrative capacity it reflects owes in part to apprehension in the state apparatus and society.

Watching the carnage and the blatant manner you have got away with accountability for it, would no doubt inform the common man’s attitudes and output. After all, did not someone as important as Tata once remark that in the Emergency trains ran on time. Evaluating means is important to assessing ends. Lastly, the record on development is to be judged independently of your record during the carnage. The “forgive and forget” formula that your letter purveys is trifle self-serving on this score.

The timing of your letter also bears reflection. It bespeaks of a strategic move to move centerstage. The BJP central leadership in disarray and the Congress on the defensive makes it an opportune juncture to make the move. With the next Gujarat elections behind you, you would be in a position to stake a claim for a national profile. While there is no gainsaying that Gujaratis will have to take their own decisions, your attempt at acquiring a national role means that it would require to be purposefully combated.

You are democratically empowered to take a try. But this nation cannot afford to allow people to take charge of its destiny who have not paid a price for their past actions of omission or commission. That it has done so earlier such as in case of Mr. Advani, is no reason for it to err a second time. In his case, it was a mosque that was demolished for which he owed primary responsibility. To say that crowds he mobilised went out of control is only self-exculpatory. Likewise, the mobs that went wild in Gujarat were yours to control. The allegation you need to face up to is that you not merely failed to control them, but set them about their task by restraining the only force that could have prevented this, the police. They exacted a price of Gujaratis in lives. This is clearly greater a case for accountability than that of Mr. Advani.

Your references to the “nation” testify that the battle set to culminate in 2014 has been kicked off by you. Be mindful that India’s voters have proven far more sensible than their politicians give them credit for. They will surely teach you a lesson that your supporters in Gujarat have so far prevented you from receiving. That is, in case the courts do not do so earlier. After all, the case in the sessions court has only just begun; despite your obfuscation in giving the impression of closure at beginning your letter.

As the popular line goes: ‘picture abhi baki hai mere dost’. You will no doubt find, quite as you tweeted, that indeed, “God is Great!”

A friend of Gujarat

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shall we imprison everyone?

11 September 2011 - A recent op-ed in the Times of India, "No More Chasing Shadows" (9 September), has the head of 'a group on C4ISRT (Command, Control, Communications and Computers Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaisance and Targeting) in South Asia' casting the net of prospective terrorists wider, but not wide enough to possibly net the likely suspects.

He considers the public stereotype of the terrorist as a 'desperately poor, illiterate, uneducated, rural-based or ghetto-based, religious fanatic, a single young man in his late teens or early twenties' as inadequate. 'Madrassa students from poor families' are no longer the usual suspects. Instead, he alights on those who 'have no criminal records; are usually highly educated professionals such as engineers, doctors and architects; are usually married men with children; and have never displayed any religious extremism.'

As I read all this I got a feeling he's describing me. He goes on to say, chillingly for me as I read on, that they come from 'upper middle class families and exhibit only moderate religious behaviour.' According to him, I am now half way down to becoming a 'terror activist'. Casting his net to include both the 'poor, illiterate' and the 'rich, educated', he leaves out the non-existent 'poor, educated' and 'rich, uneducated'. Perhaps he'll include them in the dragnet over the next two blasts. Muslim women, Ishrat Jahan notwithstanding, have got away unscathed.

He goes on to enlighten us, 'Most of them joined the SIMI or HuJI only a few weeks earlier, and their families, colleagues, and close friends had detected no indications of their having done so.' To him, 'Even their families and friends would have no inkling of their having been recruited...'. This means that you don't really know if I have joined up or not as yet. You will only know when I commit my first terror act which to him will be the 'first illegal or immoral act which they have ever committed.' Apparently, elsewhere it has taken but 'three weeks' for the likes of me to 'carry out a terror attack to avenge the perceived discrimination.'

Luckily, my employers have not 'discriminated' against me professionally nor have I been 'denied entry in social circles commensurate' with my education. Thankfully, I have no reason to be a terrorist, on this score at least. That is a relief. But, not for long though.


As an educated middle class Muslim, I have often had to hear, 'Stand up and speak out!' I was required to speak out against the usurpation of my religion by fanatics and condemn terrorism. I now choose to follow the advice. I begin by emulating SR 'Epiglottis' Khan, "I am not a terrorist!" I venture further than my brief, "Nor are my co-religionists!" Let me explain why.

By his cryptic designation, Prasad appears to be a denizen of the shadowy, intelligence world. His world view is perhaps widely held in the intelligence community. On that score it needs dissection.

He quotes profusely from the 'Band of Boys' theory of Marc Sageman, 'a forensic psychiatrist who has worked for the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan.' He also approvingly points to the UK police's surveillance of congregations in mosques. Clearly, great gains have been made by Mr. Chidambaram's trips overseas in terms of emulating homeland security measures elsewhere, as indeed they must. But how far are the conditions there replicated in India and corresponding counter measures import worthy?

The intelligence agencies can be likened to someone who has lost his car keys in the dark and proceeds to look for them under the light of the lamp post only. While no effort needs to be spared in getting terrorists to book, this is applicable for terrorists of any hue. The problem is in assuming the blasts that have taken place as having the minority's signature. This is true only to an extent. A proportion of blasts can now be irrefutably attributed to majoritarian extremists of the Abhinav Bharat variety. It may be worth investigation if the Abhinav Bharat is merely the tip of the iceberg, with its underwater mass perhaps stretching into the state and its intelligence agencies.

There are several blasts yet unexplained. These include the horrendous ones in metropolitan cities of 2008. The holes in the Batla House encounter story do not lend confidence to close these cases currently attributed to Aqil and his Azamgarh cohort, now largely eliminated. The pre CWG shooting of Taiwanese tourists, the High Court blast of earlier this year and now the latest, the nineteenth, blast in Delhi, cannot necessarily be ascribed as minority perpetrated violence. In other words, the net needs to be cast wider. Why?

The 2008 blasts were in the run up to national elections. The narrative sought could have been that the UPA was 'soft' on terror because of vote bank concerns. Likewise, this time round, the Supreme Court mandated investigations in the Gujarat carnage case are set to culminate soon. There is disarray in the right wing mainstream. The Anna agitation provided a momentary respite. It is perhaps reckoned that it is time to get back to the main story.

In other words, a crime has been committed, a motive exists. Evidence must then be sought. There is a case for setting the NIA to look for the keys where they are as likely to be found as anywhere else. The government, in not owning up to a strategy, makes Digvijay Singh appear a maverick.

Prasad is right in demanding 'original innovative thinking on part of India's intelligence agencies', but wrong in pointing them towards an 'appreciation of the psychology of urban Indian Muslim professionals.' That he does so stinks of an attempt to put the intelligence agencies off the smell. The purpose, now easier to discern, is to intimidate into silence engaged Muslim voices pointing out that the emperor is without clothes.

With this piece of propaganda occupying prime place in a leading national daily, it can be irrefutably said that the fringe has gone mainstream. At such junctures, Niemoeller's phrase comes readily to mind, 'Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.' They've now passed the secular Muslims, so secular Hindus must be next!

By Firdaus Ahmed

In a first, the NIA has been launched from the very outset to probe a bomb blast at the Delhi High Court. It has earlier been grafted onto cases already being pursued by the police. In yet another useful precedent, the government has been careful not to point fingers prematurely. These two suggest an improvement in India’s response to terrorism, even if yet another blast is a case of one too many.

As is usual by now, ‘informed’ analysts are taking it upon themselves to dwell on the helpful pointers in the email purportedly received from the perpetrators. The HUJI has apparently claimed responsibility, with the blasts intended to force the release Afzal Guru from death row. With newspapers carrying the identity kit portrait of a bearded suspect with upper lip clean shaven, the know-all analysts rest their case.

But the government’s initial caution bespeaks of a wider set of suspects. By its two acts the government has broadcast that the net cast will be much wider. It will hopefully include majoritarian terrorists, even as the HUJI angle is pursued to its logical conclusion. The implication is that there is more to the Abhinav Bharat case than out in the open.

It is lazy analysis and worse crime forensics to assume that emails from unidentified sources serve as evidence of culpability. For one, an earlier email for instance had the sender identifying himself as al Arbi, corruption of al Arabi, quite like the current one does. Al Arabi incidentally was a renowned sufi. Second, arrest of a cyber café owner in in Kishtwar suggests a link to Kashmir, the email could be merely to take advantage of the occasion to press home the case for Afzal Guru. Third, that the emails have incendiary content against the majority could equally indicate a desire for deepening the rift, an aim that saffron extremists mirror. Any creative writer can put together such emails.

Questions surrounding the Batla House encounter make the explanation of the blasts in the cosmopolitan cities in 2008 unpersuasive. The blasts that did not occur in Surat remain unexplained. Perpetrators of the blast of May this year in the court premises and those involved in the drive by shooting of the Taiwanese tourists prior to the CWG remain unknown.

One nationalism inspired anchor asked if vote bank politics holds back the government. He is right in sensing that it does, but wrong in his unstated understanding, an understanding seemingly widely shared with his viewers and therefore left unstated, that it is the minority vote at stake. Instead, the government’s reticence stems from its inability and unwillingness to beard the majoritarian terrorist in his den. That would cost it credibility with the majority, misled for over a decade of media fanned minority baiting. The decade since 9/11 formed the perfect backdrop for the campaign.

The government is rightly circumspect, but on the right track. Its noose, with a little help from the Supreme Court, is closing in on an opposition stalwart. The extreme right, with subterranean linkages with the political right, is mobilising silently to thwart it. Behind the current attack can be read once again a diversionary gambit; now that Mr. Anna Hazare is back in Ralegaon Siddhi.

The popular narrative is flawed. It carries little conviction with the minority community. This is itself evidence of the inter-community distance opened up over the last three decades, index of the success of the as yet unidentified standard bearers of Hindutva’s challenge to secular culture. The government, run by center-right party cannot, as the well worn cliché will have it, ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’. It needs taking the opportunity offered by the investigations to open up India’s violent recent past to a ‘warts and all’ scrutiny. This will fetch it votes of the non-denominational secular majority.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 36, Dated 10 Sep 2011

Dear General, Please Stay Out Of Politics

In these politically charged times, Army chief VK Singh’s comments on civilian issues could hurt democracy

By Firdaus Ahmed

ARMY CHIEF VK Singh’s comment on the state of the nation as equivalent to “daldal” (morass) comes as no surprise. The remarks were part of his take on social activist Anna Hazare’s high-voltage agitation against corruption. As a citizen, Singh has every right to an opinion. As a member of the defence services, the right to voicing it is curtailed considerably. As army chief, it is much less so, particularly on politically charged issues and especially so in politically charged times as now.

That the army chief is currently in a tussle with the defence ministry over the controversy surrounding his date of birth makes his remarks mistimed. The decision of the ministry has been in favour of the earlier date of birth, resulting in Singh having to retire next year. The adjutant general has reportedly asked the ministry for the reason. Therefore his comments cannot but be read with his personal predicament as backdrop.

More importantly, the chief has laid himself open to questions from a different angle in his take: “Interesting in terms of how we are witnessing the power of democracy, the power of the people.” The democratic protests that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has attracted, both in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast, have not displaced the army from its position on the continuance of the Act. The fast of Irom Sharmila is into its second decade, to little avail. The move on dilution of AFSPA’s ‘draconian’ provisions has become a political football between the ministries of home, defence and law, since the army refuses to budge. Clearly, it appears that the democratic sensibilities of the chief are only selectively aroused.

To the chief’s credit is his own record on tackling corruption. That he has identified himself closely with curbing it within the ranks can be seen in his remarks on taking over the baton, “We will focus attention on improving internal health.” In his previous billet at Kolkata, he had taken action in the infamous Sukhna land scam. The graver Adarsh Housing Society scam, involving politicians and bureaucrats, has since scarred his predecessor’s name. Therefore, his desire to personally provide ballast to the national focus on the issue is understandable.

For the military as an institution, the message is loud and clear. A series of scandals has dented its image. Because it expends 10-15 per cent of public monies, being untainted is more than an issue in ethics — it is one of combat effectiveness. Singh is only echoing what he once said, “Until the time our internal health is good, we would not be able to fight the external threats.”

However, the immanent issue is one of civil-military relations. The fragility of our democratic polity, currently fully on display, suggests greater exercise of circumspection on part of the brass. Any overt overstepping of the line of deference rightly calls for a formal check by the minister. The brass is already reportedly under a ‘gag’ to curb its tendency to snipe at the bureaucracy, which in their mind’s eye runs the government. The problem with this is that it further weakens the credibility of the government, showing it up as ‘weak’. This redounds to increase the relative power of the army internally. This may not be in the best democratic interest.

As it is, democratic good health in terms of Parliament’s authority to legislate autonomously is under challenge. That the occasion has enabled a diversionary rallying of conservative formations behind the agitation indicates that the democratic upsurge is equally political as civil society-rooted. The military as an institution is in danger of an unwitting alliance with the conservative forces. Because it has weight in prestige, the army’s position can be misappropriated by forces it has little comprehension of, being politically naïve. Democratic good health can do without gratuitous buffeting of civil-military relations at this juncture.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#3441, 23 August 2011
Interrogating Security Expansionism in India

The head of a think-tank writing in The Tribune ( lists military capabilities that India requires up to fifteen years. In strategic circles, ever since remarks of the former army chief were possibly deliberately leaked, the ‘threat’ has been magnified to becoming a ‘twinned’ threat from Pakistan and China combined.

The capabilities deemed desirable are to include a mountain strike corps both in the Northeast and in J&K. It is possible that with time that would mean two for J&K; one for each front. Offensive capabilities for defensive formations are to be created in imitation of those done in the plains prompted by ‘Cold Start’. The three strike corps in the plains are to continue for conventional deterrence purposes. Firepower resources, in particular precision guided munitions, are to be augmented for stand-off degradation, since territory may not be as relevant as an objective. Two rapid reaction-cum-air assault divisions (with an amphibious brigade each) are suggested.

It may be recalled that elsewhere the former Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee had required a wide-ranging intercontinental ballistic missile capability. The DRDO is keen on working on technology for a BMD system, despite its known shortcomings to deliver on more mundane equipment. Further, the Army has requested for placing of the ITBP under its command on the China border. The budget for internal security, handled by the MHA, has gone up three times over the past decade.

This article makes two observations on the foregoing threat-mongering. One is that this indicates expansionism in the security sector, with the consequences that amount to militarization. The second is on possible social consequences, generally neglected in strategic discussions.

The NSA in his Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture asked for moderation in the criticisms mounted by think-tanks, stating, "This also requires that some of our media and commentators, whose unquestioned brilliance is regularly on display lambasting other countries for their politics and policies, learn the virtues of moderation." His take was, "why create self-fulfilling prophesies of conflict with powerful neighbours like China?"

Our goal must be defence, not offense, unless offense is necessary for deterrence or to protect India's ability to continue its own transformation. The think-tank recommendations, in their own words, go well beyond this: “Genuine deterrence can come only from the ability to take the fight deep into the adversary’s territory through the launching of major offensive operations.”

Clearly, there is a case for debate within the national security system on this divergence, with the NSA persuading the army that their recipe - ‘the defence of porous borders requires us to learn new rules for the use and combination of force, persuasion and deterrence, alongside other more benign means’ - holds water.

The second neglected dimension of the social impact of militarization requires acknowledging firstly that recruiting patterns in the security forces have a built in bias towards the ‘Hindi heartland’. In theory this is based on the recruitable male population of a state. Those traditionally contributing to military numbers stand to gain.

There are two implications. One is in the channelling of revenue expenditure of the government in terms of VI pay commission enhanced salaries and perks into certain areas. It is symptomatic of hidden affirmative action. The second is in the diversity of the country not finding reflection in the composition of security forces. A narrower concept of nationalism, emanating from the Hindi heartland, finds sway. This may be at odds with ethnically and culturally diverse host communities, where the deployment takes place. In areas of insurgency, it accentuates the cultural gap.

A result of increased deployment, particularly in thinly populated borderlands, is on the social landscape. For instance, Gautam Naulakha records that the move to provide the Rashtriya Rifles with cantonment accommodation in Kashmir has elicited a negative response from the people and the state administration since it involves land allocation. Likewise, the increase by two divisions in the Northeast and the recommendation of a strike corps there, implies that there would be a larger visibility and imprint on the consciousness of the people of a different ethnic stock. This remains an understudied dimension.

Also, an over-developed security sector draws discourse, policy direction and resources away from a development to a defence template. Higher returns in the defence sector will draw human resources into it. This has qualitative implications for the competing sectors. A fallout is advantaged groups developing a stake in India’s identity as a ‘garrison state’, at the expense of groups on the territorial and economic margins.

While economic growth has released the monies, this has alternative uses overlooked in threat induced expansion. Sole reliance on strategic considerations amounts to strategic determinism. This could prove particularly hurtful if the strategic calculus is misinformed and, worse, possibly motivated by parochial concerns.

The NSA is right in his warning on the dangers of India as a ‘premature superpower’ (Martin Wolf): “Their rise, as that of Wilhelmine Germany or militarist Japan, was cut short prematurely.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Whose command? Whose control?

14 August 2011 - The significance of the strategic nuclear complex was brought out in the controversy over remarks of the retiring Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee that India's response to nuclear attack would be 'very heavy'. The remarks reportedly did not amuse his boss, the defence minister, as they were made when the India-Pakistan foreign ministers talks were ongoing.

To what extent is the Chairman COSC the custodian of the nuclear baton? The current juncture provides an opportunity to reflect on the wider issue of command and control of the nuclear complex, both in peace-time and during wars.

The Saxena task force will reportedly work on a national security doctrine. The idea is that once the national security survey is done, then the structures necessary to keep the country secure would be thought through. The task force's composition and parameters have not been officially released yet; the time is yet ripe to influence its terms of reference to include the nuclear complex.

Command and control of the nuclear complex takes place at different levels. The upper - political - level is of democratic control by the political leadership, which is in turn accountable to the parliament. The second, grand strategic level, is through the national security council system integrating national security experts, the military and technologists. The third one, the strategic level, is the operational one of the Strategic Forces Command.


There are problems at the all three levels. Relatively lesser known are those existing at the strategic level, since the work of the SFC is necessarily shrouded in secrecy. At this level, integrating the technologist into the chain of command is possibly a challenge since the military holds the delivery systems, the atomic energy technologist is entrusted with the weapons core and the DRDO representative is in charge of the weapons assembly.

At the second level, it is well known that the COSC is 'double hatted'. He is not only the chief of his service but 'first among equals' among the three chiefs. He is by the latter responsibility also to oversee the SFC. The relationship between the military man in charge of the SFC, the COSC and the NSA is also somewhat nebulous. This results in inadequate attention to the working of the SFC by either the NSA, who presumably would expect the COSC to do the supervisory role, or the COSC, who cannot possibly have the time.

The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff would presumably resolve this considerably. But the relationship with the NSA would require working out. The SFC cannot be left to serve to two bosses. Unity of command is a universally hallowed command principle in the services. It must be the CDS who is unambiguously in charge. The NSA heads the Executive Council of which the COSC is currently is part. But with the CDS available, the Political Council needs a military adviser to complement the advice of the NSA.

The belief that such advice will be overly militaristic may not be warranted. After all, civilian militarism is also not unknown. The advantage of having clear lines of command and responsibilities is that it would enable accountability. Keeping the nuclear decision making mechanism and process diffuse may make the weapons appear more usable. Pinpointing responsibility will help with self-deterrence, since post bellum accountability will be easier to exact.

Since the nuclear complex, including the Atomic Energy Commission is partially outside of the defence ministry, the defence reforms would be complete if they included the nuclear complex also. This is the opportunity to domesticate it. Presently, it is overseen by the prime minister, but is notably scientist-bureaucrat driven. As a result, institutional interests have a wider play in the way the complex works than is warranted. The place of nuclear weapons in national security needs spelling out and the reforms could emplace the system that will provision it.

As suggested by a noted nuclear watcher, WPS Sidhu, this can be done by having either a new parliamentary committee serve as check or increase the powers of the standing committee on defence to do the same, 'in camera' if necessary. India's nuclear trajectory is now at a juncture that this can be done with maturity and relative openness, as any democratic state should.

Why are these steps necessary?

A discussion on the upward delegation of nuclear-related decision making is needed now, even if some of it were to take place secretly. India's idea that nuclear weapons are political weapons is right, and India has rightly forsworn being the first to introduce them into conflict. Still, the country's proactive conventional doctrine is out of step with its nuclear doctrine, as is evident from India continuing to think of 'heavy' response. With Pakistan's unveiling its tactical nuclear weapon, Nasr, as noted by Manoj Joshi in his columns, the nuclear factor is far more in the foreground than is being acknowledged.

The defence sector cannot be reformed in isolation of its place in national security - that could cause an imbalance in governance. The 'defence versus development' debate is not yet a settled one, either; this is all the more reason to have Parliament more involved in the oversight of the nuclear complex. Ultimately, the elected representatives are the ones who have responsibility for ensuring the security of the nation, and also for delivering economic and social development. The legislature's role as check on the executive can be fulfilled as well, with parliamentary oversight.

The right step to take now is to broaden the Saxena task force's terms of reference. While it is likely to take a deep look at the CDS issue, this is insufficient. The task force must look beyond the defence ministry into the relationship between the legislature and the executive. The legislature should, on its own, bring this on to its agenda, since the executive is unlikely to think of widening the remit of the task force on its own

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Negotiate in good faith

19 July 2011 - It is quite clear that the intractable conflict between India and Pakistan cannot be solved by military means. Pakistan cannot hope to defeat India and India cannot, in light of the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, hope to control Pakistan; leave alone defeat a nuclear-armed Pakistan. That leaves only the route of peace negotiations open.

Negotiations can be of two types - one is through exercising power in a manner as to extract concessions on the negotiations table from a position of strength. This approach has been the preferred one for both states historically, and the ongoing round of negotiations is also in this vein. The second is to take to these discussions sincerely by not seeing these as yet another arena of power play. A mutually agreeable outcome is only possible by shifting to an accommodationist one.

The current approach is dominated by realism - putting national interest above all other considerations (moral, social), and acting on the belief that each side should focus on maximising its own gains from negotiations, no matter what the implications may be to the other side. This power politics has dominated the way the two sides have gone about their negotiations, and even among the populations of the two countries, a large number have come to see negotiations as a means to achieve dominance. This is simply untenable.

Trust has not resulted from the confidence building measures in place. This was predictable, since both sides have been insincere. They have used the peace negotiations for positional bargaining. Even as they talk, in the background their power contest continues, in the hope that they can deal from a 'position of strength'. Given these military, intelligence, diplomatic and political moves in the background, neither side is willing to concede ground. Both believe that the future may find them better placed to force the issue on their terms. Each takes its interests as non-negotiable, and sees negotiations as only being pursued to get the other side to concede.

The advent of nuclear weapons makes peace through negotiations as the only desirable way to bring their outstanding differences to closure. Their presence has led to a false belief that under their cover, there is little need to engage meaningfully with the other state. The two states appear to be holding out till when their strategic efforts place them in a better position. In India's case it is the military 'surge' brought about by a resurgent economy. In Pakistan's case, it would like to keep negotiations steady till it can come out of its current trough in national circumstance and morale.

Military backdrop

The India-Pakistan conflict ranks alongside the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the oldest in the 'Charter era' of the United Nations, qualifying it as a 'protracted' conflict. Such a conflict is defined as one that sees alternation between periods of peace and conflict over an issue that remains unresolved.


The military doctrines of both states are offensive, at both the conventional and nuclear levels. The state of peace is considerably precarious in South Asia, and conflict always appears inevitable and imminent. In the last 15 years alone - i.e. since South Asia went nuclear - there have been four periods of crisis: 1987, 1990, 2001-02 and 2008. Given this, why have the two states not invested in peace through negotiations to the extent as is necessary? Do they not sense, during the repeated negotiations and during the various crises that a different approach is necessary?

While the process of negotiations has been pursued, the approach of both states makes it impossible to obtain a mutually acceptable outcome. This is easier explained in respect of Pakistan since it is dominated by the military elite. Militaries typically think in realist terms. In India's case, it has a choice. Yet it too has approached its relations with Pakistan through a realist prism. This mirroring of perspectives between the two leads to negotiations being meaningless. The process itself becomes a site of power tryst. To make progress the two states must come to the table with a 'give and take' attitude, which is by definition necessary to negotiations.

Meandering negotiations

Negotiations have been as frequent as conflict between the two countries. The first war for Kashmir in 1947-48 resulted in a peace settlement and a ceasefire line. Under US pressure, the wake of the 1962 Sino-Indian War resulted in the Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks of 1963. The Tashkent Agreement succeeded the 1965 war. While the 1971 war was ostensibly fought over East Pakistan, the Kashmir issue figured more prominently in the Simla Agreement of July 1972. The two sides promised to take up the Kashmir issue bilaterally through peaceful means.

India believes that the Simla agreement had a 'secret' clause in which Bhutto agreed to give up Pakistani claims to Kashmir after he consolidated power and returned the military to barracks. However, lack of progress led to Pakistan's proxy war. This energized the peace process from the early nineties, with the two states agreeing to discuss all issues in a 'composite dialogue' in 1997. The Lahore process that took this up in February 1999 was interrupted by the Kargil War of July that year. The Agra Summit was arranged to break the deadlock in 2001. However, the 'twin peaks crisis', of 2001-02, caused disruption.

The peace process finally took off in 2004 along two lines: the composite dialogue and in the 'back channel'. Both made considerable progress till the Musharraf regime ran into internal problems, and were broken off after Mumbai 26/11. A parallel Track Two dialogue has been in progress for the past two decades. The current situation has the two reengaging once again, but only tentatively. As seen from the Mumbai blasts this month, the process is tenuous at best.

A new course needed

There are three reasons why India could change tack. One is that in facing the challenge of China as some foresee in the future, it needs to have Pakistan alongside. The second is that the power play it is current engaged in may witness Pakistan spiraling out of control. In such a case, India would end up at the 'frontline'. Pakistan's predicament as 'frontline' state twice should warn India against aspiring to such status. Third, the kind of power that India is harnessing in terms of military hardware is unusable in the nuclear circumstance. It can in any case continue amassing this with China as excuse.

Lastly, the power play approach privileges certain sections of the establishment such as arms merchants, right wings of both the majority and minority, and the military with a vested interest in fractured relations. Therefore, a changed stance on negotiations is necessary.

The triple blasts in Mumbai provide another opportunity for introspection. The two states continue to be too much closer to war than they need be. To avert nuclear dangers that could result, they need to refocus on negotiations as the only way out of their protracted conflict. This means a move away from their current approach of using the negotiations process for power play

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

#3418, 27 June 2011

Firdaus Ahmed

Mr Naresh Saxena, former defence secretary, cabinet secretary and ambassador to the US, is to lead a task force on the next steps in defence sector reforms. His team comprising former chiefs, bureaucrats, military technologists and strategists is to begin work in mid-July and complete its report in six months.

Commentators will be undoubtedly rush to inform the deliberations, leading to strategic commentary that is likely to get both parochial and ugly as the monsoon proceeds. In particular, the face-off between the army and air force will be open to exploitation by status-quoist parties out to derail any substantial movement. The key issues anticipated to figure in the Saxena task force report are the appointment of the CDS, whether this figure would have command or staff responsibilities, integration of the service HQs with the ministry, integration of theatre commands; professionalization of the defence ministry bureaucrats; jointness and higher military education etc. The very constitution of the task force suggests its necessity; ten years since the last bout of post Kargil reforms.

Specifically, the Saxena committee would need to have a determined perspective on how the nation wishes to deploy its military instrument: for compellence, deterrence or defence. That would in turn be a function of what balance India envisages between the strategic choices: ‘sama, bheda, danda, dana’. Defining the latter could be suggested to the government, since the former cannot be done without this prior definition. Once the issue of strategic doctrine is settled, the restructuring necessary to operationalize the doctrine becomes easier. However, the consequences of the restructuring may be missing in the debate. This article, mindful of possible consequences in terms of the ‘security dilemma’, seeks to point out additional necessary measures even as the reforms are proceeded with.

That the reforms are intended to enhance India’s military capability is certain. The logic is that this is necessary to cope with India’s rising power indices, its perception of regional and global responsibilities and security threats. In this logic, the security situation has changed with the rise of China and the possibility of a ‘two front’ situation for India. India may be taking measures to enhance its security, but it must be noted that these measures would enhance the perception of threat of its neighbours, even though India, in its logic, is merely being responsive to prior moves of its neighbours. The upshot is an in-built interactive mutual threat spiral known in theory as the ‘security dilemma’.

India needs to be mindful of its neighbours’ reaction which would ratchet up the threat India itself perceives. India could choose to be complacent about this, believing that higher preparedness brought about by the reforms would enable it to cope better with higher threat levels. Despite this, the recommendation here is that even as India proceeds with the necessary and perhaps long overdue reforms, it needs simultaneously to put into place measures to mitigate the consequence in terms of security dilemmas for both its neighbours and in turn itself.

How can this be done? The expectation is that the reforms would place India in a better position to engage its neighbours, specifically China and Pakistan, from a position of strength. This would be useful for Indian self-assurance and help deter the neighbours. The resulting engagement, for instance, border negotiations with China and the dialogue with Pakistan, would be more outcome-oriented. Materializing this expectation would however require ensuring that the power play in the background does not get ugly and affect the engagement.

It is equally possible that increased capability may result in India believing that it can do without the ‘give and take’ necessary for amicable solutions to outstanding problems. India must therefore alongside keep up the engagement structures and processes that are already at work on both fronts. Yet, these are not enough in the new post-reform circumstance. Additionally, a joint forum for strategic dialogue can be forged with both separately, that would mutually arrive at and implement conflict avoidance measures, confidence-building measures and over time, when greater trust is available, create security architecture conducive for cooperative security.

The advantage of this innovation would be in mitigating the security dilemma. Each state can be expected to respond materially and physically as necessary, since in the realist logic, capabilities are of consequence, not intent. However, the psychological effects of security-related movements by one on the other are amenable to amelioration in case dialogue is in place where concerns can be ventilated. Essentially, the forum could serve to present and explain respective strategic doctrines as non-threatening to the other side. For instance, China’s infrastructural developments in Tibet, presence in POK and water-related initiatives in the east have perhaps instigated the defence reforms in India. The forum could serve to bring future such concerns to each other’s attention. The idea is not to substitute reforms but to complement them.

India is likely to settle for deterrence with an offensive bias. Ensuring that it is not mistaken for compellence is the challenge.

Defence reforms: The next phase
The proposed second round of defence reforms will make the armed forces more utilisable. Nonetheless, this should not blind us to the questionable impulse behind the reforms, writes Firdaus Ahmed.

24 June 2011 - A high-level task force has been set up under former bureaucrat Naresh Saxena to take defence sector reforms forward. The remit is to review progress since the last bout of reforms were carried out pursuant to the report of the Kargil Review Committee in 2001.

This second round of reforms is timely, in the sense of a decade having elapsed since the last deep look at the defence sector. India, and the regional security situation, has moved on considerably and the outlook for the next decade also promises similar change. China is now the principal security concern, necessitating a change-over in defence from being Pakistan-centric. A changed manner of conduct of war has been on display over the past decade in the US military practices, made possible by organisational changes in the face of changing technology.

The second round has been prompted by aspects that have remained undone since - specifically the creation of the position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and integration of service headquarters into the ministry. Naresh Saxena is likely to encounter some debate around these two aspects.


Vast changes, turf battles

Politicians are not interested in seeing a concentration of military power in one office. The bureaucrats would prefer to play the role in its absence, since it helps play one service against the other. The services themselves have not evolved a consensus. The Air Force is against the idea. The Army appears to have distanced itself ever since General J J Singh, prior to retiring, said that even the Army could do without it.

While superficially the face-off is over turf, it is actually about deep doctrinal differences on how to fight wars. The Air Force sees a 'strategic' role for itself involving infrastructure busting, military attrition, etc. The Army thinks that the next war would require to be fought more jointly than the Air Force is willing to let on. The doctrinal dissonance requires adjudication that only an empowered CDS can provide. The way the Saxena task force inclines on this score will be critical to its recommendations.

That could also end up defining the remit of the CDS. Would his be an operational function or a staff function? The service chiefs currently combine the two roles in their person. They are loath to give up either and don't want their powers transferred upwards. Additionally, if the service chiefs are relegated to a staff function of creating, managing and provisioning respective services as part of an integrated ministry, the operational side would need to be handled by theatre commanders. This means that organisational restructuring would be very vast indeed.

The committee's role can only be recommendatory. Reforms of such a sweeping nature would require consensus in the political class as well. This may not be forthcoming. In India's evolutionary approach - as against a revolutionary one - grand sweeps are unlikely. Therefore, the task force faces a huge, possibly insurmountable challenge. Consequently, it may choose realistically to inch forward one step at a time.

As for the second task of integration into the ministry goes, this could be better done if and when the chiefs are willing to shed operational responsibilities. Currently, the command culture is so strong in the services that it would be impossible for an officer posted in an integrated ministry to sit in judgment on the service's case. This would be possible in case the chiefs become heads of staff, as their nomenclature suggests.

Anticipating the task force, the outline of reform that emerges then is an integration of service headquarters into the ministry in more than name. Service HQs are now called 'Integrated HQs' and several functions are now delegated to them, including financial. However, much of this is cosmetic, with bureaucrats sitting in judgment over service cases and - in the perception of the services - shutting them out of the policy loop.

Remedying this may require the chiefs to divest their operations function and become respective departmental heads. The operations function could be performed either by command headquarters reporting to an operationally empowered CDS, or by integrated theatre headquarters headed by a integrated Commander in Chief, for example C-in-C Western Front, or C-in-C Special Forces Command, etc. The current reforms may produce a half-way house, creating a CDS responsible for the nuclear dimension operationally and a staff function, so that the next step of integrating the sword arm in integrated commands can await the third bout of reform.

The moot question is: Would any of this make India more secure? This is the expectation. Military power would be made more usable and efficient. A rising power requires greater effort at self-protection and higher responsibilities to bear. The US $35 billion being set aside for defence purchases would be better utilised. A wieldy scalpel or scalable hammer means rationalising structures, doctrines and procedures. So upfront there is no problem with proceeding on course.

A colonial stance?

The problem is with the impulse behind the reform. In case self-defence was the sole motive, this would have been easy to concede. A case for dealing with a 'two-front' security threat would be persuasive, if the threat was manifest. It is debatable if this is so. Instead, the proposed 'reform', in this case, would make India more powerful, and in doing so it would make India appear a threat to its neighbours. If anything, it is this that would lead to the 'two-front' threat.

In other words, the effect of the reform would itself legitimise it. Since India would have the power and the reformed structures to use it, it would be seemingly secure; but assuredly at higher levels of threat. While what is needed now is to mend fences with alacrity, with more muscles there would be less need or inclination to do so.

Secondly, the reform would enable 'out-of-area' capability. A rising India has been asked to shoulder more global responsibility. This would be made possible by easily deployable capabilities, resulting from such reforms. The argument in favour of such a development is that India would need to protect its economy linked to resource bases elsewhere, and a stronger capability for projection of force is warranted, therefore. But this also implies lending its military to purposes that India itself would have in an earlier era labeled 'colonial'.

The government, being of a center-right orientation, has been open to accusations of being 'soft' on defence, particularly after persisting with the strategy of restraint in face of 26/11. Arraigned on multiple fronts, it has also suffered the indignity of witnessing its service chiefs' inapt interventions in the public debate on several occasions over recent past. Compensating for this, and admittedly sensibly also wanting to integrate the services into policymaking, it has perhaps embarked on the next generation of defence reform.

Such reforms being politically useful, the government would find it hard to side-step the recommendations once they are received. Going along would make India more nimble and able no doubt, but also place the country in greater harm's way. Political inability to be responsive to the vast reforms likely to be suggested would place the government once again in the awkward position of seeming 'weak' on defence: a case of doomed if you do and dead if you don't. Watch this space six months from now, when the call is due.

Friday, May 06, 2011

See for full article -
Unity in militarism
The security establishment would like India to project its power more forcefully abroad. But to position this as an exercise in protecting the nation's internal unity stretches the imagination, writes Firdaus Ahmed.
Nitin Pai’s candour is revealing. In an article with an honest title ‘Projecting power to protect unity’, he argues that ‘India must project power abroad to stay united at home.’ For those not familiar with him or his work, Pai is editor of Pragati and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution. His blog, The Acorn, reflects and furthers the conservative-realist perspective on security. That the article is an excerpt of his speech at a conference at the Army War College, Mhow, suggests that this perspective has a keen following where it matters. What does this mean for regional security?
India’s rising power is sold as a ‘benign’ development, particularly when it is contrasted adversely with China’s ‘hegemonic’ rise. Its democratic credentials, record as a non-expansionist state, military restraint and strategic prudence are taken as indicators that it is a non-threatening development. Besides, it is increasingly inclined towards the West and since the West holds the levers of the strategic discourse, India is easily projected as a useful balance to China in Asia. This article questions the thesis that India’s rise is of unqualified benefit for security.


That India has been status quoist so far obscures the possibility that it may not always remain so. Nitin Pai argues for ‘reform’ using the logic that India’s internal unity demands an external orientation of its growing power. His thesis is that India’s strategic culture needs changing in light of its growing power credentials. This would enable Indian unity.
What he does not say, but is implicit, is that creating an external ‘Other’ would be a useful national enterprise since it would lend India cohesion and national identity. This means an adversarial equation with China and with Pakistan, seen as China’s proxy, would help India stay united internally, help it create and sustain power necessary to wrestle with these external challenges. This argument is as subtle as self-serving.
Conservative realists such as him who form the dominant strain in India’s strategic community use innovative logic for militarization of India. To them this would create power and the culture to use power appropriately. Power so created would be useful in warding of the ‘threats’ posed by the ‘Other’, even if the threat arose due to this very creation of power.
There are several problems with this. The more obvious ones are disposed off here first. There are other more revealing indices of national arrival, such as education, gender balance, poverty figures etc. There is nothing to suggest that a growing felicity in the creation and use of power would lead to a corresponding change in the socio-economic indices. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the power gained would be able to offset the combined power of the ‘Other’ so created, China and Pakistan. It may be hurtful in case the nuclear backdrop to the conflictual relations was to come to foreground for some reason later. Thirdly, the connection between external power projection and internal unity is not readily established. In the Indira-Rajiv period for instance, there was considerable Indian muscle flexing such as against Sri Lanka, with no obvious effect on internal unity as the outbreak of trouble in Punjab, Kashmir and in social harmony indicate.
Lastly, India’s power projection capability and intent needs to be seen in relation to its association with the US. The European allies of the US stand exhausted. It is seeking military partners for continuing its global stewardship, in particular with relation to controlling terrorism and access to oil. India is being prepared for this role as indicated in the statement of Condoleeza Rice when secretary of state that US intends to make India into a great power. Clearly, this was to serve a purpose of the US. India therefore, refutations of alliance notwithstanding, would lend itself to the US agenda. It would believe that this would be an exercise in its own interest. The distinction between strategic autonomy and external manipulation will be hard to discern. The implication for the region, such as in the short run in AfPak and in the long term for the neocolonial embrace of West Asia, is amply clear.
But more importantly, what realists fail to perceive, even if their logic is driven by a look at internal politics, is that Indian power can be harmful for itself and its region if in the wrong hands. They are unmindful of the possibility of the process of creating the ‘Other’ leading to the Indian identity formed in contradistinction to the ‘Other’. The emphasis on ‘unity’ would be to steam roll the diversity that defines India. The harmony imposed, that is itself necessarily selective in its basis, will lead to internal disruptions that will neither help the creation of power nor its external projection.
Of greater consequence is the possibility of dominance of majoritarian extremists over the power structure created. The conditions of external and internal strife created by the process of imposing ‘unity’ would be fertile for their ascent to power. Given that the power levers that they inherit would be stronger, India would cease to be the ‘benign’ power as is currently imagined. It would certainly not be ‘benign’ to those not of the persuasion of these forces within India. It would be equally problematic for the immediate neighbourhood.
Realists in their external focus can be forgiven two mistaken beliefs. One is that they take India’s democratic credentials as a given. Instead these need to be constantly recreated, worked on and preserved. Conditions that degrade these need being guarded against. The second is that even if Hindu nationalists were to come to power, this is not such a bad thing since it would only be democratic. The cultural trove of the religion would ensure that India stays benign. This is to miss the ugly face of cultural nationalism and neglect the fact that it would get uglier the closer it gets to unbridled power.

It is for these reasons, India’s growing power is not necessarily a blessing for India or its region. The extant thesis of India as a ‘benign’ power will prove very short lived indeed.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

#3372, 5 May 2011

Firdaus Ahmed

In wake of the Osama killing, the hawks have carried the day in India. In pointing towards possible Pakistani complicity in harbouring Osama, they make the point that the Indian initiative of reaching out to Pakistan that is currently unfolding will fail. Their ‘I told you so’ discourse will likely result in a ‘wait and watch’ attitude by the government. This would lead to another year lost in South Asia.

This time around the initiative appeared more promising with the commerce secretaries agreeing on many encouraging measures ranging from petroleum products, electricity etc to the more important issue of MFN status for India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared to be investing politically in his gut instincts. Reports were of the government having prepared its ground better by networking with the Pakistani army, later denied by both sides.

What will be the implications of Laden’s death? The major element forming the context is the end game in Af-Pak. The Obama plan of beginning pull out in July will gain momentum since the rationale for ‘hunting Osama’ does not exist any more. Ten years have considerably set back the al Qaeda. It has metamorphosed in a manner as to make Af-Pak irrelevant. The Taliban, the key player, has not suffered by Osama’s departure. Knowing the US may like a negotiated exit, they would drive a hard bargain. Pakistan would like to retrieve lost ground by backing them. This will ensure the dissipation of US triumphalism on the departure of Osama before the spring is out.

The point emerges that Pakistan has at best lost face. It will compensate by increasing its energy in protecting its interests. The US, with elections coming up and an economy that continues as a concern, cannot but placate it. The ‘wild card’ would be a terrorist reprisal in the US with Pakistani connections. This could disrupt the relationship, forcing the US to exit the region leaving behind chaos. That it could go this route is evident from its departure and the aftermath in Somalia.

What does this portend for India? In the Indian debate, the hardliners want to use this opportunity to pressure Pakistan. There is commentary on learning from the manner US conducts its business. They do not mind if the ‘wild card’ plays out to Pakistani detriment. It would leave India as the key regional power and in charge of containing the consequences. This holds appeal since it would give India a role in keeping with its stature.

If all else fails, this approach may be all that India has left. Currently, it may not be very useful since with US pressure found wanting it is hardly likely India’s would be more efficacious. Pressuring Pakistan through the intelligence game and heightening of military competition has not succeeded in conflict resolution. Instead, Pakistan has drawn down its nuclear cover more tightly with two quick missile tests, Hatf IX and Hatf VIII, over the last month. Debunking the realist prescription first is needed to eliminate it as an option. In any case, precedent of squandering India’s preeminence in the wake of 1971 does not inspire.

India must instead be attuned to the counter-intuitive likelihood of increased US reliance on Pakistan to bring about a face-saving exit from Af-Pak. In comparison, India’s cards in Afghanistan are not strong enough to impress. Its utility in reconstruction can be substituted by China. Its reach in the intelligence game and the strength of its proxies is comparatively weaker than that of Pakistan and is well short of its heyday in the Massoud years. Therefore, India must realistically appraise the relative power positions, and determine that it needs to work with Pakistan than against it.

This could help save Pakistan. Rhetorically India has accepted that this is in Indian interest. But its inability and unwillingness to see the peace process through indicates that it has not done enough to put its money where its mouth is. The realist expectation that they can handle the aftermath of a radicalized state in Pakistan is self-serving. A Pakistan in chaos is only good for majoritarian radicals and hyper-nationalists in India. India must tune into what its interests are.

Its aim is to get Pakistan to disengage with finality from Kashmir. The possibility of offering Pakistan political space in Af-Pak resolution in return for a quid pro quo on Kashmir is past. When the Af-Pak deal is through, Pakistan can turn its attention to Kashmir once again. Precluding such an outcome should impel Indian efforts.

On the internal front, India must instead proactively tackle Kashmir. In case it is unable to do so by networking with Pakistan due to internal political weaknesses, it must at the very least dispel the environment in Kashmir that enables Pakistani interference.

The analysis here that Pakistan has lost only face and not its position; which indicates that a ‘wait and watch’ policy spells inertia. Strategy, sensitive to evolving equations, calls for capitalizing on the stake of ongoing talks that India currently has in the fire.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

China in the strategic debate
Firdaus Ahmed.

27 April 2011 - China intruded unambiguously into Indian consciousness with its attack of 1962. Its nuclear test of 1964 further consolidated it as a reckonable threat. Its headstart in economic reforms by about a decade, finds India today playing catch up. It is uninspiring that the only significant aspect in which India expects to surpass China is population. Realising this, it appears that India's grand strategy choice is to be more circumspect in its balancing behaviour.

Whether this circumspection is evident in the details, however, is not very certain, given the tensions recently made visible in India's China strategy. The general in command of India's Northern Command has had to ventilate his apprehensions on the presence of Chinese across the Line of Control as being 'part of the string of pearls strategy. This formulation, around for long on the maritime front, has for the first time found mention on the continental front. In reaction, the Foreign Secretary indicated that details of the Army's concerns have been asked for.

This exchange was in the run-up to the meeting of the prime minister with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the BRICS summit at Beijing.

. There are two possibilities. One is that there is an element of design behind the commander going public with the Army's position. This could be as part of India's signaling strategy, in which it uses the Army to make a point without queering the negotiating pitch with the Chinese overly. From the Foreign Secretary's reaction, however, this does not seem to have been the case. Strategic finesse, of employing its instruments to make subtle points, is not characteristic of India's establishment.

Premature strategic assertion or muscular posturing is not in grand strategic interest since India needs more than a decade to consolidate its agenda of growth with equity.

The other possibility arises from a feature of the national security system - in which the Army, feeling left out, needs to make its presence felt if necessary, indirectly. In this case, a charitable view could be that the timing of the Army commander's comment indicates that he was not aware of the Prime Minister's then impending trip. Or that the timing of the remarks was to send the message to the establishment that the Army would like its concerns discussed at the meeting.

What this does indicate is that there are two schools in the ring, when it comes to India's China strategy and its follow-up actions. The first is a more nuanced policy in which India gains time to get its power indices in order. This involves building economic ties, deepening relations with the US and Asian democracies, and getting its triad into place over the decade. The ongoing reaching-out to Pakistan can also be counted in this school's guidance. A subtle distancing from the US is also underway lest India get caught up prematurely in the balancing game between the global hegemon and the challenger.

The second school advocates a more muscular approach to deter China over the interim. This involves military rejuvenation on the China front through force positioning and infrastructure buildup. It seeks a greater interface with the US, including military contacts. It plays up the 'two front' threat mentioned by the former Army chief and taken forward by the army commander, since the northern army quite naturally finds Chinese presence 'too close for comfort'. It does seem that the military is bucking the diplomacy-predominant and economy-centered China strategy.

It is at this juncture that grand strategy needs to kick in. While there is nothing wrong in the military maintaining its position in a democratic system characterised by bureaucratic pulling and hauling, for the military to have a voice within the confines of the system is better. Its understanding that it does not have adequate leverage is what results in its going to the media and the public. The advantage of an in-house discussion, even if no-holds-barred, is in the opposition being carried along once a decision, not necessarily one arrived at by consensus, is reached.


This also caters for the possibility of preventive war that casts a shadow over the medium term. The expectation in realist circles is that the contention with China will only reach a culmination over markets, resources, political prestige and strategic space over the long haul. They therefore advocate an Indian build up over the interim as insurance.

Could China launch a preventive war in the interim to set India back in this race? Realists argue this is not possible in the current circumstances since China would also likely suffer a set back in relation not so much with India, but in terms of its project of parity with the US. Therefore, India is safe from a 'balance of power' point of view in case it were to arm in the shadow of the US, as it is proceeding to do currently.

The problem with such strategic advocacy is that it sets India up as a target for China in the strategic competition with the US. China would use Pakistan to keep India tied down over the near term. This will not amount to forging a nexus with Pakistan, since this can potentially also singe China. Therefore, the twin-front problem is myth making, more to justify the US tilt and for arms expenditure.

In case India were to be assertive, as realists think is necessary for deterrence sake, then the possibility of preventive war by China becomes a probability. The relative gains from such a contest would be in China's favour since it would enter into the conflict better placed than India in terms of military power. It is unlikely that the US could bail India out since it is already battling declining power and economic indices. Chinese confidence in preventive war can only increase as the two power graphs tend to converge over the medium term. Therefore, Chinese strategy would be to let Pakistan box in India in the short term and keep the preventive war option open for the medium term.

What does this imply for India's grand strategy in first place and at one remove its China strategy? Premature strategic assertion or muscular posturing is not in grand strategic interest since India needs more than a decade to consolidate its agenda of growth with equity. It follows that it needs a China policy that cannot stampede it into a premature confrontation with that putative superpower. The military needs to be brought on board both through appropriate organisational measures giving it a voice within the system as also persuading it of the preferred strategic direction.

Apparently this is already the case, with India Today describing the defence minister as 'lone dissenter' in his turning down the idea of Indian military representation in the headquarters of US theatre commands, among other measures to maintain military distance from the US. This indicates sensible balancing behaviour. The gains made in the meeting between the PM and Mr. Hu, that included agreement over a visit by a delegation of the Northern Army to China, is further evidence of successful unfolding of a strategy that can do without the unnecessary buffeting of bureaucratic politics.