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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Long road still ahead
by Firdaus Ahmed

India and Pakistan are talking and playing. This is enough to make expectations rise, only to be disappointed once the realities catch up. A strand of reality that seldom finds mention is the reservations many in India have of rapprochement. Unless these are squarely met, reaching out done by well meaning prime ministers are not likely to get anywhere.

These reservations include, firstly, that Pakistan is not interested in repairing its relations with India. The Army in control there stands to lose and therefore would not like such an outcome. Secondly, business as usual cannot be conducted with those sending terrorists across. Thirdly, Pakistan is a stooge of China and consequently it will not be allowed to mend fences. There are more such arguments, all externally directed. These reservations can be taken on board and a strategy made to coopt, negate or prevail over these. That this does not happen, tells us that there is something more to reality.

An important part of this reality has been India's need to have an external 'other' out there - in the form of a hostile Pakistan. This holds up India.

There are several sectors, lobbies and forces that profit from the adversarial status quo. The Wikileaks being brought to attention by The Hindu, provide evidence. M K Narayanan's dismissal of the prime minister's soft corner for Pakistan is clinching on the good health of retarding lobbies in India.

Since the former National Security Adviser spent his working life in his own description to his American interlocutor who spilled the beans unintentionally as a 'spook', it can be inferred that the intelligence community stands arraigned against Pakistan. This appears understandable since they are conversant with the shady goings within their counterpart, the ISI. What is unsaid is the extent the ISI is reactive and between the two the extent to which the conflict ridden reality is firstly manufactured and secondly perceived.

Given the perception of reality fed by a motivated intelligence, it is apparently explicable that the military-industrial complex comprising the military, ministry and the technologists would prefer a tough stance. The justification of the defence budget is now not so much Pakistan, as China. However, as trotted out in late 2009, the 'two front' threat as the worse case scenario guides acquisitions.


Stalwarts of the strategic community have made their names and their visages nationally recognised in Pakistan-bashing. Former foreign service and intelligence officers, easily recognised even when they are not named, have set the discourse. Finding a voice after retirement they are paying back Pakistan for perceived wrongs, such as the surprise at Kargil and Kandahar, that have blemished their careers. At least a few are senior denizens in the capital-based think tanks setting the agenda, and one operates from the deep south.

Finally, there is the tribe of cultural nationalists. Arun Jaitly's views on opportunistic use of the ideology imply that Pakistan and its actions are politically useful. Also in the same news report is reference to terrorism raising the conservatives' stock. This perhaps explains the need felt in certain extremist circles for 'black operations' implicating Muslims in terrorism perpetrated by majoritarian nationalists.

Until this dimension of the internal reality is understood and accepted, there is little prospect of movement in India's Pakistan policy. Clearly, there is no chance of taking these forces on. Efforts to do so would get the conservative formations and realists into a quasi alliance. Their counter attack would be to appropriate nationalism and claim that a sell out on defence of the nation is underway. The government weakened by corruption scandals since the run up to the Commonwealth Games can hardly be expected to take the plunge.

Pakistan on its part is unlikely to oblige with a game changing gesture, such as locking up Hafeez Sayeed, sending its ISI chief on an intelligence exchange visit to India or the Pakistan Army chief pulling back of his army for operations to the west. Consequently, the procedural track of talks will at best be on course. Nothing significant can be expected to emerge, leaving South Asia open to the next jihadi assault and its nationalist aftermath.

Even so the steps taken at the home secretaries meeting in New Delhi and that of the prime ministers in Mohali must be welcomed. But the meet of the foreign ministers due in mid year must be viewed realistically.

What is needed?

This can only be an academic exercise in light of forces stacked against the possibility of improvement in relations between the countries. Many peace strategies have been suggested and partially explored. These include revitalising institutions, opening up commerce and people-to-people contacts. As witnessed, these are either stillborn (e.g. SAARC), stymied (the Lahore bus diplomacy), or undercut such as by the paperwork involved in gaining a place on the Uri-Muzaffarabad bus. In any case, each of this is subject to rewinding at the inevitable crack of the Kalashnikov. Even the promise of generational change was belied in the Rajiv-Benazir bonhomie having fizzled out with the outbreak of violence in Kashmir. So the impending Rahul era is also without promise.

Hardliners self-interestedly offer two strategies. One is to resort to fisticuffs to bring Pakistan to heel. The second is to create such an asymmetry with Pakistan by outspending it militarily that it will drop out of the race, if not bandwagon. The problem with the first is that there is no guarantee that Pakistan will lose in light of its response options on the subconventional and nuclear planes. The latter neglects the Chinese interest in keeping Pakistan afloat. In short, both options not only have little prospect of success but more dangerously keep South Asia on nuclear tenterhooks.

Pessimistic but realistically, the only way out appears to be to be brought up face-to-face with the nuclear reality. The Japanese experience, twice over, will be sobering in such a circumstance. This implies waiting for things to get worse. Then they will get better with the peace strategies that are already present in the discourse applied in the aftermath. Peace mongers must keep their powder dry to strike at that opportune hour.

The key question is how to restrict the nuclear face-off to a flirtation rather than the real thing. It is strange that such a question needs answering even as the two states are seemingly set to pick up the pieces once again from where they left off at Mumbai 26/11.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Getting A Peace Movement Going
by Firdaus Ahmed March 18, 2011 23:03

The unfortunate happenings in Japan can have a useful purpose in case the fledgling peace movement can acquire momentum. This is the time to move from an activist-centered program to a mass based one.

The events of Japan have had a catalyzing effect elsewhere. The PM has already ordered a nuclear safety recheck. Those opposed to nuclear power expansion in India, such as the CNDP (Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace) have used the opportunity to drive home their arguments against such expansion. The Disaster Management Authority is no doubt studying the aftermath, even as it keeps relief teams on standby for deployment. Nuclear lobbies interested in the nuclear renaissance have been at work dispelling any aspersions on their stewardship of the nuclear program.
Missing in action is the peace lobby. Currently, they are double-hatted, also busy with fending of nuclear power expansion, particularly the Jaitapur plant. The unfortunate happenings in Japan can have a useful purpose in case the fledgling peace movement can acquire momentum. This is the time to move from an activist-centered program to a mass based one.
The back-to-back nuclear tests were the spark but there was no tinder. As a result there was little societal opposition. Instead the nationalist narrative took over, fanned later by the Kargil War. The nuclearists were sensible in blostering their doctrinal releases with due genuflection to disarmament, even as they shifted the goal posts from ‘minimum deterrence’ to ‘credible minimum deterrence’. Their dominance of the discourse since, relying on official power, has kept the peace movement in the realm of possibility and not quite a ‘happening’ field.
This is despite South Asia having undergone a near war and a crisis after Kargil. The nuclear race, if not an arms race, is one being run neck in neck, with a news report having it that Pakistan has ‘edged’ past India in numbers. In a variegated program, India remains ahead, having a nuclear powered submarine under trials and ballistic missile defence system retested recently.
The somnolence in the peace counter offensive owes to the movement lacking in escape velocity. The current juncture of the third blast in Japan’s atomic power station and Tokyo being downwind is an opportunity that must be suitably leveraged. Directly confronted with the sad images, people can imagine what they are in for in case the false god, deterrence, were to fail.
Japan has evacuated a 20 km radius around the plant. Since it was on the sea the displacement has been up to tens of thousands, others having left due to the tsunami. The Japanese being traditionally disciplined the images are of oriental calm in face of tragedy and challenge. Transferring the disaster template onto the Indo-Gangetic plain would be surely focus minds, given South Asian densities of population, levels of preparedness and suspect social cohesion.

While rightly the current focus of activists is on nuclear plants safety and the shortcomings in the Indian system, such as absence of an independent over-watch and safety audit body, there is a need to go beyond. The counter attack must move into terrain hitherto-fore considered settled due to hegemony of nuclearists.

Anticipating their arguments would be instructive. Foremost would be that India and Pakistan have always waged limited, virtually ‘gentlemanly’ wars that were at best, ‘communal riots with tanks’. Both states have an agreement not to attack each others nuclear assets, an agreement that has withstood the test of all the crises over the past two decades. Limited War entails avoiding targeting of possible nuclear infrastructure, lest it trigger a ‘use them lose them’ paranoia. In case of inadvertent conventional strikes on nuclear weapons, the weapons are unlikely to go off in sympathetic detonations due to safety features. What would result would at best be akin to a dirty bomb, limited to the danger zone of the chemical explosive. Besides, India has the NDMA in place etc etc.

The shortcomings of this position need to be brought out. Firstly, the wars were in an era when the shared heritage and memories were still fresh in memory. Ever since respective religion based nationalisms have made advent in mainstream political imagination and the consequences are yet unfolding in both societies. Secondly, while the treaty exists, its robustness in war is not known. The level of credence given to the treaty, particularly in the classified air force doctrine, is not known. As it is the list that is exchanged yearly of facilities is not in the open domain. Thirdly, the emphasis on firepower is evident from the number of FICCI and CII seminars on the theme and developments in missile field, particularly cruise missiles. Nuclear hideouts can figure either explicitly or inadvertently in such fire assaults. This could lead to radiation leakage from damaged weapons or worse, trigger nuclearised responses.

The leisurely pace of the peace process that could dispel such concerns stands explained in the Wikileaks releases made accessible by The Hindu. The lobby against normalization, in which, incidentally, also figures an erstwhile NSA, is capable of stymieing the PM’s best intentions. That many sections gain from such a status quo, including the nuclear lobby, accounts for its strength.

In light of this asymmetry, positional war needs being launched by getting not only masses but the middle classes, who stand to lose the most, on board. The counter needs to move from an anti-nuclear ‘coalition’ to a ‘movement’. It cannot be in isolation of such action in neighbouring states. In fact, only together can the counter prevail. The Japanese experience is the second, and possibly last, for learning.

Friday, March 04, 2011


The Outlook informs that a report on intelligence reforms is in the offing. The review is being done by a government think-tank, taking cue from the speech of the Vice President, Hamid Ansari. It has been ten years since the Kargil Review Committee instigated the ‘Gary’ Saxena task force report to the Group of Ministers, and the new report is timely and welcome.

The Rajya Sabha chairman had said at the annual RN Kao Memorial Lecture a year ago that “there is no reason why a democratic system like ours should not have a Standing Committee of Parliament on intelligence.” His speech then had come close on the heels of Mr. Chidambaram’s talk, ‘A New Architecture for India’s Intelligence’ at the Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture. Thus, political India made its intent clear that changes in both the internal and external dimensions of intelligence were impending. This was understandable since Mumbai 26/11 had indeed shaken up the security system. With reforms elsewhere in place, such as coastal security, it is the turn of intelligence agencies that seem to have failed yet again, after Kargil.

It is being authored by an intelligence ‘insider’, Rana Banerji. He made the news a few years ago as a leading contender for the top job in the external intelligence agency. The ideas he may have entertained and could not oversee may come up in the report, making it one worth looking forward to. Saikat Dutta (‘Ghosts who walk’, Outlook, 28 February 2011) writes that the whole gamut of intelligence function is being reviewed including recruitment, training, covert operations, the operations-analyses balance, financial accountability, ethics etc. Though no report can possibly recommend against opening up the intelligence domain to legislative oversight, the manner and extent of this recommendation would be its highlight, given the reservations about reform that may be in existence.

This article suggests the inclusion of a recommendation on ethnic, regional and community profile balancing within these organizations. The idea can be considered irrespective of whether the Equal Opportunity Bill under debate sees the light of day. Since no data exists on account of secrecy that understandably attends the intelligence function, that this aspect is less than optimal cannot be said outright. However, the possibility of certain subgroups not being represented adequately, such as Muslims and other groups from certain regions, cannot be discounted. The figures, albeit contested, provided by late Omar Khalidi, in his book Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India are representative. The remainder of this article argues why a greater representation of Muslims would be beneficial to the organizations in question and to national security.

There is a perception of Muslim under-representation to the extent of their numbers being negligible to minimal, particularly so in officer ranks, as revealed by Outlook in 2006. That there is no policy to this effect can be conceded, though the article had suggested that it was outcome of an ‘unwritten code’. It possibly owes instead to a lack of qualification and dearth of volunteers. The latter is also due to the self-reinforcing cycle of Muslims not applying under the impression that they would not in any case make the grade. Given this, there is a case for remedial action. While positive discrimination is not the answer, an open recruiting policy may help. Targeting Muslims through an outreach to the community, through its leaders, may be useful. The figures for police and paramilitary have registered an upward trend since the Sachar committee made this suggestion. At officer level initially, Muslims can be asked for as deputationists from other organizations, such as police and the military. That deserving Muslims would likely seize the opportunity can be seen from a Muslim topping the IAS last year and the Indian Forest Service exam this year. The Vastanvi episode indicates the focus on education and jobs in the multiple communities that together form India and the world’s largest minority.

Why is this necessary? Take for instance intelligence on the terror bombings which reveal the handiwork of majoritarian extremists. The refrain in intelligence input, magnified through the media, was that these were perpetrated by Muslims. However, the discourse in the Urdu press and in drawing rooms of Muslim households was to the contrary. It could thus have proved to be a timely line of investigation. At a higher level of abstraction, the domestication of the intelligence function is important for the plural, secular and democratic underpinnings of the republic. In case the character of the state is to be changed, it is the closed intelligence apparatus that would be the first target. Without checks and balances that pervade the system, these organizations lend themselves to such takeover. While democratic control of the military has witnessed much theorizing, the democracy-intelligence relationship has been neglected.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What Holds India Up?
by Firdaus Ahmed March 01, 2011 17:34

India has a pretty good rationale for not engaging with Pakistan. It can always refer to 26/11, the dastardly attack on Mumbai. It can follow up with reference to the slovenly prosecution of the terrorist handlers and that the chief mastermind, Hafeez Sayeed, walks free. It can draw up a list of such attacks ranging from Mumbai train blasts through the parliament attack in Delhi to the bombing of the Srinagar legislative assembly. That Pakistan has not rolled back terror infrastructure intending to reuse it when the time is ripe on the departure of the US from AfPak makes Delhi less inclined to follow up purposefully on its professed preference of seeing a friend in Pakistan. India’s position appears justifiable and owing to this there is little interrogation separating what it professes with what are its actual motivations.

There are at least two pieces of evidence as to what holds India up. The first appeared in the Wikileaks trove on US embassy officials writing up their information. A joint secretary in the external affairs ministry is stated as saying, "call me a cynic, but even if India were to lop off Kashmir and hand it on a platter to Pakistan, they would still find a reason to make trouble for us". In the official's assessment a deep historical and civilisational faultline divides the two states and could at a certain level make their differences irreconcilable.

The second is in the recall of Musharraf of the Agra summit in which he alleges that the two political leaderships were closing in on a formulation, but clinching of the deal was scuttled by a foreign service officer handling the Pakistan desk in attendance. In his words, "There was someone from the foreign ministry sitting there named Katju. He may still be there, he created a lot of hurdles." Interestingly, he added, "I told Vajpayee saheb before leaving Agra, today you and I have been both humiliated because there is someone above us, sitting above us who can veto what we decide." It is no wonder that Musharraf did not receive the visa for his speaking engagement in Delhi late last year in the immediate aftermath of this interview.

The two instances indicate that there is a section in India’s deep state that is not overly inclined towards Pakistan. The section that is possibly less hostile to Pakistan is less vocal. They have certainly be silenced after the gaffe in the wording of the Sharm es Sheikh joint declaration of 2009. The most vocal proponent, Mani Shankar Aiyar, is unlikely to gain any position of consequence, unsurprisingly because of his being an Indusphile.

In the two illustrations, hardline views of diplomats have been referred to. Diplomats are the least extreme. What the views of those in the intelligence agency are can only be imagined. These views have been formed no doubt after observing Pakistani ISI in action and therefore they are understandable. Nevertheless, that they would constitute a speed breaker if not a hurdle can be imagined.

Likewise, the Army can be expected to be averse to Pakistan. While it may not have an issue with engaging Pakistan, it would be concerned were there to be any semblance of concession as part of such reaching out. Its position on eminently negotiable issues as Siachen has been described by notable Indian civil-military relations specialists as a case of exercise of veto over otherwise eminently political decision terrain.

Within the strategic community are the vociferous Pakistan bashers, Indian equivalent of the combative Shireen Mazari. Ever on television and through opinion pieces they deepen suspicion. The government with limited political capital to begin with can then hardly invest in rolling back the tide as prelude to clinching a deal. It is no wonder then that India remains without a policy of conciliation.

It however has a policy of coercion under preparation. While all elements are not in place at the moment due to the military make over that coercion requires, it is slowly building up through acquisitions to the capability. That coercion will be offset by Pakistan relying on China, on nuclear weapons and on irregular fighters is a problem that will be contended with in due course. Presently, a strategy of restraint caters to tide over the interim when India will be able to follow through where it left off in Operation Parakram. This means that the future is an uninviting one.

If changes are to be made, then understanding India’s internal hold up is equally required. Forever attributing the road block to the self-interested Pakistan Army and its notorious ISI is limiting. The Pakistani deep state has its reflection in an Indian deep state. Indian policy makers, its politicians, are not in a position to overrule the veto this exercises on its Pakistan policy.

Pakistan needs to change for India to be more accommodative is an acceptable proposition. However, for India to have to wait it out till then makes it a reactive state and is unbecoming of its power credentials. India needs instead to bring about the change. This it can only do if it can internally bring about a triumph of the liberals.

This will require political investment, attention and staking of political reputations. The over-focus on relations with the US, the economy and now with corruption are keeping India from engaging with the substantive issue of poor relations with its foremost neighbour. It needs to refocus on the core issue. Just as Gulliver, India cannot expect to get anywhere if its neighbourhood ties it down.

Recognising that the problem is not entirely in Pakistan but lies within is the first step.