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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.