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Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Pathribal: Back in the news
Firdaus Ahmed

Kunan Poshpora and Pathribal will remain etched in any history of the Kashmir conflict. While the salience of the former (in the perspective of this writer) is a product of the information war that inevitably attends conflict, the latter is an illustration of the intelligence game that is an inextricable part of conflict. It is unsurprising, therefore, for Kashmir being the conflict zone of Pakistani proxy war and Indian counter-insurgency to have its recent history littered with such evocative names, quite like other such theatres of conflict, whether conventional or unconventional. 

Pathribal is in the news for the army's exoneration of its members held for perpetrating the infamous Pathribal incident in which five civilians were killed and passed off as those who had committed the Chattisingpora carnage on the eve of Clinton's visit to India. Truthfully, the army states that enough evidence was not recorded to implicate the men. Recording 'enough evidence' could have opened up a Pandora's Box and therefore for the perpetrators to be left off is in a way only fair. Had they been after rewards and awards as is the usual explanation, they would likely have been nailed by the army. The army's letting them off suggests that there is more to the case as has been surmised by the circumstantial evidence over the past decade.

The Clinton visit is critical to understanding Pathribal. India had blasted its way into the nuclear club and was temporarily in the dog housefor that with the United States that had a democratic dispensation which is usually more influenced by the non-proliferation lobby. The Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks had opened up space for India, even as Pakistan's support for the Taliban that was harbouring bin Laden was getting constricted. The Clinton visit symbolised this shift in American interests away from Pakistan with Clinton deciding to spend as many days in India as hours in Pakistan. 

In the context of the visit, the security establishment decided to twist the knife by arranging the Chittisingpora incident in order to push Pakistan into a corner with the US, knowing that a democratic administration is usually more sensitive to human rights issues. Since the Sikhs had never been targeted before, it was to stretch credulity that Pakistan would be so strategic as to allow its proxies to perpetrate the massacre on the eve of Clinton's visit, particularly when they wanted to compete with India for US affections. No doubt, the US had in this case its own views, informed also by its links with the Pakistanis who would have fed it their version. Even within India there was considerable scepticism that then needed to be dispelled. 

With their thinking murkied by an insurgency over a decade old by then, the security agencies thought it fit to cover their tracks. The execution of this at Pathribal was as ham handed as was the massacre at Chittisingpora. The tracks left by the army by killing innocents to pass off as Pakistani terrorists were easily uncovered by civil society agitation that incidentally led to deaths in firing of another set of civilians at Panchaltan. Given the second set of deaths, the incident became too difficult to consign into the several unresolved cases that have filled not a few of the unmarked graves across Kashmir. 

The resulting investigation led to uncovering of enough evidence by the police to prompt a CBI investigation that yet again declared that the case was prosecutable. The army's protection of its members led to the Supreme Court declaring that the case be handed over to the army for military justice to take its course. The current recurrence of Pathribal in the news is the army's expression of inability to prosecute due to lack of evidence. They in fact go on to state that there is enough 'evidence' that the operation was a bonafide joint police-army operation. 

Clearly, the military judicial process has not been as blind as the ends of justice require. It appears to have been cognisant of the context surrounding the case then and equally so of the current political, external and internal, juncture. As the Congress looks at elections it can do without the opposition gaining further traction than it has already demonstrated. The exservicemen lobby, that represents the military's political face, is also one that is increasingly vocal, cannot be ignored and is liable to put its weight behind the opposition strongman, NaMo, as General VK Singh's presence on the dais with Modi testifies. 

Externally, the Pakistan relationship is not going anywhere any time soon. Manmohan Singh in his lame duck tenure cannot pursue what he promisingly set out to do in his first tenure. In fact, the assessment is that it would be downhill for sometime here on since the magic figure '2014' is in the here and now. With the statistics of last year promise a militarily feisty Line of Control this year too. Therefore, if the Kashmir security situation is likely to worsen, it would be a waste to emplace mitigatory measures now such as enforcing accountability for human rights violations. 'Demoralising' the security forces should not be done when they are about to be most needed yet again. 

The shortcoming of this assessment need highlighting in that if the Taliban, and Pakistan at one remove, are out to retake Afghanistan on the departure of the US, it is reasonable to believe that they would like to keep their backyard quiet. They also will unlikely have the strategic resources to open up the Kashmir front simultaneously, after all after over half a decade of capacity building the Afghan security forces are unlikely to be a pushover even if Karzai is a pushover politically. 

Therefore, while it can be expected that Kashmir will likely see more fireworks this year, it is hardly on account of Pakistani strategic design as much as a self-fuelling prophecy in which India, out to check Pakistan in Afghanistan through a proxy war, will see Pakistan revert to using its trump card. In fact if the procedural democracy soon to be worked in Kashmir were to be supplemented by substantive democracy through accountability then it could have dispelled the hurt in Kashmir that conveys to Pakistan that it remains ripe for meddling. 

Accountability indicting Indians would also deflate India's diplomatic position that Pakistan is the root cause of the problem in Kashmir. It would put the AFSPA defence of the army into question. It would lead to an easing of the situation, heightening concerns of continuing army presence. This would bring up the matter of redeployment of the RR out of Kashmir and into Central India. Therefore, there are plenty of reasons not to expect justice to take its own course in the Pathribal case. 

But most importantly, incarcerating a few soldiers is hardly just if those who ordered the killings are not brought to book. The chain of command does not stop at the army itself in this case. What the brass in the command chain could tell would go into the heart of the governmental establishment to include men in safari suits and dhotis. Going down this route would expose the underside of India's security establishment and its culpability in keeping Kashmir unsettled. 

This explains why the army - and indeed the government - wants the nation to forget Pathribal. Now, if only the families and the activists would put on their nationalist cap and listen. Feedback at

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The next polls and beyond

Milligazette, 1-15 January 2014

Having lost in four states, the Congress is readying to pack its bags for vacating 7, Race Course Road, by May next. Its stalwarts, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Chidambaram, have both indicated that the divisions in polity are such that there is little chance of the next government sticking through the next five years at the helm. Aiyar therefore opines that the Congress could throw in the towel next year in order to ‘refit’ itself in a ‘break from governance’ for a subsequent meaningful try at the polls. Chidambaram, likewise, has suggested that the next elections will not throw up a solid majority. Maintaining that the current government is being hampered by pushback from the legislature and judiciary, he reveals that Indian democracy is undergoing a ‘churning’ at its ‘weakest point’ in its history.   
The open breast beating by the Congress in wake of their dismal showing is to be expected. It helps keep morale alive in that the Congressman is assured that even if the next polls are given a bye, the Congress can yet reposition itself – to quote Aiyar - as the ‘natural party of governance for the 21st century’. While the Congress needs such self-consolation, the nation cannot be so sanguine. If history is any guide, the last time the Congress expected to return to power after vacating it in mid nineties, it was unable to do so for close to a decade. While the last time round, there was the sober and mature Vajpayee at the helm to keep the sangh parivar on leash, this time round, if and when the BJP gets to power, they are unlikely to restrain themselves.
Using government leverage they will position themselves for the long haul in order to reconfigure India in their image. It is for this reason that the complacency of the Congress cannot be allowed to seep into the nation and the forthcoming electoral fight by secular-liberal forces and minority interest groups must be taken for what it is and quite like the BJP and its affiliates are taking it, with a greater gumption than the ‘grand old party’, the Congress, has shown or is at all capable of showing.  
It bears recall that the Narasimha Rao government was beset with the same problems and lethargy at its term end as is the Manmohan government today. Quite the same fate administered it by the electorate then as seems to await the Manmohan dispensation. At the time, Shankar Dayal Sharma, had called upon Vajpayee to step in as leader of the single largest party. Vajpayee, seizing the chance, tried to cobble up a coalition.
Even as he did so he proceeded to order nuclear weapons detonation preparations to get underway in order to build a nationalist wave behind him. However, his initial stint lasted only thirteen days. It was in his second attempt that he used the nationalist gimmick of bombing his way into the nuclear club, alongside fighting a popular war in Kargil as a caretaker government, to insinuate the BJP into power that lasted a full term after the second elections.
The period in power was used to extend saffronisation of institutions and inveigle Hindutva into the national imagination. While Murli Manohar Joshi proceeded to rework education; other up front projects included a national commission to review the working of the constitution and the Vision 2020 document of the Planning Commission. Questions persist over the parliament attack that hanging Afzal Guru have done little to resolve. In the security field, India gave itself offensive military doctrines and a nuclear doctrine that even a change in government has not been able to dilute. The country barely managed to avoid being entangled in US’ Iraq quagmire by sending troops.

All this happened, despite Vajpayee generally having his heart in the right place. He reached out twice to Pakistan, at Lahore and at Agra. While the military there rudely overruled his interlocutor, Nawaz Sharif, by mounting a Kargil on unsuspecting Vajpayee, at Agra, a careful study by AG Noorani, informs that Advani exercised a veto. Advani also dispelled Vajpayee’s intent to take Modi to task over his lapse in ‘rajdharma’ in Gujarat.
The foregoing suggests that conservative politics is susceptible to capture by the ideological fringe. Two notable times this has occurred are in an outrageous way have been the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat carnage. In both cases the conservatives got away, claiming loss of control, rather admit to the conspiracy behind both. In both cases, the minority was target. If a Vajpayee in their midst could not remedy matters, it does not take much imagination to envisage the rightist turn with Modi at the helm.
The Congress perspective is that political ‘untouchability’ will keep Modi from gaining any support, even if as psephologists predict and the Congress fears, the BJP does turn out the single largest party. Complacency on this score can prove fatal to India as we know it. The gimmick of the atom bomb is precedence on the way a national rallying call can be used to cement the incumbent in power. Modi has already sounded the battle cry in his Sawai Madhopur rally in which he suggested a reopening of the Article 370 question. With the long dreaded Year 2014 round the corner, a deteriorating national security can serve as a convenient nationalist rallying cry. The middle classes that are behind NaMo can be expected to chip in to foster a greater acceptability of Modi across party lines. He will get off to a running start since he has the way chalked out by right wing think tanks and diaspora support that have contributed to making his campaign such as to survive even a Snoopgate.

This implies that far graver possibilities exist in the post elections future than self-exculpatory political commentary from senior Congress sources suggests. Modi can be expected to play to the gallery, even as he lets loose saffronites into the state and nation. Once assured of sustaining, he will create the ground for another round. This will see the sangh pariwar celebrate its centenary while in power at the center.  Clearly, Congress faintheartedness cannot be allowed to get infectious.