From the Takht-e-Nishan throne, illuminated by Belgian chandeliers, His Exalted Highness Mir Osman Ali Khan had watched, in impotent rage, as the malign red flags of revolution flowered across his reign. In the summer of 1948, two brigades of the Indian Army swept aside what remained of his rotting regime. Then, the hammer was raised again — this time to crush the communist insurgents who had crippled the Nizam’s regime and now defied the new Indian State across swathes of Telangana.
Thousands died in the savage campaign that followed, historians Jonathan Kennedy and Sunil Purushotham have recorded in a seminal study. Fake encounters and disappearances became commonplace. Entire Adivasi villages were relocated at gunpoint into camps, which, a 1951 Military Intelligence Directorate reported, lacked the “bare necessities of life.”
Last week, the Narendra Modi government decided to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from parts of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland. The historic move is likely to fuel calls for AFSPA to be lifted from other theatres of conflict, including Kashmir. New Delhi should listen to them.
From India’s own painful learnings, as well as global experience, the AFSPA decision makes it necessary to ask three fundamental questions: Have India’s decades-old counterinsurgency practices really helped end political violence? Is the Army the right tool to deal with violent ideological conflicts? And, finally, what alternative might there be?
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Dubious gains from counter-insurgency
For generations, Indian discussions on counterinsurgency have been curiously amnesiac. Mizoram, for example, has been held out as a success story, where years of counterinsurgency attrition enabled a durable political agreement. The savagery has figured only, so to speak, in the footnotes. Civil servant Vijendra Singh Jafa, for example, has recorded how villagers were forced to burn down their own homes and crops, as part of a campaign to sever ties between communities and insurgents.
The brutal military measures, though, only yielded a grim stalemate. In 1986, Jafa recorded, the government signed a peace deal that involved getting “the insurgents into the Congress (I) fold and pouring in enormous quantities of money for the enrichment of this class.” Like elsewhere in the Northeast, the price of peace was corrupt, dysfunctional polities.
Telangana is an even more emphatic example of the limits of force. The crushing of the Maoist insurgency of 1946-1951 did not prevent the rise of a second phase in the 1960s and 1970s, this time focussed on West Bengal and Bihar. The third phase, which began in the 1990s, is diminished—but still continues to claim significant number of lives.
Evidence exists that the massive use of force was counter-productive. In November 2009, then-home minister P. Chidambaram, drawing on then-fashionable clear-hold-and-build counterinsurgency doctrine, pumped in central police personnel into Bastar. His home secretary, Gopal Krishna Pillai, announced: “Within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration.”
Fatalities in 2009 rose to 359, significantly higher than the 169 recorded in 2008. The outcome of the commitment meant that to end violence there had to be even more violence.
Kashmir — where the large use of violence against civilians was commonplace in the 1990s — has seen low levels of violence since 2003. There’s reason to ask, though, if that is primarily because of the use of military force, or strategic decisions by Pakistan’s military to reduce trans-border support for jihadists. The level of violence rose from 1990 to 1996, and again from 1999 to 2003, in line with Pakistani decisions. Indian force levels did not impact this escalation.
Even more important is that the reduction in violence levels hasn’t led to social and political stability — the end-state sought through counterinsurgency. Three times since violence reduced after 2003 — in 2008, 2010 and 2016 — the Indian State has been challenged by large-scale Islamist-led uprisings.
For several decades after Independence, the State’s security apparatus was anaemic. Few states had functional police forces; the intelligence services were stretched; the Army was the only means to restore order, if not law, when crises like Kashmir erupted. Even though the State’s coercive tools have grown, its thinking hasn’t.
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The myth of ‘hearts and minds’
Indian military and police academies have long based their teachings on British colonial counterinsurgency experience. Force must be massively employed, the doctrine goes, to make it impossible for insurgents to operate among the population. Following this, military commanders must seek to win the population’s support by instituting development and ensuring justice. There are many cases that bear out this doctrine, with one common problem: They’re all untrue.
The historian Caroline Elkins has shown how the British counterinsurgency in Kenya consisted of interning a significant proportion of the population in concentration camps, and institutionalising torture and rape. Paul Dixon’s work on the legendary Gerald Templer, the proponent of the ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, makes clear that savage coercion was the norm in Malaya.
“I cut his balls off,” a British special forces officer recalled of his interrogation of a Mau-Mau insurgent in Kenya. “He had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.”
The savagery marginally delayed the British Empire’s inevitable retreat from Africa and did not help keep Malaya within the Empire. The British counterinsurgency was a strategic failure.
In Algeria, special forces officer Roger Trinquier recounted, France found itself confronting “an adversary employing arms and methods the army itself ignores.” He concluded: “Our military machine reminds one of a pile-driver attempting to crush a fly, indefatigably persisting in repeating its efforts.”
Faced with this challenge, Trinquier advocated the use of irregular tactics, including torture. France did record military successes as a result but the population became so hostile that strategic defeat was inevitable. The United States, journalist Neil Sheehan has recorded in his book A Bright Shining Lie, had much the same experience in Vietnam.
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Towards the rule of law
The problem, as global experience shows, isn’t AFSPA. It gives the Indian Army few protections that police forces operating in the same environment do not have. AFSPA’s most controversial provision gives soldiers immunities from prosecution or human rights violations — but near-identical provisions are in place for police nationwide. The real problem is that armies are not designed to fight campaigns against ideologically driven, unconventional enemies enmeshed in populations.
As India considers its next steps in Kashmir, the Modi government needs to ask if keeping large numbers of soldiers troops is, in fact, serving any meaningful end.
First, the number of troops committed in Kashmir hasn’t altered in spite of the reduction in violence levels. There are no official figures on force levels, but then-Northern Army commander, Lieutenant-General HS Panag, said in 2007 that a third of the 3,37,000 troops deployed in the state were for counterinsurgency. Maintaining such force levels for counterinsurgency makes little sense given there are just some 250 terrorists active and armed, according to official figures, with nothing more than pistols.
Second, the Jammu and Kashmir Police has shown a robust ability to combat terrorism in the state’s cities, where the Army is not deployed.
Third, central and state police forces have demonstrated that they can contain challenges to state authority. The force, backed by central police reinforcements, succeeded in ensuring peace after Kashmir’s special constitutional status was withdrawn in August 2019.
Although risks are involved — among them, the prospect that Pakistan might resume large-scale support for jihadists — India’s intelligence services are far better equipped to warn of looming crisis than in 1990. Troops withdrawn from counterinsurgency, moreover, can be moved to the Line of Control, and rapidly cycled back in a crisis.
Large-scale military deployments for counterinsurgency in Kashmir serve no clear objectives, fuel alienation and anger among the region’s people, and allow civil administration and institutions to evade their responsibilities. Learning from India’s troubled counterinsurgency history, it’s time to transition to an order that is centred around the criminal justice system and the rule of law.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)