On the Republic Day of 1995, terrorists set off an IED right next to the podium where General K.V. Krishna Rao (one of our finest former army chiefs) stood to take the salute as the governor of J&K. He survived, miraculously, but many others did not. This was still early days for the Kashmiri insurgency. This was seen as a great failure of security. Since the governor presided over law and order in a state under President’s Rule, there were immediate demands for his resignation.
General Rao asked me over for a drink at New Delhi’s J&K Bhavan a week or so after the incident. This, he said, was a terrible failure, and of course the buck must stop with me. He said he had told the government, If you want me to resign, I will happily do so. But what will you do when such a thing happens again? He continued to, however, in a mood of reflection, provide a reality check: We also have to see the consequences of a governor resigning each time such failure happens. Because such incidents will happen. Kashmir is a long haul. A nation, and a people, he said, had to have it in their guts to deal with a challenge like Kashmir, as you will never keep Kashmir if you quit after each setback, or negotiate and make concessions from a position of weakness, ever.
The message from Dantewada for India, therefore, is an old and familiar one: you are facing a new monster, and you have to have the skill, patience and, above all, that something that General Rao said a nation must have in its guts to deal with it. Nobody has to quit, nobody has to indulge in name-calling and nobody has to either exaggerate the threat, or trivialise it. The Congress, the BJP, the Left, have to all reflect on the many things they have said lately and realise that they are all in it together. The key to winning this complex war is to deprive it, right now, of the oxygen of partisan politics.
Over the past six decades India has acquired the unique skills, the experience and the resilience to deal with such insurgencies, and the good news is this one is more likely than, say, Kashmir, to follow the classic pattern of the other Indian rebellions so far particularly in the tribal Northeast.
Unfortunately, that similarity also includes the fact that in the course of each such earlier insurgency the nation wakes up and commits its full resources only after a big shock. There have been many in Kashmir, besides that Republic Day, topped undoubtedly by Kargil, and each time, India has responded with greater resoluteness. We still have a problem in Kashmir. But our gains are substantive too: two successive elections, internationally acknowledged as clean, have given the state two successive legitimate democratic governments which is not something Pakistan has ever had and now we have a global acknowledgement of the sanctity of the Line of Control. See this against the background of the many moments in the past 15 years when you would have thought Kashmir was a lost cause, one of those as recent as during the Amarnath land allotment agitation. A serious nation does not react to events, no matter how shattering. It assesses a challenge, and devises a policy.
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India also has the unfortunate, but invaluable, privilege of long institutional memory in handling remote-area insurgencies, absorbing the setbacks in that process. In fact, for each insurgency I can name a day that looked as bad, if not worse, than Dantewada. In Mizoram, on January 13, 1975, a band of Mizo rebels infiltrated the police headquarters and killed the entire brass: IGP Arya, his DIG Sewa and SP (special branch) Panchapakesan who were then holding a meeting. And how did Indira Gandhi respond? She sent in a tough army brigadier, G.S. Randhawa, to replace the IGP who then led the successful hunt for the assassins and, more importantly, built the first units of Mizoram Armed Police, consisting mainly of the native tribals. That, in fact, marked the beginning of the end of the Mizo insurgency.
In Assam, much later, a similar setback came with the assassination of IAS officer E.S. Parthasarathy, the tough commissioner of Upper Assam division, in Jorhat on April 6, 1981, by a grenade planted in his office chair. The senior Mrs Gandhi again responded by unleashing Hiteswar Saikia on Assam, even if through an election that was mostly illegitimate. In his politics or in his ethics, Hiteswar was no angel. But he was one of the toughest politicians you ever met, and a nationalist. He survived on transplanted kidneys in the early ’80s, when that aspect of medicine was not so advanced, brushed aside near-thing assassination attempts, but cleaned up the incipient armed underground. In both cases, a setback ultimately led to a situation where India’s political leadership by a fitting coincidence Indira’s son Rajiv found people on the other side willing to sign a peace deal that has endured.
The history of the Naga insurgency is far too long for me to make detailed references in a mere newspaper article. It delivered sizeable blows in each decade: the wiping out of an army patrol (29 soldiers) in 1957; the shooting down and that is so relevant in today’s context of an IAF Dakota on August 26, 1960 and its pilots being taken prisoner; the wiping out of a 22-strong Sikh Regiment patrol on February 14, 1982, at Namthilok, near Ukhrul, Muivah’s hometown. But each time, India took it on the chin and came back with even greater resolve. The Shillong Peace Accord of 1975 brought most of the major tribes overground, and into the political mainstream. Peace with the ones that remain, mainly under Muivah significantly those that were more ideologically inclined to the Left under Chinese influence is a work in progress. And the relatively recent, massive, massive setbacks on the way to eventual peace in Punjab are too recent to need repetition.
Insurgencies in India, therefore, follow a pattern pretty much like a bell-curve. That is the wisdom from our institutional memory. The graph of violence rises in the initial period, producing more and more casualties on both sides. But at some stage the rebels come to the realisation that this state and its people are too strong and resolute to be ever defeated, no matter what the score, in a particular day’s battle in a long war. That is the point of inflexion when rebels see reason. There is no reason why the Maoist insurgency will not follow that same pattern eventually. But remember two things: they will only do it once you convince them of the futility of war for them, and you will only get a durable peace when you offer it from a position of strength.
Two more things. When the time for peacemaking comes, the Indian state has been among the most generous and flexible, and that wonderful attribute defies our awful party politics. Nobody, for example, has ever questioned the sub-clause inserted in the Constitution, under the very contentious Article 370, answering some of the Nagas’ anxieties about their natural resources. Another sub-clause may eventually be confected to settle with Muivah’s men. In Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland peace accords have brought the former rebels to power, and in Punjab, the Akalis, though through a more complex political process. So when the time comes, India will need to be generous with amnesties, governance reforms and forgiveness. But you have to fight hard now to earn that moment.
Second, in a war, your tactics change every day, sometimes by the hour. You do not discuss or debate tactics in the media. You do not rule out the use of this instrument of state power or that. The constitutional and historically established principle is that the state must use the minimum power required to deal with a law and order challenge. What that minimum power is, is to be left to the leaders of the day to decide. So please ask all your responsible people to stop debating tactical options, from air power to army in public. This country needs soldiers, not TV stars. Today’s leaders have to be taught to avoid what BBC’s Nik Gowing describes so brilliantly as the tyranny of real time.
And, by the way, in 1960, Nehru figured out that minimum power included his air force, against the Nagas; Mrs Gandhi sent airplanes to bomb Aizawl when Mizo rebels had raised their flag on the treasury, and were about to sack the Assam Rifles battalion headquarters, which housed not just troops but also their families. The pilots on those bombing runs included two names we all got to know subsequently: Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi. Again, in Operation Bluestar, she used tanks, APCs and howitzers in the Golden Temple. You want to dig deeper, and you will find more diabolical innovations. Sardar Patel sent the army to subdue the Nizam in Hyderabad in 1947 and called it police action. Nehru, in 1960, did even better. He sent the army, navy and air force to liberate Goa and still called it police action. So do not close your option of defining the minimum required in a particular situation. And do settle down for the long haul, with that something in your guts.