Cautioning the Indian military against being politically gullible
Of late the pressures to place Pakistan into a corner so that India can get out of the corner it has painted itself into, are aplenty. Having deoperationalised Article 370 and awaiting the popular backlash in Kashmir, India is readying to deflect the blame onto Pakistan. It is a case of projection, putting on another’s shoulder what embarrasses you. The military appears to be lending itself willingly to such a strategy. It needs cautioning of the underside of the strategy.
The latest information war intervention by the military has been in the southern army commander going on national television to claim that recovery of abandoned boats in the Sir Creek suggests a terror threat across south India. His statement was preceded by reports by intelligence agencies of Pakistani agents’ activity in the area. At best a threat could develop in Gujarat from boats landed there.
It is inconceivable that anyone would land in Sir Creek to take on targets in Kerala, but as if on cue, the Kerala police jumped on the bandwagon with their own sounding of an alert. Recall, the state had also figured in the prospective sites for terror backlash to India’s constitutional bungling Kashmir. Then it was no doubt to divert attention of the country aghast from happenings up north. Kerala as is well known is the site of the next intended penetration of the Parivar for social and political engineering. An advance element in the form of a new and suitable governor is already in position.
This indicates the problem, not comprehended by the military so far, that accompanies its periodic crying wolf. The information war painting Pakistan black has internal political consequences. So while the military may think that it is acting out its part as part of an ongoing hybrid war with Pakistan, of which information war is a salient part in peace time, it may be playing into the hands of political forces it has little comprehension of. The Parivar is fully capable of using the gullibility of the military for its political ends (even if it claims to be merely a cultural organization).
Lately such instances have increased, indicating the military is playing along. Take a few illustrations.
First, the air chief went overboard once claiming that the Pakistani aerial counter attack at Rajauri-Naushera to India’s Balakot strike did not cross the Line of Control (LC). This is false since it contradicted the ministry statement accusing Pakistan of an air violation.
Second, the army operations branch and the army commander northern command misinformed Indians that no surgical strikes were carried out prior to the trans-LC operations in late September 2016. This lie worked in favour of the ruling party in elections, since the operations branch made its egregious intervention on this politically charged question prior to elections end and the army commander chipped on the day following the end of elections. Surely, this was no co-incidence. Were they being their master’s voice?
Third, the corps commander in Kashmir – perhaps to over-compensate for sleeping on the job and allowing the Pulwama terror attack to happen – on national television claimed a threat to the Amarnath Yatra when his troops chanced upon a mine and some warlike stores. This resulted in the calling off of the Yatra, return of migrants and eviction of tourists. In the event, it turned out to be lies to facilitate the lockdown preceding the farce enacted in Parliament on Article 370.
Fourth, the corps commander had then claimed killing of five terrorist members of a border action team out to attack an LoC position or activity. While Pakistan disputed this, it was never followed up by the media as to what happened to the bodies, of which photos from a distance were put out in the media. Recently, India released a video on the operation in which they were allegedly killed, indicating that it felt that it had not convinced its audience enough back then. He was yet again on national television trying to – in anticipation of the inevitable outbreak of impending civil unrest – shift the blame on to ‘Pakistani puppets’ for attempting fresh infiltration. While, no doubt, Pakistan would be up to its old tricks, what else did the security establishment imagine when it advised the Modi-Shah duo that it would manage the aftermath?
It is by now clear that the advice – if sought and tendered – was an overreach. India is risking war and internal rebellion. This has little security value for the country, though it is of great political dividend for Modi. It enables diversion from the economic bad news. In case push comes to shove, then Pakistan can be blamed for a tanking economy – whether India wins or loses. It has value for polarizing India further. It has potential to plunge India into an authoritarian mode of governance. The much feared fascism will have a vitiated security environment as cover.
The supposed terror threat in the rest of India, for which at least two alerts have been issued so far in south India, has a subtext: it being that terror in the hinterland requires support and such a support base can only be in India’s subverted minority that has a pan-India presence. This is where the black operations of terror bombings by political Hindutva fanatics kick in. In the popular narrative these have been attributed to Muslims. There is a surfeit of commentary from the usual sources that Muslims – otherwise not particularly concerned with the Kashmir question – are put out by the right wing’s actions in Kashmir. Thus Muslims stand in the dock yet again, for no fault of theirs, but as testimony to the ingenuousness of Hindutva forces and success of intelligence agencies marching to a Sanghi tune.
Given this internal political context to the heightened India-Pakistan tension, it would be wise for the army to distance from being an instrument of scaremongering. It may like to overlay its strategic input with political sensitivity. At the apex level, the expectation from the military brass is not ‘Yea Sir, three bags full, Sir!’. Instead, they are to have political understanding. This may sound counter intuitive and against the acclaim for the military being apolitical. However, how can a military be apolitical if it does not have political sensitivity enough to keep out of politics and ensure politics keeps off the military?
This is a critical time in civil-military relations for the military to stand up and ward off – not disobey – orders from the Doval-led national security establishment that though seemingly Pakistan focused also have an internal political component. The military needs to be prickly and in so being exercise a deterrent for improper tasking. It cannot have its uniform sullied by being used on account of its credibility and authority for putting out questionable ‘facts’ that have a pronounced internal political bias.
This is not a call for disobeying the government but only requiring that such orders either be routed through the proper channel – the defence minister – or be put out through the bona-fide information channels of the government. Why must the brass be paraded in front of television cameras? Whereas the brass undertaking this may be looking at the external dimension of the messaging, the message for its political minders is more internally directed, targeting Indian people and their voting base in the majority.
The military – familiar as it is with headlines – must know that institutions across the governance sector have been sent to the rock bottom over the past five years. Its head is on the blocks next. It appears to be losing the battle to preserve its institutional apolitical culture and ethos. It is doddering but not down for the count yet. The nation waits to see if the brass measure up to the test of history.
Ali Ahmed, a strategic affairs columnist, teaches at the Nelson Mandela Center, JMI.