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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

The Army’s Right to an Opinion

Friday 31 December 2010

by Firdaus Ahmed

The right of the Army to voice an opinion has been defended by the Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju. The background to his defence was Omar Abdullah’s complaint to the Prime Minister on an Army press release a day earlier. The press release indicated that the decision to remove certain bunkers from Srinagar did not have the Army’s concurrence.

The press release had stated: ‘Though it appeared to be a well-considered decision, the latest incident has raised many questions. It may have pleased a few separatists and their handlers in Pakistan, but what about the common man in the Valley? Will the reduced security and visible absence of security forces raise uncertainties, fear and doubt in the minds of the population during the long winter ahead?’

The Army Commander has since apologised for the offending press release saying it was unauthorised. The press release has been explained away as ‘personal predilections of a junior officer’. Yet, the Army being a highly centralised system, it is likely that the press release on a sensitive subject would have been vetted in the Command Headquarters Infor-mation Warfare section. The Army Commander, in tendering an apology to the Chief Minister, has apparently taken responsibility, as a good leader must, and there the matter could rest. However, does the contretemps have any ramifications?

The present case can be seen as part of the continuum of the Army’s unease with the security implications of the moves towards normalisation of the Valley. These initiatives include the reported dismantling of 20 bunkers, removal of 1000 CRPF jawans and contemplation of removal of the notification of disturbed areas from some parts in Srinagar. The latter was to presage the progressive withdrawal of the AFSPA from the Valley where the security situation made it feasible. This is as per the eight-point formula of the Centre to defuse the agitations that rocked the Valley over the summer. The formula had included sending interlocutors to further the peace process. The State Government’s efforts at drawing down the presence and visibility of the security forces in Srinagar are intended to enhance the levels of trust necessary to make the political plank work.

The Army, understandably focused on the military dimension of the security situation, has apparently missed the larger game-plan unfolding. This has two aspects. One is wider regarding the AFSPA as law. Deliberations in North and South Blocks have been in diluting its less ‘humane’ Articles by either reframing it or incorporating the legal cover the Army needs into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Army Commander had earlier made his reservations on any dilution of the AFSPA, terming it as a ‘holy book’. The second is of local significance, relating to the security aspect of the draw-down in Srinagar. The Army had been called out in July for the first time since the early nineties in ‘standby’ in case the agitations, in the run-up to the Foreign Minister’s meeting in Islamabad, got out of hand. Such a situation would have placed the Army in a delicate position; that it no doubt apprehends in case control over Srinagar by the Central Police forces is diluted.

With regard to the latter, the Army has the Corps Commander in Srinagar as the advisor to the Chief Minister in the Unified Headquarters looking after the Valley. His position, taken with approval of the next rung in hierarchy at Udhampur, has doubtless been taken on board in its decision-making by the Chief Minister. In any case, Srinagar town does not have Army deployment and it is the responsibility of the State Police assisted by the Central Police forces. The onus is therefore of the State, legally and structurally. Hence the apology was due.

But it does indicate a major perspective in the military. Outside the small print is the fact that the Army Commander is due to retire at year-end. He can therefore choose to go the extra distance in firming up the military position. Army Commanders in the Indian system have considerable stature and power. This has proven disruptive at times in J&K, since the Army Commander curiously does not figure as the security adviser, though Corps Commanders, reporting to him, do. The point of higher order import is the seeming exercise of the veto. This tension has been prevalent in areas in which it remains endlessly deployed. The inadequacies of State governments persisting, increases this dependence on and power of the Army.

THAT the Army has a right to an opinion is well understood. This enables it to perform its advisory function in a democracy. That it should voice its opinion is useful in providing access to its view for the attentive public. This helps make the democratic debate better informed. However, the question is whether it can voice it openly in a manner as to bring a policy and the policy-maker under a cloud.

Watchful commentators, such as A.G. Noorani and Srinath Raghavan, are of the opinion that the military’s repeated assertion of its position is suggestive of a role expansion. Such opinion is based on the recent publicly voiced position of the military by multiple personages at different occasions against its deployment in Central India and against reformulation of the AFSPA. The point critics make is that this ties down the policy-maker’s hands, since the political level policy-maker, usually short of political capital, would not like to be pilloried for going against professional judgment.

In the political process unfolding in the Valley, there is a need for calculated risks to be run to bring about a modicum of trust necessary for talks to proceed. That over a 100 youth have died in the summer agitations requires that these measures be substantive for result. This is what explains the slow and limited draw-down of the visible face of security in Kashmir.

The problem is that the Army is apparently not on board. This is the result of a structural deficiency in that the State Government taking the initiative, backed by North Block, has only limited over-watch over the Army, since the latter reports up its channel to South Block. The war between the two halves of Raisina Hill over the AFSPA and extent of its application is an instance of the gulf. The Supreme Court, in its judgment on the Nagaland case against the AFSPA, had ruled that the Army remains outside the scope of control of the State Government when deployed in ‘aid of civil power’. Mechanisms for ‘cooperation’ are to be developed for the purpose.

Given the institutional rivalries in India, this has evidently not happened to desired levels of efficacy in Kashmir. It is personal equations that drive institutional relationships. For instance, the press release on the apology of the Army Commander felt it necessary to include the mutual regard the Army Commander shares with the Chief Minister. This certainly calls for querying as to where the buck stops in internal security situations.

That the Army is not on board owes to its self-image as the ‘last bastion’ and skepticism of political processes in general. This brings the security consideration to the foreground. Such a belief surely is useful for its vested interests, but is anchored in a misunderstanding of the security situation. In Kashmir it sees the proxy war as salient as against the alienation of the masses. Since the latter requires a political solution and it is outside of the Army’s remit, it is unable to comprehend the initiative; thereby its skepticism. Given this, a higher quality is expected of its strategic level leadership in the formulation and articulation of the military’s institutional position.

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