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Ajai Shukla: Six decades of looking away


Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Independence Day tomorrow will witness the crescendo and then, mercifully, the end of an orgy of collective self-delusion that rivals the BJP's Shining India run-up to the 2004 elections. India's 60th birthday has occasioned nostalgia, patriotism, jingoism, and a rash of polls to determine data like India's favourite song. Absent, surprisingly, is any hard-headed evaluation of the exercise in nation building that began in 1947, when some 562 princely states chose between India and Pakistan, the two entities created out of the 11 provinces and various tribal areas of British India. Such an evaluation would highlight the unpalatable truth that even today J&K, Nagaland and Manipur are held within the union through armed force. Assam and Tripura face serious separatist challenges; the Naxal threat is spreading; and a terrorist challenge, springing from our own alienated minorities, has increased the numbers of armed men on the streets of India.
If the map of India has not yet been reshaped, it is because of the sheer manpower that New Delhi can muster: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today. But separatist sores continue to fester because armed forces can only create safe conditions for engineering political settlements. Those political initiatives are nowhere in sight; successive governments in New Delhi focus their political energies, not on outlying provinces, but on the big vote banks that ensure their survival in power.
This attitude of dealing with separatism by throwing manpower at it stems, ironically, from India's past success in the northeast against ethno-religious separatist movements by using a crude combination of military force and political buyout. Success in states like Mizoram rested on the prolonged use of military force over years, offering negotiations when separatist stamina was running low, and then buying their leaders over with the promise of power in a post-conflict polity. This old strategy is no longer viable against new globalised structures of ethnic and religious separatism. It has failed in J&K because terrorists can replenish, materially and ideologically, by plugging into the structures of global Islamist jehad. But it hasn't been replaced with an alternative strategy.
Also reinforcing New Delhi's tendency to look away is the political psyche of India's power elite and the voting public. In a relatively young country and a rising power, national attention is focused mainly on changing lifestyles, economic opportunities, and caste- and religion-based politics. We appear psychologically uncomfortable with bringing issues of disaffection and alienation into the national political discourse. Instead, we resort to our convenient national cop-out: deflect the blame and hold external forces responsible for our internal violence. Over the years, India has blamed China, Myanmar and Bangladesh for separatism in the northeast, Pakistan for terrorism in Punjab and J&K. Enterprising government spinmeisters have even tried to pin blame for Naxalism on Nepal.
With the "foreign hand" as a convenient scapegoat, strategy has followed the rhetoric; India's military planning has always been directed towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in military and paramilitary uniform, barely 5,000 are anti-terrorism specialists. Regular army personnel, primarily trained for full-scale war, man even the so-called "counter-insurgency" forces, the Rashtriya Rifles. Effectively, India uses makeshift means to deal with terrorism and militancy up to a point; beyond that it threatens war. When Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacked Parliament in 2001, New Delhi had little to show by way of a counter-terrorism response. Instead, India's military moved into battle positions and readied to invade Pakistan. Then, as now, the only lever in India's terrorism tool shed was full-scale war.
This shortage of specialist forces trained and equipped to deal with internal security looks set to continue, if India's weapons procurement programme is any indicator. Most ongoing weapons purchases are platforms needed for all-out war: an aircraft carrier, a submarine line, amphibious assault ships and heavy battleships for the navy; multi-role combat aircraft, mid-air refuellers and airborne cruise missiles for the air force; and tanks, air defence guns, medium artillery and intermediate-range strategic missiles for the army. Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India's establishment still believes that if the military has credible warfighting capability, everything else will follow.
Unlike India, though, the United States is adapting quickly to fight its new wars. The Pentagon's new counterinsurgency doctrine (published in December 2006 as Field Manual 3-24) would make instructive reading for our leaders. FM 3-24 notes that the armed forces cannot succeed alone in counterinsurgency; such operations "involve the application of national power in the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure fields and disciplines." The US doctrine also points out that success in counterinsurgency operations means that forces can be reduced and more risk accepted.
New Delhi, however, has little time for the careful political and economic initiatives that are needed to build on the security forces' success. And reducing forces in J&K is seen not as a step towards political settlement, but as surrender to Pakistani pressure.
Sixty years after independence, there is indeed much to celebrate. But if there is no consideration of how the nation-building project is doing in the outlying, the unseen and the less affluent parts of the country, the party will continue to be spoilt by the discordant shadow of alienation.

First Published: Tue, August 14 2007. 00:00 IST