Dealing with protests in Kashmir: The army chief has spoken. Why is the prime minister silent?

The democratically-elected civilian leadership needs to clarify whether Indian citizens should be afraid of their army.

In a recent interview that General Bipin Rawat gave to the news agency PTI, in which he defended Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi – the officer accused of using a Kashmiri man as a “human shield” last month – the chief of Army staff made a series of startling statements that perhaps no Army chief in India has ever made before.

Rawat said that he wished those pelting stones at security forces in the Valley “were firing weapons at us” as that would give him, and the Army, reason to deliver a proportionate response. Rawat said:

“In fact, I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I [want to do].”

Then Rawat issued an ominous warning to citizens:

“Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly Army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.”

In essence, Rawat argued that citizens must fear the Army otherwise it would become ineffective as a force.

This was probably the first time a serving Army chief in independent India was asking its citizens to fear the force.

Rawat’s comments are in line with a shrill public discourse that has become increasingly common today, especially in television studios where retired generals, egged on by anchors desperate for people to watch their channels, scream for war, secure in the knowledge that they will never have to fight one.

Fanatical nationalism helps sell these channels. Thus, they slickly package the deaths of India’s young soldiers in conflict zones in Kashmir and the North East to market themselves and the retired war-mongering generals they host. The dead soldiers eventually fade away, forgotten within days by all except their grieving families and colleagues. Meanwhile, cheering crowds, intoxicated by nationalism, continue to demand more sacrifices at its altar. And the cycle continues.

But insurgencies have a strange way of consuming nations, as well as the generals sent to fight it. These tales are usually forgotten or deliberately buried because they do not suit the narrative. The stories of defeat are not glamorous, nor do they lend themselves to high television ratings – the oxygen that feeds news channels. But some tales are worth recounting, and they offer a critical reality check.

(Photo credit: YouTube grab.)
(Photo credit: YouTube grab.)

A failed strategy

In the summer of 2009, the US sent across one of its most distinguished generals to take charge of American forces in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal was the hero of the Iraq war, having successfully run the Joint Special Operations Command, which was credited with breaking the back of the Iraqi insurgency.

Brought in to take charge of the US’ failing war effort in Afghanistan, McChrystal immediately embarrassed the Barack Obama administration by publicly seeking 40,000 more troops to launch a major offensive in the Hemland province.

Earlier, during his stint in Iraq, he took the battle to the enemy and was responsible for US forces successfully pushing back insurgents, leading to the capture of Saddam Hussain and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of the Al Qaeda in Iraq. The media loved him and lionised him by focusing on his past as a member of the elite Special Forces and building up an image of him as a cerebral general with frugal habits.

McChrystal went to Afghanistan with every intention to solve the Afghan problem. But it all ended when a reporter from the Rolling Stones magazine, who spent a few days with him and his team, put together a devastating profile of him. In the piece, titled The Runaway General, McChrystal and his team were found ridiculing the democratically-elected US government, and taking decisions that were contrary to the Afghanistan policies of the Obama administration. When the story broke, McChrystal found that he had lost the confidence of President Obama, and resigned. He was soon replaced by his main rival, General David Petraeus.

Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stones reporter, followed his article up with a book called, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. The book criticised how the US military was fighting the war in Afghanistan, and pointed out that while McChrystal was a good man and a great military mind, he had come to believe in the infallibility of his mission. He believed that he and his team could do no wrong. This essentially led to a point where he could not recognise a fact staring him in the face: that the Afghans did not want an occupation force in their land.

Hastings wrote:

“The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America, was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world had ever known, they were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”

This feeling of infallibility also led to the US military leadership’s failure to recognise that its grand counter-insurgency strategy of Clear, Hold, Build – included in a Field Manual of the United States Army on counter-insurgency – had failed miserably in Afghanistan. The strategy, as the name suggests, involves clearing the territory of insurgents, holding on to it and finally helping with rebuilding efforts to earn the support of the local populace for the local government or counter-insurgents.

The failure of this strategy is now well documented. But the memoirs or interviews of US Army generals who have served in Afghanistan tend to gloss over it, or avoid mentioning it altogether. And this is not the first time generals have chosen to bury their failures.

The infallibility belief

In September 1944, during World War II, allied forces launched their biggest airborne assault against Germany. Operation Market Garden was the brainchild of the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery who thought it would swiftly bring about an end to the war.

The idea was to parachute thousands of troops into the Netherlands, capture some crucial bridges and then cut into the industrial heart of Germany, thus depriving the Germans of their rifles and tanks. The operation was a massive failure. Thousands of allied troops parachuted into the Netherlands, only to be caught and sent to Prisoner of War camps.

Montgomery never owned up to this military disaster, reducing it to a few paragraphs in his memoirs. Later, his colleague and subordinate, Lieutenant General Fredrick Browning, ruefully confessed that allied troops had “perhaps gone a bridge too far”. It took nearly 20 years for the truth to come out, when war correspondent Cornelius Ryan meticulously built up the sequence of events and published them in his seminal book, A Bridge Too Far.

Civilian leadership’s control

The history of warfare, especially counter-insurgency efforts, is replete with such examples. The feeling of infallibility amongst the military and its leaders is inevitable. Soldiers are frequently called upon to do extremely challenging tasks at great risk to life and limb. They are given great power for this. At the same time, they are also placed under great restraint by the democratically-elected civilian leadership.

The US civil leadership exercised its control over the military not only in the McChrystal case, but also by recalling General Douglas MacArthur after he bungled the Korean War by ignoring the direct orders of his civilian superiors. In the case of Rawat, however, instead of being silent, as it has been so far, the Indian civilian leadership would have done well to slap down the Army chief’s unprecedented statements. However, it has not done so, possibly because his statements suit their political narrative.

To cut Rawat some slack, the military, trained to fight wars and suppress insurgencies, is focussed on its job. This narrow focus comes at the expense of political and humane considerations that play a major role in resolving or exacerbating any conflict. What India’s civilian leadership must remember is that finally, conflicts end not because of the military, but because of the larger political process. Losing sight of this essential point is not only ignoring the inevitability of history, but also the fact that violence will never end with more violence.

Weapons over stones?

Rawat’s statements to PTI are, in many ways, a call for a “free hand” for the military to brutally suppress any unrest. It is possible that he did not mean it as such either and only spoke out as a leader who has to lead his men into battle.

However, by wishing that stone pelters take up weapons, he has just made a case for more armed militancy in the Kashmir Valley. This is counter to every tenet of successful counter-insurgency campaigns, which, throughout history, have sought to reduce violence, not increase it. Fewer weapons and more stone pelters are a good thing since stone pelters can be persuaded to return to their daily lives. However, militants with weapons will only end up killing more people until the military gets them.

(Photo credit: AFP).
(Photo credit: AFP).

Also, if the thousands of stone pelters do take up arms, the Army will be facing a war, which will have terrible consequences. Additionally, will the Army chief make the same argument every time the Army is called to quell disturbances in other parts of India, be it the Jat agitation in Haryana or stone-pelters in Gujarat?

But there is an ever deeper problem in the Army chief’s words. He said that he wanted citizens to “be afraid” of the Army. While he said this in the context of Kashmir, the fact is that once the civilian population starts fearing the Army, they cease to be part of a democratic union. Never in the history of State-sponsored oppression – be it the Holocaust by Nazi Germany, the repression in the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin, or the cultural revolution by Chairman Mao in China – has the military ever stood up to despots as an institution. On the contrary, it has willingly become the instrument of oppression for the despots in power.

The day Indian citizens start fearing the military, as the Army chief has prescribed, is the day India will truly become a police state. It is now up to our political masters to decide whether they want such a future.

Corrections and clarifications: This copy has been updated to correctly refer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as a member of the British, not US, forces; and to replace the reference to General Sam Browne with that of Lieutenant General Fredrick Browning, who was Montgomery’s colleague.

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