September 30, 2010


[The Maoist insurgency raging through India’s rural heartlands has come to dominate the domestic security agenda in recent months, but this internal struggle for power should also be seen as a vicious by-product of India’s emergence as a global player... Although the Naxalite movement is somewhat diffuse, the primary threat comes from the Communist Party of India (Maoist), led by a Politburo of 13 members, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters and pockets of influence in at least 20 of India’s 28 states. A series of high-profile attacks dominated the news in 2010, including a 6 April ambush in the state of Chhattisgarh that left 76 paramilitaries dead and a 28 May train derailment by a Maoist-affiliated group that killed 148 civilians. Yale Global Online]

By Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd) 
The armed forces are involved in several internal conflicts, requiring that rules of engagement be formulated imaginatively, with safety and well-being of the local populace being central to all operations and the fundamental goal being the restart of the political process.

TERRORISM and insurgency are not a new phenomenon but in recent years have come into special focus. Operations to tackle insurgencies and terrorism are above the level of peaceful coexistence but below that of war. Although not universal, this type of warfare underscores the capacity of the weak to impose considerable military and political pain on the strong. The aim of the terrorists is to change the perception of the populace and show the state in bad light. Their modus operandi is characterised by irrationality, indiscrimination, unpredictability and ruthless destruction.

Regular forces usually fail to grasp the essentially political nature of the conflict. Nor do they understand the limits of their own conventional military power in such political and operational settings. A major characteristic of such operations in our country is application of combat power to enhance "civil control" rather than cause attrition. In this respect the Indian Army is quite different from many others, including those of USA and Pakistan.

The Indian Army believes such operations need to be people-centric and conducted in a manner that they generate a groundswell for stability and peace. Rules of engagement are formulated imaginatively in the backdrop of political, legal and moral parameters. The populace constitutes the "centre of gravity" and therefore winning their "hearts and minds" is central to all efforts. Effective interface with media, as part of public information and perception-management, is also necessary.

 Suicide terrorism, motivated by blind faith, is a strategy of coercion employed to compel a target government to change policy. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to such attacks for three reasons. First, their threshold of intolerable pain is lower than that of dictatorships. Secondly, democracies are more restrained than authoritarian regimes in use of force, and thirdly, suicide attacks may also be harder to organise or publicise in authoritarian states.

The Army has been dealing with a large number of internal conflicts. It has been fighting the Naga insurgency for nearly five decades and insurgencies in practically all other north-eastern states for over 40 years. In the 80s and 90s, a large part of the Army was deployed in Punjab to tackle Sikh insurgents, who at the behest of and with the full support of Pakistan, had let loose a reign of terror.

In Punjab, the Army had deliberately assumed a supportive role, with the police in the lead role, as the army did not want to alienate the populace in a state that is crucial for its operations against Pakistan. The police did a good job, but they could not have succeeded without the unobtrusive, yet crucial role played by the Army over a prolonged period in stabilising an extremely sensitive situation and bringing a modicum of confidence amongst the populace.

Since l989, the Army is the lead force for operations in Jammu and Kashmir to tackle insurgency, terrorism and proxy war unleashed by Pakistan, using both indigenous and foreign insurgents, and totally backed by it in all respects.

We have had two successes in the last fifty years, one in Mizoram and the second in Punjab. Both were resolved with the cooperation of the local people. Both took a long time because all counter insurgency operations are deliberate, time consuming and need a great deal of patience and perseverance.

 In recent decades, terrorism has been directly linked to religious fundamentalism. In South Asia, Pakistan has been exporting Jihadi fundamentalist terrorism to Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India, as a matter of state policy. At times, it has managed to coerce some of our neighbours to assist it in this nefarious activity. Exporting terrorism is double-edged, as Pakistan is now discovering; for now they themselves have become the target of the insurgents they have trained and supported!

 What is of grave concern to all nations and particularly to our country is the possibility of insurgents getting hold of material for mass destruction, especially by countries like Pakistan that sponsor fundamentalism, either as state policy or by ignoring its spread. There is an ever-present danger of terrorists getting hold of nuclear, biological or chemical material, access to which must be denied by all nations as a major priority task.
The Army has evolved a unique perspective for fighting insurgents and terrorists in the last six decades, since it was first employed in Nagaland. Its view has always been that it is fighting fellow-Indians, albeit misguided ones. These insurgencies had to be managed, but not in a manner that would further alienate the populace. Operationally, this led to the renunciation of heavy weapons and making the "hearts and minds" campaign a central part of the strategy.

 The Army believes that insurgencies are political struggles and hence their solution also lies in the political domain. Therefore, the fundamental goal is creation of conditions for restarting the political process. This is encompassed in the concept of "restoring normalcy", which requires that the level of violence be brought down for the political process to restart. It needs to be noted that the army views its role as "conflict management" and not "conflict resolution".

 Uniqueness of the Indian doctrine is particularly dramatic when compared with similar operations by other countries. In US operations in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; Soviet intervention in Afghanistan; Israeli operations in Lebanon; Russian operations in Chechnya and operations by Pakistani Army against their own nationals, attrition has dominated with the use of heavy firepower including air power. In contrast, the Indian Army has refrained from using heavy weapons or air power, which results in collateral damage and alienates the locals.
A major tenet of operations in India is the use of minimum force, creating a secure and conducive environment and finally aiming at addressing the root causes of the conflict. The underlying aspect is a humane approach towards the populace in the conflict zone and use of measured force against insurgents and terrorists. The policy underscores respect for human rights, upholding laws of the land and encourages "neuteralisation" of terrorists by surrender and apprehension rather than only seeking "kills".

This strategy pays  careful attention  to political imperatives and thus represents a significant doctrinal evolution. The Army has paid a heavy price by incurring casualties in its efforts to save innocent persons from collateral damage. It does so to ensure that innocent civilians do not become casualties of continuing violence by terrorists who are least concerned with deaths, maiming and psychological ill effects of their actions. The huge number of Army's casualties in such actions is a testimony to the sense of duty, professionalism and the discipline of all ranks.

 The author  is former Vice Chief of Staff of the Indian Army.

Related articles