The unfortunate killing of unarmed civilians due to faulty intelligence by no less than a Special Forces unit in Nagaland has upset the tenuous equilibrium of a fragile peace in a region beset by violence for several decades. It is necessary to do everything possible to undo the damage, for the sake of both the peace and the reputation of one of the most battle-hardened units of the Indian Army. The politics that follows such incidents loses sight of why the Army is such areas in the first place. In targeting only the Army, we are absolving those in power who failed to resolve the longest-running insurgency movement in the world.
Most insurgencies are born primarily due to the exploitation of genuine grievances and a host of other factors, such as flawed development frameworks, identities, corrupt governance and poor administration. Insurgent leaders fill in spaces abdicated by the government. Often, even when insurgent forces have lost their legitimacy, vision and purpose, or are being divided by internal power struggles, they continue to be credible threats to peace because the state fails to step in and fill those governance deficits.
A 'Law & Order' Approach for a Political Problem
Instead, the state takes the law-and-order approach, relying on declaring the area as ‘disturbed’ and enhancing military and paramilitary presence. In doing so, it further antagonises local populations, who are already caught between the combined and competing might of state and non-state actors.
The end product of any well-intentioned counter-insurgency (CI) campaign should boil down to establishing the legitimacy and authority of the government. It can be summed up as the ability to convince disaffected populations that their interests are better served by working with the government and within the existing systems and not against them.
The presence of the military, therefore, is a kind of bargaining tool to facilitate return to a political process with de-escalation of violence holding out greater value than the continuation of the struggle.
The Indian Army Philosophy For Counter-Insurgency Ops
When governments deploy Armed forces in internal disturbances, they must remember that soldiers are not meant for law and order duties but to fight wars. The aim of war is to defeat an enemy. The more enemies you kill, the better your chances of winning the war. Therefore, killing belligerents on a battlefield is legitimate as long as certain international humanitarian law principles of proportionality, military necessity and distinction are kept in mind to prevent disproportionate killings of non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and all those who do not take part in active hostilities.
The starting point for the Army in all CI-Ops is that there are no enemy combatants but only misguided citizens, who are challenging the writ and authority of the state. These ‘misguided’ citizens challenge the legitimacy of the existing system to possibly establish a new order or form of governance. This does not qualify them as legitimate targets in case of hostilities.
While in war, loss of life along with minimal collateral damage is an accepted norm, in internal security duties, loss of civilian life is not acceptable as it violates the right to life and the human rights enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Under a law and order disturbance, lethal force can be used only after adequate warnings have been issued and all means of preserving order have failed. Indisputably, the end result is that everyone is safe and secure. The ethos of the Army has been that a soldier may lose his own but cannot take another life that’s not in direct conflict with him.
Armed Forces Can Only Aid Civil Authorities
The credentials of India lie in its democratic, all-inclusive, secular character, and the rule of law. Rule of Law means recognising the legal principle that laws, not arbitrary decisions, should govern a nation. With a sovereign Constitution at the helm, the rule of law vests in the Constitution itself. All laws that are made by the legislature ought to follow the Constitution.
The basic premise of India’s constitution is that all Indians are equal and in no way can the state consider a civilian life less precious than any other category of persons. The state should be driven by an essence that every life counts.
Armed, as well as police forces, are subject to constitutional and statutory limits on their powers. Civilian control over the use of armed force is a key constitutional principle for Indian democracy. The armed forces of the Republic of India can be called out in aid to civil authorities under provisions of the Aid to Civil Authorities Act of 1961. Provisions in legislation, for instance, Sections 130 and 131 on maintenance of law and order of the Code of Criminal Procedure, allow for the use of military power to aid ordinary law and order in special circumstances. Whenever a situation of national emergency is declared under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution or an emergency is proclaimed under Article 356, when a state government is unable to function according to Constitutional provisions, the Union government can take direct control of the state machinery.
Under Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, the Republic is enjoined with the special duty to maintain a civil government in the territory of India and may use armed force in support of such civil government.
Therefore, in situations where individuals or communities have taken up arms against the government, the Indian government declares those afflicted areas as ‘disturbed areas’, enabling specialist provisions like the Disturbed Areas Act or the AFSPA to be promulgated. This Act grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces in what the act terms as “disturbed areas”.
But You Can't Rely Solely on Forces
Stringent laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) do not help build the democratic narrative that India champions. The AFSPA passed on 11 September 1958 by the Indian Parliament is a successor with cosmetic changes of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance 1942 enacted by the British to quell the Quit India Movement.
In the Northeast, the prolonged use of the Army and the enforcement of AFSPA has not helped in resolving differences. By declaring many parts of the Northeast as ‘Disturbed Areas’ and deploying the Armed forces under AFSPA, what is being achieved is contrary to what should be. The measures to protect the forces that include barbed wire, blockades, checkpoints and excessive presence of weapons create a militarised ambience and generate greater insecurity.
A system that allows the use of AFSPA for such long durations is a failure of our political process.
It is to the credit of the Army that it has marched in step with the evolving political process, subordinating itself to the desired end and has in its conduct maintained a notion of impartiality. Mistakes have been made in certain processes and procedures, resulting in extrajudicial executions, fake encounters, unlawful detentions and interrogations, long curfews, cordon-and-search operations that are often counterproductive, and when done indiscriminately, end up alienating the population. Having said that, the Indian armed forces have been generally restrained in the use of military power, preferring to lose their own soldiers rather than inflict excess collateral damage on the civilians. The use of artillery and air assets has been extremely rare and exceptional in independent India’s history.
It must be borne in mind by the leaders upon whom the responsibility rests to further the fundamental freedoms enshrined in our Constitution that military action does not help resolve internal disagreements and conflict.
It may be an important, and perhaps necessary, aspect of CI operations, but is by no means the only one. It is short-sighted to rely solely on Armed Forces if these conflicts/disturbances are to be addressed. The battlespace is not the physical territory, but the mind of the population that has to be reached out to, convinced and won over. Unlike war, there is no definite victory when you are in physical occupation of enemy territory and you just cannot kill every insurgent. You can wean away potential recruits and minimise the influence of the insurgent leaders.
Success Is In Taking Alienated Groups On Board
The employment of the Army should end when the belligerent leaders are brought to a state where negotiated settlement was more attractive than continued resistance.
The objective of deployment of the Army should be to achieve a certain end state that allows a political process to be established within little or acceptable levels of violence. If peace has to be durable and long-lasting, it has to be founded on reconciliation and reintegration and not on elimination and humiliation.
The success of any government will be when they are able to make the alienated population work within existing systems of the government rather than seeking to overthrow the existing one and establish a new form of governance. That has been achieved so many times in the past, yet these opportunities are frittered away because of a lack of vision of our leaders. The best weapon in a democratic set-up like ours is not to use soldiers and to strengthen governance and law and order mechanisms.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor with the power to order a crucifixion – washed his hands before assenting to Jesus’s execution and claiming no personal responsibility, thereby shifting the entire blame for the crucifixion to the Jews. In seeking the prosecution of soldiers involved in these fouled-up operations, we are letting the real villains of the crime get away. Whether seeking to defend an indefensible act or to hold people accountable, or to assert our own political identities, let us do so in ways that don’t vilify the soldiers who sacrificed many of their brethren for a war that could perhaps be resolved if the political will was strong enough.
(Col DPK Pillay is a decorated war veteran who is remembered for his selfless act of saving the lives of two young Naga Children injured in a firefight while he himself was near fatally wounded. He is currently a Research Fellow at MP IDSA and also served in the National Security Council Secretariat as well as the International Committee for Red Cross in the Middle East. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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