In Kashmir, Centre could pay a heavy price for going the GD Bakshi way

Major General Gagan Deep Bakshi has been a visible face on the idiot box over the past decade. In military service he was one of the most prolific writers of his generation, his writings dot the gamut of military publications over the years. However, one piece that did not see the light of day has recently surfaced.

The unpublished piece titled “Low Intensity Conflict Operations: The Indian Doctrinal Approach” has come back into focus after David O. Smith, writing on India’s Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Tamil Nadu’s Wellington, referred to it in a study on attitudes and values within the Indian Army. Interestingly, Smith first came across the piece during an earlier study on the Pakistan Army’s Joint Command and Staff College at Quetta.

Bakshi’s unpublished piece was among the readings for Pakistani cadets, quite like those in India. I came across the article in the readings package while attending the staff course at Wellington some twenty years ago. Since then, my efforts to trace the article in service journals did not bear fruit, indicating that the editors possibly balked at publishing it for some reason. The piece perhaps found its way into the staff course reading material as Bakshi taught at the college as a colonel in the nineties.

The article then amounted to a counter-narrative. While the narrative up-front had it that counterinsurgency operations centered on “Winning Hearts and Minds” (WHAM); the counter-narrative was that these were part of low-intensity conflict, as Bakshi puts it in the title. That it was not carried in service journals tells a story.

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While low-intensity conflict draws on a kinetic approach associated with the American method, counter-insurgency tilts towards the British modus operandi, encapsulated by the Templar-Kitson model. In the late nineties, there was considerable doctrinal ferment in the Indian military over low-intensity conflict operations and counter-insurgency — beset as it had for over a decade in sub-conventional operations in Punjab, Sri Lanka, Assam and, significantly by then, in Kashmir.

The official narrative was in favor of WHAM, but the ground reality was split between the kinetic approach and a nuanced one. It is best reflected in Bakshi’s paper. To him, his articulation of the hardline constituted India’s low-intensity conflict doctrine. The difference between the official narrative on counterinsurgency and the Bakshi version, however, is on the role of tactics — the cordon and search operations (CASO).

For Bakshi, these tactics are to exhaust the civilian populace in its support for insurgents.

Repeated and extensive cordons were to serve as a collective punitive measure against the public, the proverbial sea, for their support to the militant, the fish. Bakshi’s paper goes on to talk of the employment of proxy groups such as the Ikhwan in Kashmir, the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, and the surrendered Assamese fighters. Tellingly, in the course material that I received at the DSSC in Wellington, this page is blanked out — presumably for being rather radical even by the standards of Bakshi’s own paper.

For the adjudication, there was an older edition of the counterinsurgency pamphlet that relied heavily on the British model and informed by the Indian Army’s conduct in the North East. It was only in the 1990s that a fresh edition of the counterinsurgency pamphlet was put out bearing the imprint of the Army’s subsequent experience — particularly in Sri Lanka, of the simultaneously hapless and innovative Indian Peace Keeping Force. The pamphlet was less elegant since it was more fleshed out, with tactical operations in greater detail. The newer version, too, was fairly WHAM friendly. 

In the mid-200s, the Indian Army came up with a self-regarding doctrinal product on counterinsurgency — “The Doctrine for Subconventional Operations (DSCO)”. The early 2000s saw the Army writing up its doctrines, with the doctrine on conventional operations of 2004 superseding its first edition of 1998 without so much genuflecting to the previous doctrines.

The new sub-conventional doctrine was also in favor of a people-friendly approach, perhaps under influence of the then Army chief, JJ Singh, who had once famously teared up on national television. It was also released in a race with the Americans, who were then writing up their doctrine under the tutelage of the US Army’s General David Patraeus, and therefore presumably needed to emphasize its distinction from the American approach, then sliding into discredit in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even so, the dissonance on the ground was reflected in the doctrine. The DSCO ruled in favor of kinetic operations initially to gain ascendancy over militants and shifting to population sensitive intelligence-led operations once some stability is restored. While it echoed the Supreme Court on “minimal” use of force, the joint doctrine – hierarchically a higher one – called for “optimal” use of force, seemingly a larger latitude of the use of force than envisaged by the august Court.

Whereas earlier there was dissonance within the service between the official narrative and the counter-narrative, today the very name “Operation All Out” and the manner of its conduct over the past five years suggests that what was once the counter-narrative is now the officially sanctioned one. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s protégé, General Bipin Rawat, had early in his tenure signified the shift — in a wanton and unapologetic defence of Major Leetul Gogoi’s use of a Kashmiri man as a human shield.

Today the trend is starkly manifest. The police figures for militants killed in Kashmir in the last year is 225. Only late in the year did they allow surrenders — of only about nine militants. This level of kinetic operations must be seen in the light of a mere 200 militants operating across Kashmir and reportedly under considerable deficiency of arms and ammunition.

Clearly, the earlier self-effacing counter-narrative, in any case alive and kicking even when the people were reputedly at the heart of India’s counterinsurgency effort, has been prominent in the Modi era. That it is blatantly so is evident from the fake gunfight in Shopian, last year in July, in which three innocents were killed and guns planted on them. 

Since the crime was called out, resulting in military justice consequence for the perpetrators, there is yet another in-your-face crime — this time, however, the killing of three youth in Srinagar’s Lawaypora is sought to be justified by the police by alluding to the victims as “militant associates”, a rechristening of over-ground workers (OGW).

Whereas the official doctrine called for neutralization of OGW, it appears that now such action includes the elimination of OGW. The timing of the latest crime coincides with the legal developments in the Shopian case, specifically, the filing of a charge sheet in the court of the district’s Chief Judicial Magistrate indicates brazenness: reminding the target population (Kashmiris) that they remain in a corner, lest emboldened by small victories as in exposing the uniformed killers of Shopian, they attempt a break out of their corner.

The dissonance within the military as to how to view counterinsurgency persists. The counter-narrative on taking over the intellectual high ground characterizes insurgency as a hybrid war — the catch-all, a proxy war waged in the “‘gray zone”’ with information warfare as its motif for relatively stable times. Information war includes propaganda by deed, to borrow a phrase from the terror lexicon, which seemingly includes deliberate human rights infringements, broadcast with impunity, to show a populace its place as subjects.  

A former infantry colonel in the Indian Army, Ali Ahmed is a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations. His doctorates are from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Views here are personal.


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