March 13, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Wiping the mess

The army has do aankhen, but does not have baarah haath. It cannot be expected to pull the chestnuts out of the fire in every failure of governance or situations arising from the politicisation of national security. National interest must be the same for everyone.

The blatant communalisation of Gujarat and undisguised targeting of Muslims has shown the extreme fragility of internal stability and the horrific vulnerability of the state in a two-front war: not the traditional twin Pakistan and China threats, but as at present, a Pakistan and internal security challenge. Had the communal carnage spread to other parts of India -- which was not impossible -- the very stability of the Indian Union would have been at stake.

The army is very angry that it was allowed to fall into the Pakistani trap. It is also angry that the police and paramilitary forces have failed abysmally in their primary role to quell internal disturbances. In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, the army avoids a communal problem like the plague as it is a model of secularism and national unity.

It will be useful to recall the role of the army: To defend the country against external aggression is its primary mission. There is a secondary task: assist state and central governments in maintaining internal security as well as providing relief during natural calamities. The army is a weapon of last resort and, therefore, is to be requisitioned only after the government has first used its other resources but failed. Unfortunately, the roles have got reversed.

The army is currently involved in dealing with Kargil and Siachen-like conflicts, fighting proxy war and terrorism, combating insurgencies and even restoring civic life such as in earthquake-ravaged Kutch. But to get sucked into a communal conflagration is a contingency the army must, at all costs, be kept out of.

Operation Blue Star led to the first minor mutiny in the army after 1947. Therefore, during the Babri Masjid stand-off between 1990 and 1992, the army, though located at Ayodhya, behaved to a pattern: on October 30, 1990, it refused to be requisitioned by the commissioner of Faizabad, even after police firing, 300 dead and widespread communal rioting that followed. On December 6, 1992, the same brigade at Ayodhya -- this time not requisitioned -- refused to budge to save the Babri Masjid even when it had prior information that demolition would take place. Rightly or wrongly, the army did not act on both occasions as it had taken a policy decision after Blue Star not to communalise its rank and file.

The army's aid-to-civil-authority in preserving law and order, which is a state subject, is discussed ritually at the annual civil-military relations conference held in every state across the country. The two sides take a predictably sane stand: the civil administration wants the army to induct as soon as possible so that the situation does not go out of hand, while the army resists deployment till the police has shot its bolt.

Invariably the army is accused of dragging its feet while the latter says over-reliance on the army has reduced the incentive for the police and paramilitary forces to develop their own skills and deterrence. Calling in the army is nothing short of passing the buck. Clearly, after the events in Gujarat, the business of combating communal uprisings has to be re-examined.

Explaining or justifying the scale of backlash to the initial crime is bizarre. For a chief minister to quote Newton's Law and the police commissioner to admit his forces were influenced by the provocation are new ground realities that internal security managers have to reckon with.

Given the army's reluctance/refusal to defuse communally charged eruptions, a central or regional rapid action and pacification force is needed. This is warranted by new and emerging threats to internal cohesion and stability. The criminalisation of politics, gangsterism, unprecedented mob frenzy and easy access to tools of violence are just a few.

The army has of late revised one of its oldest training manuals, the classic on aid to civil authority. Enshrined in this Bible are the quintessentials: use of minimum force and good faith. The human rights wallahs have to note that meticulous procedures are followed by the army. Every round that is fired has the sanction of a magistrate and empty shells are accounted for. The internal security scheme of every district/tehsil in the country is prepared by the resident army formation with the civil authorities and the police and rehearsed periodically. Sensitive areas and vulnerable points are identified, police guides earmarked, maps updated, intelligence exchanged and control rooms established.

Army units are configured into internal security columns, rapid reaction force and relief columns and placed on standby. Depending on the state of alert they are mobilised once the civil authority hands over a specific situation, area or locality to the army against a requisition. The columns conduct flag marches, protective and proactive tasks to safeguard life and property. The column or detachment commander keeps a diary of actions and events. The state governments, though required to bear the costs of army deployment, have never done so and bills running into hundreds of crores of rupees are outstanding.

The scale of vandalism and violence in Gujarat was unprecedented. The ultimate toll is likely to near 1,000 while the figure of those wounded may be many times more. The loss and damage to property could run into thousands of crores.

The question everyone is asking is whether these losses could have been reduced had the army been called in earlier and its deployment and fanning out been swifter. First, a few facts. In Gujarat this time, the army was requisitioned at 8pm and by midnight, troops deployed in Operation Parakram were being flown from Jodhpur to Ahmedabad. The state had till then employed six companies of the CISF, three of the BSF and three of the RAF.

Normally there is an infantry division, a Territorial Army unit, naval detachments and air force units located in Gujarat. Infantry units are located at Bhuj, Jamnagar and Gandhinagar. The 11 Infantry Division has its headquarters in Ahmedabad. The Southwest Air Command is located at Gandhinagar. Other army units are based in the neighbouring states. It was the brigade in Bhuj that rushed to rescue Kutch from the devastating earthquake last year.

But we no longer live in normal times. When tragedy struck Godhra last week, not only were the brigades in Gujarat deployed on the international border, but so were the entire Indian armed forces, occupying battle locations facing Pakistan. Never before has an internal security crisis on the Gujarat scale coincided with a deployment for war. Thus the troops that were made available for Gujarat were not from the 11 Infantry Division, which is manning the border, but others scraped together from reserves at the front.

This was an unfortunate strategic error. They had to be flown without their full logistics support. Despite unfamiliarity with terrain, the troops were launched rapidly. But the situation could have been avoided altogether had the police and paramilitary forces been able to cope with the communal fire. Otherwise, what was the purpose of 157 BSF, 120 CRPF, 90 CISF and 10 RAF battalions?

The external hand -- who else but the ISI? -- that instigated the situation in Gujarat had counted on the conflagration spreading to other parts of India, forcing the army to pull back more brigades to put out the fires, creating dangerous voids in the border deployment. Unable to bear the cost of deployment Pakistan not only achieved some de-escalation, but also exposed the fragility of India's second line of defence.

The Sabarmati in Flames: The complete coverage

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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