To move forward on insurgency and secessionist movements, the line between military operations and politics must be defined.

In his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee years, A.S Dulat, the former R&AW chief, evocatively writes that “The problem with Delhi is that it sees everything in Black and White, whereas Kashmir’s favourite colour is grey.” Kashmir is complex, and a “either you are with us, or you’re against us” policy doesn’t bode well for its future. This is a thought he reiterated recently in a talk in Bangalore. In the same event, the political scientist Ashutosh Varhney stated that according to his understanding “Delhi’s policy towards insurgents has always been either you are a separatist, or you join the electoral process, and therefore accept the legitimacy of the Indian constitution, there is nothing in-between.” He also asked how one could expand the “grey” area.

Why has there been a lack of sophistication or nuance while dealing with secessionist movements in India? A lot has to do with the nature of civil-military relations in India. The civilian government, right from the time of independence, believed that the army should be under the control of the government; that the army’s role in politics should be minimised. This belief was indeed, strongly felt even during the national movement. As a result, as Steven Wilkinson has argued in his book Army and Nation, the army was subjected to various “control measures” such as the “commander in chief [of the Army] was taken out of the cabinet [such as it was in the colonial administration] and was made responsible to the Defence Minister, with overall expenditure decisions now to be approved by the Ministry of Defence (and increasingly also by the Ministry of Finance) rather than the army’s own military finance department.” Further, as Wilkinson has laid out in his book, several policies were enacted to weaken the cohesiveness of the army to deter it from undertaking coups. Further, the government made sure to informally reserve the top positions in the army to officers who don’t belong to the ethnic group who otherwise dominate the officer ranks. For instance, as Wilkinson demonstrates, Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular, who were relatively overrepresented in the army, “were less successful than they would otherwise been in getting appointed to the corps commands, and in particular of COAS. From 1947 to 1977 all but one Army COAS was from outside the Punjabi heartland of the Army; the men appointed came from Coorg, Mysore, Rajasthan….and even from the hugely underrepresented state of West Bengal.” These were few among many other policies and conventions which subjected the army to proper governmental control.

However, as Wilkinson argues, the reason why the army seems to have acquiesced to these constraints, is because it has got a “wide degree of control in operational matters”. A tacit agreement seems to have been set between the civil administration and the military that the government will not interfere in operational matters, “especially at the periphery of the country where it has increasingly been used on counterinsurgency duties”. This has not been good for democracy, primarily because the distinction between operational matters and politics has never been clear, nor have they ever been made so. One way to expand the “grey area” is to conduct a serious debate about AFSPA, however in 2011, when Omar Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of J&K called for amendments to the policy, the army publicly criticised this move and thwarted any move in this direction. Therefore, if we are to move forward it is imperative that the line between operational matters and politics be clarified; for this, what military operations are needs to be properly defined and operationalised.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)

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