Sunday, November 30, 2014

For 'Act East' to succeed fix north-east first

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a four-day trip to India’s north-east. The schedule is as usual packed. Mr Modi is attending a newspaper function, flagging off a new railway link, inaugurating the annual Hornbill Festival in Nagaland and in a nice balancing act, attending the closing ceremony of the Sangai Festival in Manipur, besides addressing the Director Generals’ of Police annual meeting in Guwahati.

This is not the first time a Prime Minister is spending extended time in the region that is often treated as an exotic destination. Eighteen years ago, Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda in fact travelled across the seven states of the region for a week to bring in major changes in policy towards the north-east. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh too made occasional forays in the region.  

Circumstances in those years were different. Major insurgent groups like the NSCN and the ULFA were still powerful and held sway over large areas of the region then; India’s Look East Policy was still in its infancy; connectivity between rest of India and the north-east as well as between states within the region was tenuous at best. In the intervening period much has changed.

The region is certainly more peaceful than before. The ULFA is a shadow of its former self. The Issac-Muivah faction of the NSCN has been in a ceasefire mode with the Government of India since 1997. Elsewhere too, over 18 smaller militias have signed SoO (Suspension of Operations) agreements with the Centre.

But there is a flip side too. Violence is certainly down but anyone with a semblance of knowledge of the region will admit that absence of violence does not equal peace. Extortion, kidnapping and parallel governance administered by underground groups is still rampant in many areas.  Ethnic tensions, natural calamities and poor infrastructure in many areas continue to be a major drawback in the region. Corruption and systematic siphoning off of huge central funds continues to bedevil the north-east.

These problems notwithstanding, the region needs a renewed focus given its location and a new-found emphasis on India’s ‘Act East’ Policy. Prime Minister Modi may not make any dramatic announcement during his trip but his first hand interaction with chief ministers and officials of the north-east should give him an idea about their aspirations and their concerns.
It is all the more important for Mr Modi to understand the issues of the region since India is now transforming its  earlier ‘Look East’ Policy into ‘Act East’ Policy. It’s a given that rapid development of the North East would be integral to India's Act East Policy since the region is a corridor and a transit route to South East Asia. India is already upgrading an extensive network of roads and bridges in Myanmar that would effectively connect the North East (and the rest of India) to Thailand as soon as 2016. Facilitating border transit would make the Northeast a gateway to Myanmar -- a potential boon for trade as well as tourism.

Manipur, for instance shares a 398-km border with Myanmar. But more importantly the border town of Moreh has been a traditional trading hub with Myanmar and therefore has vast potential to become a major export centre from India for the South-East Asian region. With better connectivity and implementation of various development projects, the Asian Highway would enable the North-East region to become a business hub of South Asia. According to a recent report by Ficci and Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), the north-east region has a trade potential of between Rs 35,000 crore and Rs 180,000 crore and could very well become the new growth engine for the country. For that to happen however, quick resolution of long-standing ethnic insurgencies is a must. Now is the time to press for peace and security in Nagaland and Manipur by setting realistic deadlines for possible solutions.

Manipur and to a lesser extent Nagaland must take advantage of the Act East Policy. But that potential can be fully realised only if New Delhi starts looking at the land-locked north-east as an important starting point in India's 'Act East' policy instead as a dead end of the country's road network. Therein lies the challenge for the Prime Minister and his team. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

26/11: Of Media bungling and sheer paralysis in govt

My column for on 26/11 anniversary
On the sixth anniversary of 26/11, easily India's most horrific terror attack, everyone has a personal memory.
For some, who lost family members, it is a painful recollection; for others in the police, the NSG, the army and the navy, it is about remembering lessons learnt and failures recounted so as not to repeat the mistakes.
And for those in decision-making positions at the highest level in the national security apparatus it is a day to review the robustness of the response mechanism ostensibly put in place.
To me, as a journalist, the Mumbai attack is a textbook case for bench-marking the interplay between the omnipresent media and state law enforcement agencies during a crisis of such magnitude.
Popular wisdom has it that the media bungled big time during the 72 hour (okay 96 hours, by some reckoning) siege of Mumbai. It displayed insensitivity, gave away security positions to the terrorists by broadcasting live images, came in the way of the security agencies and was generally the biggest nuisance on the scene.
Media behaviour -- especially of broadcast journalists -- has been roundly criticised and justifiably so. Agreed that the media could have and should have behaved more responsibly, should have been more sober and should have been more sensitive. But in defence of my colleagues, I must say this was an unprecedented situation and therefore many reporters reacted in a manner that looks irresponsible -- but only in retrospect.
In the intervening period many internal and institutional discussions have resulted in some kind of guidelines in the broadcast media to prevent a repeat of the 26/11 mistakes.
Will the Indian broadcast media behave any differently than it did during 26/11? Your guess is as good as mine, but given the severe indictment of television news for its various sins of commission and omission during the Mumbai attack, I suspect the exuberance would be tempered if such a situation was to recur. The proof of the pudding is, however, in the eating.
That said, the role of government agencies during the November 2008 crisis also deserves a recap. As someone who was NOT on the spot but was reporting from the national capital on how the security and political establishment handled the terrorist attack of monumental proportions, I had a ringside view of the goings on.
My most abiding memory of those days is the sheer paralysis that gripped the top levels of government. Confusing signals emanated from different power centres: The PMO, the home ministry and the security establishment.
The delay in the arrival of the NSG commandos in Mumbai for want of transport, the sheer confusion in the Maharashtra government and the Mumbai police is too well documented to recount here, but let me draw attention to the sheer violation of basic rules of crisis communication by every arm of the government bar none.
Let's start right at the beginning. Then home minister Shivraj Patil arrived in Mumbai along with the first batch of NSG commandos and grandly announced to the waiting contingent of journalists: 'These 250 commandos will take care of the problem.' There was no need to disclose the numbers, but the home minister himself violated the basic principle.
A couple of hours later, J K Dutt, then the NSG chief, grandly declared at the airport upon his arrival in Mumbai: 'Additional 250 NSG personnel have now joined the operation.' Another unwarranted piece of information given out voluntarily.
At the other end of town, Vice Admiral J S Bedi, then chief, Western Naval Command, paraded the elite Marine Commandos (Marcos) in front of the television cameras, lauding them for their quick action as first responders. Another rule broken: No one shows off their best asset. We still haven't seen how and what the SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden look like although a couple of those who were part of the team have now revealed their identity after leaving the force.
Almost simultaneously, then Mumbai police commissioner A N Roy was voluntarily revealing to the media that one of the attackers -- Ajmal Kasab -- was caught alive even as the operation to clear the Taj, Oberoi and Nariman House was on. Another fundamental rule broken: Never give vital information when the operation is still in progress!
This was not all. Lieutenant General Nobel Thamburaj, then the Southern Army Commander based in Pune, flew to Mumbai and grandly announced with one of the burning hotels as the backdrop: 'This operation will be over in another couple of hours.' He was off the mark by 48 hours.
Then there was R R Patil, Maharashtra's then home minister, known to make profound statements. 'Bade bade saharoein mein aisi chhoti chhoti ghatnaye hoti raheti hein (Such small incidents often occur in big cities),' he told the media.
The icing on the cake was yet to come.
As the NSG commandos started gaining control, the scene of action shifted to Nariman House, a building located in a narrow alley. The only possible access was from the rooftop. So Indian Air Force helicopters were called in.
Even as television channels started beaming visuals of the choppers hovering dangerously close to the building (absolutely unacceptable for us in the media to have done so), I got a call from a senior officer at Air HQ in Delhi: "Why don't you take my phone in? I can tell your viewers what a difficult job our brave pilots are doing."
In retrospect, I should have refused, but that I didn't shows how we all get caught in the immediacy of news and rarely think of the consequences.
If we in the media made major mistakes, the government, supposedly manned by wise and experienced officers, was also all at sea, unable to act cohesively and with restraint. Each agency was out to score brownie points, ignoring the basic principle of the need to have a single point communication centre.
Lack of ability to take control of the situation resulted in multiple voices speaking for the government, showing India in poor light across the world.
Have matters improved?
I don't have a definite answer six years after the event. Let's pray that they have.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

INS Vikrant: The Aircraft carrier that hastened the end of 1971 war, no more

A column I wrote for over the weekend

For Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, one abiding memory of INS Vikrant is from almost a quarter century ago. 

In 1989, Sinha, who recently took premature retirement as Flag Officer Commander in Chief (FOC-in-C) of India's Western Naval Command, was the top gun in the 300 squadron that flew Sea Hawk aircraft from on-board INS Vikrant - India's, indeed Asia's, first aircraft carrier. 

Around that time, INS Virat, India's second aircraft carrier had also entered service, but the Indian navy was short of aircraft.

"We had two aircraft carriers but not enough aircraft so we used to transfer aircraft from INS Vikrant to Virat. Two outstanding officers used to command the two aircraft carriers that time. One of them, Madhvendra Singh, went on to become India's navy chief. The other, Ravi Ganesh, is perhaps the only naval officer to have commanded a nuclear submarine and an aircraft carrier. That was a period of great transition. Soon after we started flying Sea Harriers from Virat," Vice Admiral Sinha remembers.

As India's first aircraft carrier turned into scrap on Friday, Sinha, perhaps the last of the naval aviators who had the distinction of flying both Sea Hawks and Sea Harriers, says Vikrant gave India the confidence to operate an aircraft carrier. 

Vikrant joined the Indian Navy in 1961 but it had an older lineage. It was built in 1943 and joined the Royal British Navy in 1945 as HMS Hercules. A Majestic Class 20,000 tonnes displacement aircraft carrier, the refurbished Hercules, now known as Vikrant, was received at the Bombay harbour by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961.

Its finest moment was to come a decade later in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Although most military enthusiasts remember the Indian Navy's daring attack on the Karachi port in 1971, INS Vikrant perhaps played the most crucial part in shortening the war since it cut off reinforcement sent from West Pakistan to what was then East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh, by policing the Bay of Bengal and bombing towns and cities like Cox's Bazar, Chittagong, Khulna, Chalna, Mongla, Barisal, Do Hazari, Chiringa and Bakarganj.

Using 500 lb bombs, rockets and guns, the aircraft taking off from Vikrant struck airfields, harbours, ammunition dumps, gunboats, armed merchant ships and troop positions. For its stellar performance in the Bay of Bengal, INS Vikrant earned two Maha Vir Chakras and 11 Vir Chakras.

When it was brought to India in 1961, Radhakrishna Hariram Thaliani, then a young lieutenant, became the first Indian naval pilot to land the Sea Hawk onboard the Vikrant. RH Thaliani went on to command INS Vikrant and also become the Indian Navy Chief between 1984 and 1987.

Vikrant in fact outlasted the Admiral's career in the navy. It was not until 1997 that it was finally decommissioned. It served as a maritime museum till 2004 but many proposals, including converting it into a permanent museum for future generations, failed to materialise due to financial constraints.

When Vikrant's hull was torn open on Friday, a piece of India's recent maritime history was destroyed forever. Interestingly, all ships of the majestic class built in British shipyards were to serve in navies other than that of Great Britain. Two ships each served the Canadian and the Australian navies. Those four ships were decommissioned long ago and subsequently and scrapped. The fifth, the Hercules, was bought by the Indian Navy and renamed the Vikrant. The construction of Leviathan, the sixth ship in this class was never completed. The incomplete ship was scrapped way back in 1968. 

But Navy buffs may want to take solace at the fact that Vikrant's name will not fade away from memory. India's first indigenous aircraft carrier, being built at the Cochin shipyard, is also named INS Vikrant. Launched in August 2013, INS Vikrant is expected to be commissioned into the Indian Navy in 2018.

So, four years from now, we may have another Vikrant joining the Indian Navy nearly 60 years after the original Vikrant became part of the then fledgling naval arm of India. That's perhaps a small consolation on a day when Asia's first aircraft carrier was taken down piece by piece.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lift AFSPA wherever possible, don't repeal it

Two developments in Kashmir during the past fortnight have brought the focus back on the Indian Army and the much-misunderstood Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

First, the killing of two teenagers in Badgam by troops of Rashtriya Rifles and the subsequent admission by the Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen DS Hooda that ‘our boys made a mistake,’ has given a handle to the critics of the AFSPA fuelling once again the oft-repeated demand to repeal the law.

However, the verdict in the high-profile Machil fake encounter case of 2010 that sentenced 5 Army men to life under the Army Act, 1950 (the punishment will have to be confirmed by the Northern Army Commander) within days of the Badgam incident has silenced—even if momentarily—critics of Army’s justice system.

But going beyond the immediate, a closer look is needed at the AFSPA and the circumstances under which it has come to acquire such negative connotations. Discussion on the law however gets clouded by emotions, distrust and even lack of understanding about the circumstances under which it is applied.

Remember, the AFSPA, when promulgated in 1958 to empower the Army in combating the nascent Naga insurgency, was meant to be an emergency law. Unfortunately, in the all-round mishandling of the aspirations in the north-east and the multitudinous rebellions it spawned in the region, the AFSPA, and not the all-round failure of the Indian state, been demonised. Instead of being used in short spurts, the AFSPA has been allowed to be applied continuously for 56 years. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Not the Army, surely. After all, it is deployed after the police and other agencies fail.

So who is to be blamed? It must squarely lie with the political executive.

Take the case of Assam. For the past decade at least, the Tarun Gogoi government could have let the police and the central police forces handle the remnants of insurgency still active in some parts of the state. But he has repeatedly resisted any move to drastically reduce or even end the Army’s counter-insurgency role. And if the Army has to operate in an internal security scenario, it needs the protective umbrella of the AFSPA just as the police operate under the IPC and CrPC.  

The mere fact that the provisions of AFSPA have to be invoked in a particular area ex facie establishes that handling the law and order situation had gone beyond the control of the state government.  The Army personnel, operating in those circumstances need to enjoy at least similar powers as the Police force if not wider ones.  So, just as Section 45 of the CrPC disallows arrest of public servants (read police and CPAF personnel in this context) and just as Section 197 provides impunity against prosecution, Section 7 of the AFSPA gives similar protection to the Army personnel. Nothing more, nothing less. And yet, most opponents of the AFSPA have chosen to either downplay or completely ignore this similarity. In the case of J&K, the Army needs legal protection all the more since applicability of CrPC is disallowed in the state that operates under a different set of law called the Ranbir Penal Code.
The circumstances too were different than those in the North-east.

When the AFSPA was made applicable in the state of J&K in 1990, India was fighting a proxy war fuelled by an implacable adversary. In the past 25 years, the country’s collective efforts have brought down all known parameters of violence down to manageable levels with the help of the Indian army.  For a quarter century, the Army was the only functioning government agency in most parts of Kashmir. But it’s certainly time for the Army to ‘step back’ a little in J&K and allow the civil administration to start playing their part in providing good governance.

That said, while there may be a comparative decline in terrorist violence, there is no change in the Pakistani ideology and will to support proxy war in J&K. The infrastructure to support such a proxy is all intact and being regularly upgraded.  Between 35 and 42 training camps are active in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Moreover, counter terrorist operations by the army are not restricted to the Line of Control but cover the entire state.  Administrative support including convoys carrying Army personnel and stores moving to the LoC pass through urban areas in the hinterland and are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Hence AFSPA cannot be applied in pockets of J&K along the LoC while withdrawing the Act from the remaining areas, as is being advocated by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah or even former Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

The army has sound reasons to resist withdrawal of AFSPA. For instance, it says lifting of AFSPA from urban areas / large towns in J&K will result in terrorists seeking shelter in such areas and rebuilding their bases, as has been witnessed in Manipur’s capital Imphal, post-2004.

Moreover, all lines of communication in J&K pass through population centre and have to be kept open at all cost. The Army garrison / strategic assets are spread over in population centres and de-notification will render them vulnerable to terrorist action and hence require separate security arrangements. Any action taken by the Army personnel in these areas will be governed by Ranbir Penal Code which does not confer immunity from arrest will further complicate the issue.

The revocation of AFSPA from any area needs a concerted view of all organs of the State and Centre. A suggested way is to convert these areas into Police administered areas/ Police districts as was done for Srinagar initially without revoking AFSPA. Subsequently as the situation improves, while evolving the revocation, an exit strategy needs to be worked for gradual withdrawal of armed forces from the specified area leading to smooth transition.

Lifting the AFSPA can certainly be attempted but the provisions of the AFSPA, as an emergency law that empowers the Army—the nation’s instrument of last resort-- must however continue to remain on the statute books given the increasingly violent and uncertain times that the sub-continent is likely to face in coming years. When needed, it must be applied in small doses. Every country has to balance the need for a stringent law with the basic principles of ensuring human dignity and human rights. Therein lies the challenge for India’s leadership. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Modi govt sure-footed in dealing with Beijing but needs to adopt two-pronged approach

Earlier this week, at a closed door meeting of Indian strategic thinkers and half a dozen Chinese scholars on South Asia, the fault lines in the often troubled Sino-India relationship unexpectedly surfaced once again highlighting the enormous differences that persist in dealing with the contentious boundary question.

One of the visiting Chinese scholars, perhaps provoked by an aggressive Indian query on China’s continuing policy of using Pakistan as cat’s paw against India, squarely laid the blame for recent troubles at the un-demarcated border at India’s door. “It is the new forward policy practiced by India, especially in the grey areas which exist in the Western sector that has led to the recent incidents on the border,” was the burden of the Chinese scholar’s argument.
The underlying message was: Just like in the run up to the 1962 war, India is the aggressor once again and all its actions in border areas were “leading to negative consequences.”
Of course the more senior lot in that group spoke in the usual platitudinous tone about the need to ‘resolve the border dispute through mutual respect and mutual compromise,’ one of them even outlining three pre-requisites for an eventual settlement: Strong political will on both sides; a strong political leader in Beijing and New Delhi and a formula acceptable to the people of both countries!
One of them advised Indians to go through the archives and historical documents to understand the problems that beset Sino-Indian boundary issue and reminded everyone that the border is not demarcated even as the Chinese team skirted the main question as to why each VVIP visit is preceded by an incursion! Of course one Chinese assertion is: there is no incursion, we are always within our own territory!
The reason I have dwelt on a Track II meeting at such length is to underline the almost irreconcilable positions that exist in India and China on the boundary question. We in India believe China is following the ‘creeping’ invasion policy along the border while scholars at prominent Chinese think tanks term India as the aggressor!
If at an informal level there are such obdurate views, the hard line that officials adopt during negotiations can only be imagined.
So what is the current Sino-India equation?
Over the past two years, the relationship graph has seen some highs and many lows.
First the highs: Three bilateral meetings at the highest level possible have taken place since 2013.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made his first overseas visit to India in May 2013 and mainly spoke about strengthening the India-China economic relationship. In October 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Beijing and signed yet another pact (the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement or BDCA) to try and keep the contested boundary calm. In less than four months after a new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge in Delhi, Chinese President Xi Jingping was in India. Apart from political contacts at the highest level, even military to military engagements ( have increased in the past two years and yet, two of the most serious border incidents since the Sumdorung Chu incident in 1987 have taken place in this period.
So the lows: In April 2013,  PLA soldiers walked across the Line of Control (LAC) in the remote and desolate Depsang Plains in Ladakh (( just a fortnight ahead of Premier Li's visit and stayed put for 21 days before an all-out effort resolved the crisis. The experience of the standoff came in handy when the BDCA was being negotiated. But if any one thought  the face offs, jostling, pushing and pulling between troops at the LAC would stop after signing the latest border pact, they are mistaken.
On the day President Xi Jingping arrived in Ahmedabad this September, 1000 Chinese troops walked across the LAC in South Eastern Ladakh's Chumur area leading to another tense and perhaps the biggest face off in the past 25 years. India's overnight swift response (sending in 2000 troops against the 1000 Chinese) and staring down the Chinese was unprecedented in many ways but even as the crisis ended, questions on why the PLA repeatedly ups the ante on eve of VVIP visits remain unanswered. Many theories (the PLA is not under total control of President Xi, says one implausible conjecture) have been advocated but the most rational reason stems from PLA's effort to keep up the tension on the border since India has belatedly started a massive military build up backed by improved infrastructure all along the Himalayan border.
President Xi and Prime Minister Modi seem determined to not let the boundary issue cloud the overall relationship since both India and China realize the old security architecture is slowly crumbling and both Beijing and New Delhi, along with Tokyo, will have major role to play in the rapidly changing strategic equations. The trick for India will perhaps lie in balancing the strategic competition with China with the need to cooperate on many common issues. As India’s then National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, remarked in January 2012, “The issue is whether we (India and China) can continue to manage the elements of competition within an agreed strategic framework which permits both of us to pursue our core interests.” Beyond the bilateral, both countries have recognised and pursued common goals. These  include reforms of the Bretton Woods system, new institutions to advance the interests of emerging economies through steps like the recently launched Asian Bank.
India however needs to guard against increasing Chinese footprints in South Asia. Smaller nations in the region have often played India against China (notably Sri Lanka of late) to their advantage. India will have to arrest the drift in neighbourhood policy to reclaim strategic space in South Asia before its too late.
The new government, even as it appears more assertive and sure-footed in dealing with Beijing, needs to adopt a two-pronged approach. Keep the engagement going even while improving military capability and stitching alliances with countries like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and Australia as an effective foil to China's rise.