Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Agni-V canister launch video

Video Courtesy: DRDO

The Army's Kashmir dilemma

The martyrdom of Colonel M N Rai, who died in Kashmir in terrorist firing, has once again opened the old debate on how the Indian Army should conduct its counter-insurgency, counter-terrorist operations under the changed circumstances in the border state.
Colonel Rai, a highly effective commanding officer, heading the 42 Rashtriya Rifles battalion, was killed in indiscriminate firing by two terrorists holed up inside a house in a village near Tral in South Kashmir even as he held back launching an operation after villagers requested him to wait for them to surrender.
Friends and relatives of the two local youth, who were hardcore members of a terrorist outfit, told Colonel Rai that they would prevail on the two men to surrender after the CO reached the village with his Quick Reaction Team following an intelligence tip off.
Even as he held back, the well-armed terrorists came out firing indiscriminately, killing Colonel Rai and a brave policeman, Head Constable Sanjiv Singh on the spot.
Colonel Rai's approach, part of an Indian Army doctrine based on WHAM -- Winning Hearts And Minds -- was correct under the circumstances that have prevailed in Jammu and Kashmir for at least a couple of years.
After nearly a quarter century of intense Counter Intelligence-Counter Terrorism ops bordering on outright war, the Army has seen the tempo tapering off a bit in the past few years, at least in the hinterland.
The 25-year long conflict is in fact going through a stabilisation phase that requires a combination of force and tact in dealing with terrorists taking shelter in populated areas. The handling becomes all the more difficult if the encounter involves local terrorists.
Colonel Rai's colleagues, his subordinates and some veterans say he did exactly what any CO of the Indian Army has done for years in Kashmir: Deal with terrorists/militants in a humane manner.
So when the villagers requested Colonel Rai to wait until they persuaded the two terrorists to surrender, he readily acceded. Little did Colonel Rai know that his trust would be betrayed.
Increasingly, Rashtriya Rifles battalions deployed in large numbers in Kashmir's interiors are faced with this dilemma. On the one hand, there is a need to reduce the Army's footprint and the earlier overwhelming, in-your face presence, and on the other not weaken the CI-CT grid that allows area domination.
Caught between these two opposite requirements, COs and company commanders, often young men with less than five years service, find it hard to strike a balance.
In coming months and years, this dilemma will only become more acute posing a serious challenge to the Army's endless 'No War, No Peace,' existence in Kashmir.
All COs and their superiors are sure to have taken note of the betrayal that killed Colonel Rai. Corrective measures will be taken quickly. And the Indian Army will continue to do its duty without rancour and remorse.
That is what makes the Indian soldier unique

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ensure every soldier gets to vote, an Army Officer's wife writes to the Prime Minister

A PIL seeking efficient mechanism to ensure voting rights to the armed forces personnel and their families in their place of posting is likely to come up in the first week of February. Filed by a practicing Supreme Court advocate, who also happens to be the wife of a serving Army officer, the PIL is seen as a landmark application for ensuring voting rights to the soldiers, long denied mostly because of practical difficulties. 

The government has been internally discussing the tricky issue with Army HQ briefing at least four senior ministers on Wednesday about the practical difficulties in implementing what everyone agrees is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen.

Meantime, the Advocate, Neela Gokhale has written to the Prime Minister highlighting the need to give the soldier his due right. Read on: 

The Prime Minister of India
South Block
New Delhi

“ Be it the altitude or bitter cold, nothing deters our soldiers. They stand there, serving our nation, They make us really proud”

 Your words Mr. Prime Minister … a testament to the commitment of every citizen of this country, to the national  security and sovereignty and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the soldiers for the safety of its citizens. Your decision to spend Diwali with the soldiers on the glacier reveals a discernible patriotic undercurrent. This symbolism encourages me to write to you, sir and bring to your notice some fundamental deprivations faced by the armed forces and their families. 

The Constitution of India enjoins the elections to Parliament and legislative assemblies to be held on the basis of adult franchise. So this means that every citizen of India, who is not less than 18 years of age and not otherwise disqualified on the grounds of non residence, unsoundness of mind, crime, corruption or illegal practice is entitled to be registered as a voter at such election. So then, why is it that there is no efficient mechanism yet, to facilitate the soldier on the far flung glaciers to participate in the electoral democratic process of the country. Or he is just not significant enough in that respect?

Notwithstanding that the Election Commission did commendable work in undertaking processes to reach out to individuals in the most remote localities of the country, yet the process has once again eluded the armed forces personal and their families, posted in far flung areas of the country. The law, as it stands today, only permits the armed forces personnel to register as ‘service voter’ at the place of his ordinary residence, which is deemed to be that place which, but for his posting, would be his ordinary residence. Simply put, his ordinary residence means his native place. It is obvious that many have been away on their call of duty for a long time and thus are not aware of the nuances of their native constituency or the suitability of the candidates seeking to be elected. So they are expected to participate in the process blindfolded, without formation of their own opinion, which reduces the exercise of the right of franchise to an exercise in futility. Even the present postal ballot system has admittedly failed to ensure maximum encouragement to participate in the formation of a vibrant democracy. The factum of ordinary residence of a soldier is created by his posting order, issued by the government itself, purely on operational considerations and none other.  Yet he uncomplaining accepts his orders and performs his duties without demur. Mindful of the fact that permitting enrolment at the place of posting may affect the demographic equations of a constituency, especially in places such as J&K etc, where the army personnel may at times outnumber the general populace, yet the resolution lies somewhere in the middle of the devil and the deep sea.

Being an army officer’s wife myself and concerned with the issue, I have approached the Hon’ble Supreme Court by filing a writ petition and urging the court to address the issue and direct a suitable resolution. True to my faith in its invincible ability to deliver timely justice, as an interim measure, the Hon’ble Court permitted the  armed forces personnel posted in family stations, to enroll at their places of posting during the recent Lok Sabha Elections. That perhaps resulted in a greater than ever participation of the armed forces personnel in the recent elections.  The petition is yet pending determination by a larger bench.

It is a complex issue, but given the underlining theme of participatory governance adopted by your government and the reclamation of the grounds lost by the hereto before policy paralysis, it would be both, expeditious and consistent, that this imbroglio be addressed and resolved by means of your executive intervention than determination by the court. The letter of the law does seem to inculcate the principle of adult franchise vide cursory provisions for the ‘service voter’ in the RPI Act, but the spirit of the principle of franchise has been relegated to the intentions of the framers of the constitutions, which I feel sure, your government will correct at the earliest.

Neela Gokhale

Supreme Court of India

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

China, India and the Sri Lanka Elections


China, India and the Sri Lanka Elections
Image Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

In less than a week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka will be facing the toughest political battle of his life as the country votes in the presidential elections on January 8. The Sinhala strongman, credited with ending a 30-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 was expected to have a cakewalk until one of his closest colleagues Maithripala Sirisena walked out of the ruling combine and mounted a credible challenge after the fragmented opposition rallied around him.
The outcome of the polls will be watched keenly in at least two foreign capitals – New Delhi and Beijing – since both have large stakes in the island nation. While India’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka are vital, it also has cultural and religious ties with the Sri Lankan society going back centuries. China, a relatively new presence on the island, on the other hand, has made large strategic and commercial investments in Sri Lanka over the last decade, thanks to a decidedly pro-China policy adopted by Rajapaksa.

As the contest between Sirisena and Rajpaksa tightens with each day, there must be some worried folks back in Beijing. The Chinese presence in vital sectors of Sri Lanka is huge, and the opposition, led by Sirisena and backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, is not exactly well-disposed towards Beijing.

Consider this: Between 2005 and 2012, China provided $4.8 billion as assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this only 2 percent has been in the form of outright grants; the remaining 98 percent took the form of soft loans. By contrast, a third of India’s 1.6 billion dollars in assistance to the island comprises outright grants.

There’s more. In the last two years (2012-14), China has committed in excess of 2.18 billion dollars, again mostly in the form of long-term loans. Most of these funds are destined for priority sectors like roads, expressways, ports, airports, power, irrigation, water supply and railways.

Rajapaksa’s supporters contend that all these projects are commercial ventures and Sri Lanka had no option but to depend on Chinese loans, given that the West has largely kept away, citing alleged human rights violations during the final phases of Eelam War IV. The argument is only partially true. The Chinese have cleverly played on Colombo’s fears of isolation and granted concessional loans. Critics of the Rajapaksa regime fear that the Sri Lankan government will be unable to repay such large loans in time, giving the Chinese an opportunity to turn part of the loan into equity, making them part owners of vital projects and installations.

The most glaring example cited by opponents of the Rajapaksas is the Hambantota Port Development Project. For the first phase, the Chinese provided almost 85 per cent of the total cost of $307 million. The second stage (signed in September 2012) will cost $810 million.

The interesting part is that the supply-operate-transfer agreement signed during Chinese President Xi Jingping’s September 2014 visit includes a 35-year lease of four out of seven container berths to a Chinese company. It is pertinent to note that the Hambantota project is just a few nautical miles from one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with more than 4,000 oil tankers passing by each year.

Although the Indian establishment will long regret not taking up Rajapaksa’s offer to develop Hambantota, New Delhi is surely worried about the Colombo Port City Project, a massive $1.4 billion plan to reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea along a prominent promenade in Colombo. Of the 233 hectares, the Chinese are being given 88 hectares on a 99-year lease. Interestingly, another 20 hectares will be given to China on a freehold basis. In other words, China or the Chinese company will be a part owner of the project.

In the Sri Lankan capital, the South Container Terminal at Colombo Port is operated by a China-led consortium, which has a 35-year right of ownership under a build-operate-transfer agreement. The Chinese submarine that berthed in Colombo chose to use this terminal and not the main port and so did a Chinese naval ship earlier. The Sri Lankan government has tried to assure New Delhi on this count, by pointing out that all dealings with the Chinese are on a commercial basis and have no geo-strategic importance, a claim believed by no one in India. Why should India worry about increasing Chinese presence in the Colombo port? New Delhi has legitimate concerns since at least 70 percent of transhipment business at the Colombo port is India-related.

However, for India the greater worry should be Colombo’s enthusiastic endorsement of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and linking the development of Colombo and Hambantota Ports to the Chinese-led initiative. When Xi came to Colombo in September 2014, Beijing and Colombo announced the establishment of a Joint Committee on Coastal and Marine Cooperation to explore joint ventures in ocean observation, marine and coastal zone management, maritime security, search and rescue, and navigation security. This, Indian experts contend, would allow China a free run to carry out surreptitious maritime surveys and snoop on southern India.

The government of Narendra Modi is surely cognizant of these developments but it will take multi-directional efforts to regain the strategic space India has lost in Sri Lanka over the past decade. The previous UPA government, hampered by domestic political compulsions and its own confusion over India’s role in Sri Lanka, ceded ground to China once it refused to supply military hardware to Colombo in its war against the Tamil Tigers. In contrast, post-2005 China increased its military supplies to the Sri Lankan military manifold. By a conservative estimate, more than 60 percent of the equipment in the arsenals of the Sri Lankan Air Force and Army are of Chinese origin. In the near future, the Chinese are likely to take the defense relationship to the next level by supplying Sri Lanka with fighter aircraft and warships. Although annually more than 800 Sri Lankan officers across the three services still train in Indian military establishments, the Sri Lankan military’s dependency on Chinese equipment is surely something that worries India no end.

However, New Delhi would perhaps prefer to wait for the result of next week’s presidential election to recalibrate its own policies towards Sri Lanka, no matter who the eventual winner is.

Nitin A. Gokhale is the author of Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga.

A Race too close too call


For Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, this is a moment of reckoning. His bid to get re-elected for an unprecedented third term, is facing a serious challenge mounted by the Opposition re-energised after Mr Rajapaksa’s long-time party and ministerial colleague, Maithripala Sirisena defected from the ruling combine.

Mr Sirisena, backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickramasinghe has turned the presidential election into a credible contest, a prospect that looked improbable even a month ago. A series of defections by smaller allies representing the Muslims has further eroded Mr Rajapaksa’s support.

Two major factors must worry Mr Rajapaksa. One is the division in his core Sinhala vote and the other is the prospect of minorities Tamils and Muslims voting heavily against him. This is a big change from 2010, when he won the elections comfortably thanks to a famous military victory over the Tamil Tigers that ended a 30-year war in the island nation.

Since then Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity has eroded considerably because of charges of authoritarianism, financial corruption and nepotism. A two-third majority in Parliament allowed the President to rewrite the Constitution and lift the restriction on holding the office of the President for more than two terms.

That at least five of Mr Rajapaksa’s immediate family members are in key government positions gives ammunition to his critics. In the last five years, the party took a backseat, leading to widespread corruption, lawlessness and cronyism, the Opposition has charged. Mr Sirisena, for long an insider, now says the concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family and large-scale corruption forced him to leave the government.

The real battle is to gain maximum support from the majority Sinhala vote in the 15-million strong electorate. In the 2010 elections, Mr Rajapaksa had polled more than double the votes secured by his main opponent, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka in the Sinhala majority areas of south, central and western provinces but this time, Mr Sirisena has the advantage of ultra-radical, right-wing Sinhala party like Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and a prominent Buddhist monk Sobitha Thero, backing him against the President.

But it’s not a done deal yet.

Mr Rajapaksa, with his easy, if cultivated charm and an image of a decisive leader is adept at playing on Sinhala nationalist sentiment. He has already promised a new Constitution committing himself once again to the unitary status and has committed himself to establish a domestic investigative mechanism for probe into the alleged war crimes even while preventing any international scrutiny into alleged human rights violations. This appeals to the hardcore Sinhala voter base. In Colombo, revulsion against the Rajapaksas and yearning for change is palpable but the rural vote outside the capital still seems largely behind the President. Many Sinhalas, especially women, still root for Mr Rajapaksa’s “macho” image and his firm handling of terrorism.

Mr Sirisena also needs to make a dent in the Tamil heartland to get ahead of Mr Rajapaksa. With less than 10 days to go for the elections, Mr Sirisena has not spoken a word about the Tamil issue. His manifesto does not even mention the Tamils and their concerns although the influential Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that has widespread support in the North has decided on Tuesday to support him.

Mr Rajapaksa on the other hand, has launched an energetic campaign countrywide and is even touring the Tamil areas frequently. He has not only visited North and East more than once, but has made some promises, which will attract those who had suffered during the war.
Mr Sirisena in comparison appears wimpish and suffers from the perception that the Kumaratunga-Wickramasinghe duo and not him are the real power centres in the Opposition ranks. There is also lack of focus and cohesion among the disparate elements supporting
Mr Sirisena’s campaign. The JHU and the TNA for instance, hold diametrically opposite views on the contentious 13th Amendment that allows genuine devolution of power to the Tamils.

In the larger context these issues may not matter though since anti-incumbency against Mr Rajapaksa is giving the Opposition more than an even chance this time.

The close contest throws up another possibility. For the first time, Sri Lanka may be forced to count the preferential votes. According to the Constitution, a candidate, in order to win, needs to receive “more than one-half of the valid votes cast”, which is 50 per cent plus one vote. One possible scenario is that no candidate receives the required 50 per cent of the votes cast.

What happens then? The voters are allowed to indicate their second and third preferences when they vote in a presidential election. If no candidate receives more than one half of the votes cast, there will be a runoff and preferential votes will come into play. The process is complicated. Initially, all candidates except the two who received the most number of votes will be eliminated from the competition. Then, the second preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favour of one of the remaining two candidates, will be added to their account. And finally, the third preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favour of one of the two remaining candidates, will be added to their account. Only then the one who receives the “majority of the votes” will be declared the winner.

Political analysts in Sri Lanka say the country has never counted the preferential votes as there has always been a clear winner, even in some of the closest contests. In 1999 for instance, Ms Kumaratunga received 51.12 per cent votes while Mr Rajapaksa in 2005 scarped through with 50.29 per cent of the votes. Will it be any different this time? Will Sri Lanka be counting the preferential votes for the first time? President Rajapaksa would be hoping that the situation would not come to such a pass.

The outcome of the elections will be keenly watched around the world, especially in New Delhi. India’s relations with the Rajapaksas have been bitter-sweet and his tendency to play the China card against India has not really endeared him to New Delhi but Mr Rajapaksa’s alternative is an unknown entity so far. Whatever the outcome of the election slated for January 8, India will need to start afresh in recalibrating its relationship with Colombo.

The author is a strategic affairs commentator and long time Sri Lanka watcher

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Did Coast Guard have any choice but to follow SOPs?

Did the Indian Coast Guard goof up in treating a mere fishing boat that had strayed from Pakistan off the Gujarat Coast on New Year’s Eve as a rogue boat carrying terrorists or at least explosives and guns? Was the Indian Coast Guard guilty of using excessive force against some poor smugglers who were trying to earn a living by running contraband as some accounts have suggested?

Or did the Coast Guard take appropriate action which forced what it calls a ‘suspicious boat’ to self-destruct mid-sea to prevent incriminating evidence stashed on board?

The sequence of events I have managed to put together after speaking to people in the know in various agencies, suggests that the Coast Guard did what it is supposed to do: Take appropriate action against rogue elements after following all SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Knowledgeable commentators with better access and even better understanding may differ with this account, but as a foot soldier of the national security beat, I have no other choice but to believe what my sources have told me. So here goes.

December 31: 0735hrs: The NTRO (National Technical Resource Organisation) sends out a specific input marked to all those it is required to keep in the loop, giving exact lat-long (latitude-longitude) of a boat that had sailed from Keti Bunder near Karachi and was headed towards the Gujarat Coast. The input had a rough description of the boat too. The intelligence input was based on a communication interception that the NTRO had managed.
0855 hrs: COM-CG, Gujarat, the Coast Guard’s Gandhinagar-based regional HQ received the details at 8.55 from Coast Guard HQ in Delhi.     
0935hrs: A Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard located at Porbander takes off for the first sortie. After about 90 minutes, it cites the boat, bobbing around in mid-sea roughly at the spot that the NTRO had indicated. The Dornier crew relays the information back to Porbander and Gandhinagar. After a 3.40 minute sortie, the Dornier returns to Porbander.
1235 hrs: Another Dornier aircraft is airborne even before the first one lands back. It keeps a hawk’s eye on the boat and sends back detailed description.

1330-1400hrs: NTRO listens in to another three-way conversation between the boat and presumably their handlers based in Karachi (probably personnel of the Pakistani Martime Security Agency) and someone based in Thailand. Occupants of the boat are heard telling their superiors ‘we are waiting.’ Coast Guard decides to keep the air surveillance going by sending a replacement for the second aircraft and also divert a ship, ICG Rajrattan which was on a task in a different area.       

1730, 2030 and 2230 hrs: Coast Guard’s Dorniers are launched at these times to keep an eye on the boat which is neither fishing nor moving but is just hanging around.

2200hrs: INS Rajrattan makes an RV (rendezvous) with the boat after travelling more than eight hours.

The crew tries to raise the boat and its occupants but the moment Rajrattan’s presence is noticed, the lights on the boat are switched off. The boat also tries to move away towards the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). 

23330hrs: The Rajrattan aware of the possibility of explosives and arms stored onboard the boat keeps circling around it which nevertheless continues its dash towards the IMBL. After about an hour of the cat and mouse game, the Coast Guard ship fires several warning shots. Perhaps finding no other alternative, the occupants onboard the boat decided to set in on fire. Several loud explosions occurr and a massive fire brakes out on the boat. At least four men were spotted on the boat before it sank, a ministry of defence statement had said.
0430hrs-0630hrs, 1st January: The boat gradually sinks even as Rajrattan stays in the vicinity to look for any survivors. 

Given that the attackers in the 26/11 mayhem had come into Mumbai via sea, immediate parallels were sought to be drawn to that episode but on available evidence, it is still not clear if Mumbai was the target or if the occupants on destroyed boat were assigned to carry out any terrorist attack. What is clear however is the boat was no ordinary fishing vessel. 

Neither was the behaviour of the people on board normal. There have been suggestions that the boat was used by diesel and liquor smugglers. As Coast Guard officials point out, smugglers when caught don’t try to run away. Instead, they normally surrender. And they certainly don’t kill themselves. Occupants of the suspicious boat however not only behaved abnormally but chose to embrace death instead of being caught. 

Why? Simply because they had something to hide even if one was to assume that they were not terrorists but were simply couriers out to deliver deadly cargo of explosives and arms.

Could the Coast Guard have done anything different? Could it have asked for reinforcements from the Navy? Is it guilty of not following SOPs? The Ministry of Defence and India’s security establishment will of course review the entire operation and plug whatever gaps exist. 

The fact is: the country's western sea coast is most vulnerable to intrusion of the 26/11 kind despite the fact that India's maritime surveillance and prevention capabilities have improved significantly. The coordination between different agencies is now almost real time as this operation has demonstrated. Despite such a progress there's no guarantee that future terror attacks can be prevented simply because terrorist have the luxury of choosing the time and space for the attack.

For the past three months, several intelligence inputs have indicated that Pakistan’s ISI continues its relentless attempts to send hit squads of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) into India both through the land and maritime boundaries. Increased vigil by the Indian agencies has prevented any major attack so far but there is no room for self-congratulations or complacency as New Year day’s episode on the high seas has shown.