Get tough with insurgents

Rubaiya Saeed, Kandahar and Alex Paul Menon happened a decade apart but represent a debilitating void in Indian governance — that of deterrence; the deadly ambush of the SP of Pakur and four constables coming after the massacre of Congressmen in Chhattisgarh and now followed by the blasts in Bodhgaya proves it. That the terrorists could come and plant 13 bombs with impunity at the Mahabodhi temple complex should make every proud Indian hang his head in shame. It is ironical that though Indian mythology is replete with tales of the overpowering nature of a ruler’s pratirodh, our independent history is not at all radiant in this aspect as the modern Indian state has become captive to its submissive past in such crunch situations.

The Naxalite proclivity to kill and abduct government officials with impunity resulted in the preparation last year (later aborted) of a hostage policy to be followed; that was just half the solution. A steely determination to tackle such challenges head-on through the creation of a deterrent image so that ambushes, murders and taking hostage lose their appeal of being a soft option to make the Indian state buckle is the need of the hour.

Deterrence is a favourite PhD subject but the proof of its success lies in its “visibility” in real life when it inhibits an adversary from transgressing the avowed Rubicon; it’s an attempt to make an adversary submit to one’s diktat without the use of violence, which Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, called the acme of skill. A legal research paper of 2010 (The Sentencing Project, USA) postulated that augmenting the severity of a punishment does not have much effect on crime while increasing the certainty of punishment has a deterrent effect. Therein lies the clue to India’s problem, as an aura of effective deterrence takes decades to build in an intra-state scenario where R2P has to be ensured.

R2P, in the peacekeeping jargon of the United Nations, stands for Responsibility to Protect. In the internal security construct R2P needs to also mean Responsibility to Prosecute — the imperativeness to prosecute transgressors each and every time, if the deterrent image of the Indian state is to be built up. So TADA, POTA, MCOCA et al are mere words unless their provisions are implemented.

Thomas Schelling, the doyen of strategic thought, had postulated that “brute force of two adversaries cancels each other but pain and grief do not”; he further added that perceptions are more important than actualities on ground. In an anti-insurgency campaign, though the state possesses overwhelming firepower, it is the pain and grief felt by the innocent villager who is the central character, which matters; his angst has to be coincident with that of the state and not be blamed on it. Everyone in the environment must also have the “perception” that the state possesses the requisite “will” to carry out its threat — this perception can get established only through resolute demonstration of that will, repeatedly and every time an occasion arises.

In the classic deterrence model, deterrence is considered broken if violence occurs, but this is not necessarily so now. The Israelis, in their continuous existential conflict with their neighbours, have put in place a “cumulative deterrence” strategy in which their resolute actions have a major aim of value addition to their “tough guy” image — they have, slowly but surely, banked their deterrence worth in each skirmish, so much so that a social factor has been added to their cumulative deterrence theory. The defences of the suicide bomber, a supposedly undefeatable weapon (and considered impervious to coercion) whose foundation rests on the cliché, “…you love life and we love death” has been seemingly breached. In an article in Parameters titled “Cumulative Deterrence and the War on Terrorism” an Israeli major general has written that social targeting (threats to target homes of relatives and cut commercial contracts) and the resultant community pressure on potential suicide bombers has drastically reduced suicide bombings. In a four-year period since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Israeli authorities claim prevention of over 340 suicide bombings from advancing beyond planning stages and interception of 142 would-be bombers. The virtual absence of the use since then of this weapon of the asymmetrically disadvantaged against Israel proves the efficacy of cumulative deterrence — can anyone think of any recent suicide bombing in Israel?

So, what should India’s strategy be? “Winning hearts and minds” of the populace is the cornerstone of any anti-insurgency plan, unlike the Israeli scenario where their adversaries are not their own nationals. However, the firm articulation of no-go red lines and use of sustained force permissible under law would convey the firm resolve of the state to the “bad guys” while actual realisation of promised incentives to villagers should persuade them to empathise with it. This dual track approach, executed with diligence, will augment deterrence against indigenous anti-state elements — for, if rational actors can pressurise irrational suicide bombers to shy away from their stated mission, the Indian rural body politic (the womb of the anti-state actor) who loves life, unlike a suicide bomber, is an easier candidate for accepting the even-handed approach of the state to the problem.

The world is not for the pussyfooting types (the Naxalites mean business and now reportedly have night vision devices) and cumulative deterrence as a policy needs to be adopted by the Indian state as part of its anti-insurgency campaign. This is possible only if the state’s resolute will is implemented and showcased whenever an adversary dares to challenge, as was done so effectively in Punjab under K P S Gill. This is the only way forward, if the get-tough resolve announced by the prime minister after the all-party meet on June 10 following the Bastar bloodbath of Congress leaders, and again now after Bodhgaya, is not to become one of innumerable such proclamations, with no results to show on ground; continued and unreserved bipartisan political support would be a sine qua non in this national endeavour. Can we hope for this from our political class or is it a mirage?

The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.


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