Tackling the Turmoil Within

Tackling the Turmoil Within

India’s diversity enriches the country, but it also creates disparity that can present challenges for internal peacekeeping

Sarosh Bana

Photos by the Associated Press

For a 3.29 million-square-kilometer, subcontinental nation densely populated with 1.28 billion people of all faiths and creeds — and confronted by two hawkish adversaries on its frontiers — India has held itself together remarkably well.

Since gaining independence from the British in 1947, the country has broken out of its mold to become the fastest-growing major economy today, overtaking its former colonizer in 2016 to become the world’s sixth-largest economy, with a gross domestic product of U.S. $2.3 trillion.

The retreating British, however, left behind a bitter legacy as the Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan that they cleaved their colony into have since gone to war four times: at the time of Partition in 1947, and in 1965, 1971 and 1999. Three of these wars were waged over the border state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), while the war of 1971 engendered Bangladesh from the fall of East Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, arrives on the opening day of the budget session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in January 2017.

Their sustained enmity has strained both sides, diverting vital funding to their militaries at the cost of their impoverished millions. With powerful China siding with Pakistan in this fray, India has had to batten down its hatches. Its federal budget for 2017-2018 allocates U.S. $42 billion for defense, while giving U.S. $7.5 billion to public health, U.S. $12 billion to education, U.S. $28 billion to women and children, and U.S. $29 billion to agriculture. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) secured another U.S. $12.8 billion to oversee internal security.

Indian and Pakistani troops square off perpetually at the Siachen Glacier, at 5,400 meters “the world’s highest — and toughest — battlefield” where more of them perish, not from bullets, but from the hostility of the rugged frozen terrain, where temperatures can plunge to minus 45 degrees Celsius. While the Pakistani side of Siachen is accessible by roads, constructed with Chinese assistance, the Indian side can be served only by helicopter. Even artillery and daily provisions have to be airlifted, and Indian troops use radars and unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance.

Chinese troops also intrude at will from across the Himalayas to set up pickets and threaten Indian Soldiers and villagers, and at times even build helipads and communications outposts. The beautiful mountainous state of J&K has been riven by infiltrating terrorists from Pakistan-weaned subnational factions.

Internal Threats

India’s heterogeneity is unparalleled and makes for an amazingly diversified society that lends itself to the richness of its culture and heritage. It is also disparate, and this diversity and disparity at times have inflamed strife and discord. Though rare and largely localized, communal violence flared from the razing of the 16th-century Babri mosque by Hindu religionists in December 1992 that led to a militant Hindu revivalism and also to the reprisal serial bombings in Mumbai by radical Islamists just three months later. The burning alive of Hindu pilgrims in a train in Gujarat in 2002 also resulted in a retaliatory onslaught against Muslims in that state.

It is civilians more than extremists or security forces who suffer the most in these conflicts. Of the 44,197 who have perished in J&K in the separatist violence since 1988, 14,748 have been civilians, alongside 6,284 security personnel and 23,165 terrorists, according to estimates by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), run by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

Left-wing extremism in the country, in turn, has killed an estimated 13,312 since 1999, of whom 7,640 have been civilians, 2,612 security personnel and 3,060 terrorists. This brutal agenda has long been pursued by the underground Naxalite movement that has been guided by an anarchic Maoist ideology that seeks to uplift the downtrodden and challenge the establishment. Naxal extremism exists in the underdeveloped tribal tracts in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Indian Soldiers march during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi in January 2017.

Insurgency has also blighted several of the eight exceptionally scenic northeastern states that are linked to the rest of the country via an umbilical neck of land hemmed in by Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Tibet and China lie to their north and Burma to their east. There are reportedly 94 active terrorist and insurgent groups operating in the region, mostly seeking to secede from secular India along the territories of the ethnic groups they represent. These include the two splinter factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) that aspires for a “Greater Nagaland” comprising Naga-dominated areas of the neighboring states and contiguous areas in Burma.

The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is fighting for a breakaway Assam since 1979, while the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), from the same state, is striving for a “sovereign Bodoland” north of river Brahmaputra. Another outfit is the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) that wants to carve an autonomous Karbi State out of Assam. The Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) has been coordinating the activities of radical Islamists in the northeast since 1996, while the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) is waging an armed struggle for a separate Kamtapur State within Assam.

A troubling development has been the banding together of many of these rebel units against what they identify as their common enemy in a “nationalist colonial India.” ULFA, NDFB, KLO and NSCN, for instance, have coalesced under the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW). SATP estimates this northeastern insurgency to have taken a toll of 21,472 lives since 1992, 10,262 of them civilians, 2,737 security personnel and 8,473 terrorists.

State Security

Law and order is a state subject, not federal, under the Indian Constitution, and state governments are responsible for providing security based on threat assessments by security agencies. The MHA also sensitizes and passes on intelligence and threat inputs to the state governments when necessary.

India’s internal security problems hence cannot be treated as merely matters of law and order. They have to be dealt with comprehensively in all their dimensions and at all levels — political, economic and social.

Because India’s borders are not fully secured, intrusions occur into frontier states such as J&K, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat from Pakistan, into Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from Nepal, into J&K, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh from China, into Bihar and West Bengal from Bangladesh and into Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram from Burma. Apart from a coastline of 7,517 kilometers, including island territories, India has 15,107 kilometers of land borders, with 4,097 kilometers along Bangladesh, 3,488 kilometers along China, 3,323 kilometers along Pakistan, 1,751 kilometers along Nepal, 1,643 kilometers along Burma, 699 kilometers along Bhutan and 106 kilometers along Afghanistan.

An Indian Army Soldier points out a rebel position to his colleagues during a gun battle in March 2017 in Chadoora town, about 25 kilometers south of Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Using stealth, and bearing firearms of various caliber, and at times grenades and improvised explosive devices, indoctrinated and motivated terrorists are causing havoc where they strike. Pakistani extremists entered the heavily fortified Indian Air Force base at Pathankot, in Punjab, in January 2016 and held their ground for over 17 hours in which they killed seven people, including six officers. Search-and-kill operations that continued for five days could not determine whether there were four or six of them, until six of their bodies were discovered.

A month later, three cross-border militants struck in the Kashmiri town of Pampore, killing four security personnel and one civilian. They then fled and found refuge in the J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI) where they battled for more than 48 hours security forces who were using heavy artillery and other weapons. A dozen more security personnel were injured before the extremists were gunned down.

Border Solutions

Federal and state authorities hurriedly charted plans to upgrade security and strengthen intelligence and counteroffensive measures, but were stunned when two militants from Pakistan struck JKEDI the second time in October 2016. Firing from the building, the terrorists injured a Soldier and a policeman. They withstood the rockets and heavy automatic gunfire of the elite paracommandos of the Army for more than 56 hours until they were finally slain and the 60-room, seven-story government building reduced to a burning skeleton.

An official committee recommended periodic security audits of all armed forces establishments after examining their standard operating procedures. It has also recommended technology-based security infrastructure and deployment of quick reaction teams at “high-threat” military bases. Another committee addressing the issue of border protection has recommended measures to strengthen security and address vulnerabilities in fencing along the Indo-Pakistan border.

Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju informed Parliament of plans for “smart fencing” in difficult terrain and riverine and marshy areas where regular fencing cannot be erected. It will have nonphysical barriers such as laser walls, closed-circuit cameras and acoustic radars that map vibration. Gaps in the border areas are also to be plugged, floodlights installed and manpower increased, apart from border roads and outposts being constructed, and high-tech surveillance equipment and more effective mobile patrolling introduced. Though these measures are crucial, there have been instances when intruding Chinese troops have smashed Indian bunkers and destroyed and even carted away surveillance equipment.

Minister of State for Defence Dr. Subhash Bhamre told Parliament that accreting the Armed Forces and developing their combat capabilities to tackle the entire spectrum of security challenges is an ongoing process. “Procurement of arms and ammunition is as per the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan, the five year and annual acquisition plans, and the 12th defence plan,” he explained. India has a standing Army of 1.2 million, with an additional 140,139 in the Air Force and 67,109 in the Navy.

A multitier security apparatus is tasked for operations at the center, at the states and at the borders. Responsible for national stability, the MHA is the nodal agency for dealing with all matters of internal security through its various arms that perform preventive, regulative and investigative roles. Its seven central armed police forces number over 1.3 million and are the National Security Guard, Central Reserve Police Force, Central Industrial Security Force, Border Security Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Assam Rifles and Sashastra Seema Bal — the Armed Border Force. The last four have a specific border management mandate and also are assigned counterinsurgency duties regularly.

The National Security Council, an executive government agency, also advises the Prime Minister’s Office on matters of national security and strategic interest, integrating policymaking and intelligence analysis at a national level. Other stakeholders in internal security are the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Customs and Central Excise, and Railway Protection Force.

Given India’s rich diversity, many challenges remain for the nation to fully unite within its borders. Despite the obstacles, India is making progress toward keeping the internal peace. The government and private sectors are working toward better cooperation in political, economic and social arenas. India’s military and security forces will continue to be key to achieving a whole-of-government solution.