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The reference to a “two and a half front war” by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is critically dissected. The “half front” apparently covers large tracts of India and a significant number of its marginalised people. The thought of a war on the half front, as conjured by this term, needs to be controverted outright. The army’s imagining of such a war and preparation for it is questioned.
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been in the limelight ever since he was picked up for the job superseding two of his seniors. This time around, he figured in the media over an interview to a news agency in which he expressed his satisfaction that the “Indian Army is fully ready for a two and a half front war” (ANI 2017). The backdrop to his statement is an ongoing face-off with Chinese forces at Doklam, a disputed territory between China and Bhutan adjoining the tri-junction of the India–China–Bhutan border. The general, perhaps, felt it necessary to bolster national morale by reassuring Indians that the army could fight off not only the Chinese, but also the perennial foe, Pakistan, in case Pakistan—in the circumstance of an India–China conflict—sensed an opportunity.
Some, such as the acerbic strategist Bharat Karnad, have questioned the general (Karnad 2017). In light of the figures recently put out in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on critical shortages in the ammunition for tanks and artillery, their critique is plausible (CAG 2017: viii). Apprehending as much, the defence minister—who, being the finance minister too, is at best a part-time raksha mantri (defence minister)—declaimed in Parliament that the armed forces were “reasonably and sufficiently equipped,” cryptically adding that it is not in public interest to disclose the actuals (Hindu 2017).
As for the “half front,” Bharat Karnad is somewhat glib in believing that, “on the half front, there’s no issue.” He reasons that the army will “quickly rid the landscape of insurgents at will, if the brakes on its actions in J&K or in the northeast are removed by the government,” given that, “[e]ven with the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] shackles, the army can do its job of denying the insurgencies the success they crave” (Karnad 2017).
Though Karnad is sanguine, it bears reminding that the Kargil War—the anniversary of which India, under its ultra-nationalist ruling dispensation, has begun observing as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day)—had witnessed an upsurge in insurgency and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Even the additional deployments in the nearly year-long Operation Parakram (2001–02) were unable to staunch the insurgency. It is arguable that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s political sagacity in reaching out to the Kashmiris in April 2003 on the basis of insaniyat (humanity) and to Pakistan through the back channel resulted in the unwritten ceasefire agreement of November 2003 and the Islamabad declaration of January 2004. As for the supposed “AFSPA shackles” that the army has on, according to Karnad, the army only adopted the “iron fist in velvet glove” philosophy when relative quietude returned to Kashmir through the “healing touch” policy internally and the composite dialogue with Pakistan externally.
Outlining the ‘Half Front’
In other words, the half front—a euphemism for internal security—is a consequential front. This is not so only in relation to the communication zone (the rear areas of military operations through which troops and logistics intended for the front are located or transit). The two parts—combat zones and communication zones—comprise the theatre of war. While the army, perhaps, restricts itself to this area, the term “half front” potentially goes well beyond this and therein lie the dangers.
In case of a “two-front war,” the areas to the rear of the two theaters of war—northern, against a twin threat from Pakistan and China; eastern, against China, and western, against Pakistan—are taken as sensitive enough to club into a half front. This would understandably include areas in J&K and the North East that abut the combat theatres, and the states along the western front. Further, and more troublingly, in the strategic lexicon, the half front straddles most of the rest of India. Deeper in the hinterland is the Red Corridor that would, in the imagination of strategists, kick in in case of a war with China, and Muslim inhabited areas that are taken as likely areas in which a Pakistan-affiliated fifth column based on “sleeper cells” would activate. At a juncture in the nation’s life when dissent is being equated with sedition, a redefinition of the half front can be taken as ongoing, with even liberal bastions and spaces, such as free-thinking universities, being included.
The formulation “half-front war” conveys the impression of an India at war with itself. It is not clear as to what the army has to do with any such war inside India, restricted as its mandate is to the defence of India externally and only secondarily to assisting civil authorities in internal security duties. Using the term “war” in relation to internal security is questionable as a dangerous mindset that can set off a self-fulfilling prophesy. The army needs cautioning that, even if it imagines the half front in a restricted manner as the area directly impinging on its operations, there is a danger of the expansive interpretation taking over. This would not necessarily demand the army’s attention as providing an arena for its current-day political masters and their assorted supportive pseudo-cultural political formations to expand their takeover of India.
Dissecting the ‘Half Front’
It is a reasonable expectation that J&K could turn restive at the onset of war. Pakistan has not sustained the insurgency in Kashmir out of a sense of affinity with Kashmiris alone. Its military overlords have national security and the military’s institutional interests at heart. Operationally, they wish to undercut India’s conventional military advantage prior to its application on the western front. Keeping rear areas insecure helps in interdicting and disrupting the Indian forces en route to the frontline. An example is Pakistan’s choice in the late 1990s of the Hill Kaka area in Surankote tehsil as a base for terrorism. Not only would the terrorist base prove useful for disrupting India’s defences in Poonch sector from the rear, but would also help sustain the insurgency across the Pir Panjal range in the Kashmir Valley. The base was finally evicted in a division-level operation, Operation Sarp Vinash (2003), on the heels of Operation Parakram (2001–02).
Sensing Pakistan’s game plan in Punjab and Kashmir, the army had raised the Rashtriya Rifles. Additionally, the home ministry has at its disposal massive Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). However, the interface has seldom been smooth. During the Kargil War, with the army’s Kashmir-based formations concentrating on operations on the Line of Control, the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters based in New Delhi were brought forward to Srinagar to handle the spike in terrorism and insurgency. The move met with backlash from the forces, answering to the home ministry, which refused to come under operational control of the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters. From the handling of the stone-throwers in Kashmir last year with the use of pellet guns, it is evident that under the conditions of war the situation would be considerably more fraught and human rights that much more expendable.
As for the eastern front, India’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by an unstable North East stretching behind it. Though insurgency-related deaths in the North East have been the lowest in 2016 since 1997, the army’s “worst case scenario” most likely has it that insurgent groups in the North East would be armed by the Chinese. This is especially so since the army itself probably has plans up its sleeve of waging an asymmetric war in Tibet using Tibetan irregulars behind Chinese lines. India, however, lives in a glass house of its own making. There are over two dozen suspension of operations agreements across the North East. These are at best interim, since peace is not merely the absence of violence. A few hundred AK-47 rifles can set the accumulation of grievances and greed alight.
The North East’s insurgent groups being under an umbrella organisation—the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia—with links to China, heightens India’s threat perception. This will inform its suppressive reaction in case of hostilities.
A significant stretch of the half front is the Compact Revolutionary Zone, visualised as the Red Corridor running in an arc through forested central India, from the Terai region astride the Nepal border to the Telangana region. Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, had once referred to Naxalism as India’s “biggest internal security challenge” (PTI 2010). Noting a declining trend of left-wing extremism-related incidents since 2011, the home ministry’s annual report in a self-congratulatory mode claims an “unprecedented improvement” in the current government’s tenure (MHA 2017: 4). While Naxalism has no external linkage of any military significance, it can be expected that the opportunity offered by a border conflict, particularly with China, would be used to legitimise forays of the Operation Green Hunt variety. Operation Green Hunt, disclaimed by the government after its launch in 2009, was a search-and-destroy mission that continues till today, though under a different guise and scope.
The least visible aspect of the half-front war is related to “terrorism in the hinterland of the country” (MHA 2017: 4). The devotion of merely one paragraph to it in the home ministry’s annual report indicates the actual level of its significance. Nevertheless, prime-time noise and headlines on terrorism, and the supposed inroads by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence earlier and by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant lately into India’s largest minority, its Muslims, leave the impression of a large-scale problem.
This politically motivated identification of Muslim communities with terrorism has been going on for over a decade. This image has been forged by police reflexively picking up Muslim youth in the wake of incidents of domestic terrorism. Such a perception of Muslims indicates that Muslim mohallas might well find inclusion within the half front; for instance, Batla House in New Delhi, the site of a supposed encounter against a terrorist cell in September 2008 (Sethi 2012). In June 2017, 15 Muslims were arrested at various places for allegedly celebrating a Pakistani cricketing victory in the Champions Trophy (Suri 2017). In case of a war with Pakistan, increased security surveillance of Muslims and security-related impositions can easily be imagined.
Additionally, the spate of lynchings and rowdyism by cow vigilantes suggests how any such war will play out for Muslims as a part of the half-front war. This identification of Muslims with the Pakistani “other” is best illustrated by the unsolicited advice of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Inderesh Kumar in reaction to former Vice President Hamid Ansari voicing the concerns felt by India’s Muslims regarding their security (Thapar 2017). Kumar called for Ansari to leave the country for “some place he feels secure” (Deshpande 2017). Presumably, after the fashion lately, Kumar had Pakistan in mind. This conflation of India’s Muslims with Pakistanis can only reach a crescendo in the case of military setbacks in war. If the war goes nuclear, its intercommunity impact within India could rival partition.
Last but not least is the opportunity that a war will offer cultural nationalists for further throttling liberal voices. At a recent observation of the Kargil Diwas in Jawaharlal Nehru University attended by its vice chancellor, the university was likened by Major General (retd) G D Bakshi, with his cultural nationalist credentials, to a “fort” that had been conquered, and he called for similar conquests of similarly oriented universities in Hyderabad and Jadavpur (Shankar 2017). The overt displays of nationalism are now de rigueur, such as the installing of giant-sized tricolour flags in public places, including university campuses; playing of the national anthem before movie screenings; and mandatory singing of the national song, Vande Mataram (I pray/bow down to thee, Mother), twice a week in schools in Tamil Nadu. This is happening in peace time with mere border stand-offs with both neighbours as the backdrop. War will increase the “holy cow” status of national security, legitimising the invasion of liberal spaces.
Prevention as Answer
It would appear that, irrespective of the military showing on either front, India’s national fabric can only suffer a setback on the half front. This is one more reason—added to several others, such as nuclear escalation—why war should not figure as an option. Working meaningfully towards its prevention assumes importance. This means going far beyond, for instance, diplomatically addressing the Doklam crisis. Instead, India needs to clinch the 19 rounds of special representative–level talks so far with China on the border issue, with a determined display of readiness for mutual compromise and accommodation. On the western front, India must discontinue its current policy against substantial engagement with Pakistan and within Kashmir of ignoring political outreach as the best and only way to tackle violence and public disaffection.
Such a line of reasoning might not impress cultural nationalists, who hold the reins of power. To them, a round of bloodletting might be just the potion the nation needs to unify it and bring in the discipline, uniformity and cohesion attributed to wars. Though Vajpayee denied likening Indira Gandhi to Goddess Durga (Vincent 2016), today’s bhakts (devotees) would welcome a similar profile as a war leader for Narendra Modi. The communalists within their ranks would welcome the prospects for further marginalisation of the minority community. This explains India’s strategic direction in terms of the absence of engaging with political solutions. To them, the possibility of war is an acceptable alternative to negotiated settlement of problems.