L’AFFAIRE Pathankot air base—a mess-up by the Punjab Police, Indian Air Force, National Security Guard (NSG), Indian Army and Defence Security Corps, all put together—evokes a sense of déjà vu. In December 2001, when the Indian Parliament was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists, it was the untrained Delhi Police that took them on. The Army was hanging around with the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, ‘commandeering’ operations from inside Parliament! In November 2008 (26/11), it was just LeT carrying out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308. The way the NSG botched it up is still fresh in memory.
We find the same confusion in command and control, indifference to warning of a terrorist attack, abysmal physical security measures, leadership without responsibility, incoherent public communication and political one-upmanship. Added to this is the same old media nautanki and Pakbashing. Regime change in 2014 has not made any difference. In fact, it is worse this time because the assault was on a strategic military base in a small town swarming with highly-trained commandos of the Indian Army.
Why did this happen? The answer is not far to seek. Despite the cacophony on reforms, ‘Make-in-India’, FDI, and whatnot, India’s basic governance and administration are at a nadir and national security forms part of this basic. In the event, India does not even have a national security architecture. This is intriguing because it was an ancient Indian, Kautilya, who laid down the basic premises for designing such architecture: “There can be four dangers to a state; that which is of external origin and of internal abetment; that which is of internal origin and of external abetment; that which is of external origin and of external abetment; and, that which is of internal origin and of internal abetment”.
India does not even have a national security architecture. This is intriguing because it was an ancient Indian, Kautilya, who laid down the basic premises for designing such architecture
The Indian Army sensed the dangers and evolved an Army Doctrine in 2004, defining its role in national security. The primary role is to preserve national interest and safeguard the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of India against any external threats by deterrence or by waging war. The secondary role is to assist government agencies to cope with ‘proxy war’ and other internal threats and provide aid to civil authority when requisitioned for the purpose. To perform this role, the Army has a well-defined command and control structure. As in all democracies, the Indian Army is controlled by the elected political leadership of the nation (Government of India) sequentially through the Union Cabinet and the Defence Minister. The command leadership is that of the Chief of Army Staff. The Ministry of Defence handles matters related to personnel, financial and resource management.
At the national level there is no such structure. We have Ministries of Home (MHA) and External Affairs (MEA) responsible for internal security and foreign affairs, respectively. But we have no geopolitical-based foreign policy or national security system. From independence till the late 1990s, some hardnosed intelligence sleuths have functioned as principal security advisers to the Prime Ministers. In November 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, set up the National Security Council with his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra of the Indian Foreign Service as the first National Security Adviser (NSA). This was done by an executive order and thus has no legislative backing, unlike the National Security Council of the US on which presumably it has been modelled.
JN Dixit of the IFS followed Mishra as NSA for a brief period. He breathed his last and was succeeded by MK Narayanan of the Indian Police Service. He brought in Shivshankar Menon of the IFS to take his place. Now we have Ajit Doval of the IPS as NSA running the PMO where all powers are concentrated with MHA and MEA playing second fiddle! Decisions taken are ad hoc, depending on personal whims and fancies. Over these years, our diplomacy has stumbled and India has alienated all its neighbours and antagonised some like Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. With the Armed Forces being meddled with and marginalised, our national security is in disarray.
The rationale offered for the position of NSA was that (a) a nuclear power needed a professional adviser who would synthesise intelligence inputs and advise the PM, and (b), the proliferating intelligence agencies needed a coordinating head who would provide inputs to the PM on a continuous basis. Since NSAs have a critical position and enjoy complete confidence of the Prime Minister, they tend to acquire a great deal of informal authority. This is at the cost of institutional heads, particularly the Foreign, Defence and Home Ministers and Cabinet Secretary.
THE NSA office has neither institutional sanction nor parliamentary accountability. So, a lot of power is being exercised by this office without any responsibility. There is no formal forum in which the NSA can express his/her opinion which can be challenged by the civil service institutions. Thus, the NSA’s views do not appear in any file which can be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. It is only the Ministers (House) and Secretaries (Committees) who remain responsible and answerable to Parliament. Because of this structural defect and the concomitant decline of formal arrangements like the Crisis Management Group (CMG), the system can never deliver results and will always create unforeseen problems. This is precisely what happened in Pathankot.
If our CMG system had been in place and functioning, it should have convened within minutes of the Pathankot crisis and continued to be in session, day and night, until the crisis was over. Headed by the Cabinet Secretary, it has three Service Chiefs, RAW and IB, Home and Foreign Secretaries and others co-opted as per need. The CMG would have coordinated and directed the functions of all the agencies involved in any operation and procured them the resources they needed. There would be a constant hotline with all agencies and any political call required would be obtained by the Cabinet Secretary approaching the PM and/or Cabinet Committee on Security directly. This would have led to informed decisions and effective implementation. But, this was not to be.
The NSA office has neither institutional sanction nor parliamentary accountability. There is no formal forum in which the NSA can express his/her opinion which can be challenged by the civil service institutions
Instead, the NSA took complete control, discarded nearby Army commandos and opted for the under-equipped NSG located in distant Manesar. Strange revelations are now coming out. On the fourth day of the operation, when a journalist rang up Army headquarters to ascertain the ground situation in the IAF base, he was told that he should ring up the MHA which controlled the operation through the NSG. The Defence Minister confirmed this. Following the operation, when a journalist asked a senior NSG officer why the operation took that long, he was tersely told, “The NSG does not operate at night.” Another NSG officer (who was part of the force sent to Pathankot) said that the group is meant for hostage rescue situations, not for Pathankot-type operations.
Even after weeks there has been no clarity about the terror attack and insinuations continue to fly thick and fast about how the entire operation should have been handled. The decision to deploy the NSG, despite the presence of crack infantry divisions and para-commandos next door to the Pathankot airbase, has come under severe criticism. General Dalbir Singh Suhag, who was party to this decision, however, justifies it: “Instead of moving the NSG later, it was wise to take preemptive action to send the elite unit in advance. The NSG is ideally trained to tackle hostage situations.” The irony is that there was no hostage situation in Pathankot!
Lt Gen Prakash Katoch, former Special Force Commander, drove home the point when he said: “The Army Special Forces would have been a better option as they do regular exercises inside bases. The decision-makers did not know the type of Special Forces we have.” This is an indictment of the Army Chief, a beneficiary of the Delhi durbar’s archaic ‘line of succession’, who did not even know the combat-worthiness and counter-terror expertise of his own troops. The question is, how effective will he be in leading the Indian Army in the event of a major conflict or war!
In the midst of such operational chaos and disturbing questions came the sudden sound-byte from Congress busybody Manish Tiwari, a former Union Minister. He was testifying the obnoxious The Indian Express news story on April 4, 2012, alleging an attempted coup by the Indian Army, then headed by General VK Singh, now a Union Minister in the Modi Cabinet. Says Tiwari: “At that time, I used to serve in the Standing Committee of Defence. And it’s unfortunate, but the story was true. The story was correct.” Tiwari’s objective seems to be to dent the credibility of the Indian Army at this critical time and undermine its role in ensuring the nation’s security.
This is the game the Delhi durbar has been playing for quite some time. This cabal comprises vested interests from across the political and business spectrum enjoying great camaraderie and pursuing common agenda. These interests meddle with India’s national security and defence preparedness. Though India’s biggest threat is from ISI-type asymmetric warfare, waged across porous borders or gaps in Indian frontier defences, these elements make sure that India does not counter these effectively, but instead keeps preparing for a full-fledged conventional war—which may never happen—through massive arms imports where there is big money.
Here’s a brief recap. Within days of his assuming the office of Army Chief in 2010, the durbar started hounding General VK Singh, who was not part of their preferred ‘line of succession’, for disturbing their cosy relationship with arms, drugs and other lobbies. The cooked-up coup story was the first major salvo to discredit the Army Chief and belittle the Indian Army as an institution. By linking the Hissar troop movement to the 1984 perceived ‘mutiny’ of some Sikh units in the wake of Operation Bluestar, then Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta was suggesting that General Singh was doing the same because of his grievance on the date-of-birth issue.
THEN there was an assault on the Technical Service Division (TSD), which was a covert agency to counter ISI-type operations setup by General Singh, with activities directly related to the safety of soldiers fighting on the borders, retribution against the enemy and the security of the citizens. By its very nature, the TSD operation was ‘top secret’. In that event, it is treacherous to publicise even the existence of the TSD. Yet this was what the mediapersons affiliated to the Delhi durbar did with impunity only to hound General Singh. This eventually led to the disbanding of the TSD, severely inhibiting India’s capacity to combat ISI’s asymmetric warfare.
Combining these and other concoctions, the Delhi durbar succeeded in humiliating and hounding out General Singh well before his time and installing their choice in his place as Army Chief. The fallout of these sordid happenings on the Indian Army was best summed up by defence analyst Maroof Raza: “The system has closed around the chief and this will only embolden the bureaucracy. The fallout will be that at least for two generations, no military commander will raise his head. And the message for military commanders is that it isn’t merit or accuracy of documents that will get them promotions, but pandering to the politico-bureaucratic elite. The last bastion of professional meritocracy in India has crumbled. The damage will be lasting.” [www.thehindu.com]
Pathankot is evidence of this pandering and crumbling of the ‘last bastion of professional meritocracy’ in the Indian Army. Integrity of institutions was severely compromised during the UPA regime and the NDA government, that calls itself ‘nationalistic and patriotic’, has done nothing to set it right. In fact, in the Army, things have worsened with the OROP muddle and now its sidelining in the crucial anti-terror operation in a military base. In the event, individuals and vested interests are having a free run in pursuing their own agenda. Such perfidy is the worst form of threat to national security that has caused countries and governments to crumble and fall asunder. India cannot be an exception.
Unless this severe malady is addressed with extreme urgency and the integrity of institutions restored in full, any amount of security architecture, doctrine and strategy will be of no avail and India will continue to remain a nation sans security.
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org