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Jingoism Mars our Security Discourse

An operation that could rightly have been projected as a significant success and demonstration of the country's improving technical intelligence and response capabilities has, instead, become a raging controversy and embarrassment for the Government, in an atmosphere of jingoism and desperation to secure political mileage and credit far beyond anything justified by the facts. By recasting what was likely a petty criminal enterprise as 'another 26/11', and then launching a bitter and personalized attack on journalists who highlighted the obvious and glaring inconsistencies in the official narrative - accusing the journalists of being 'anti-national', of supporting Pakistan, and of denigrating the country's Armed Forces - the Government and its supporters have undermined their own credibility. Irrespective of the outcome of current investigations into the Coast Guard's encounter with the Pakistani boat that was destroyed in Indian waters on December 31, 2014, the public perception will always be tainted by a measure of skepticism because of the sheer and incompetent exaggeration and falsification of the initial claims.

This is not an solitary aberration. It is a mindset and an approach that now afflicts much of the security discourse in the country. It is not considerations of strategic or tactical coherence that inform the Government's publicly articulated positions on security. Rather, the manipulation of public sentiment and considerations of domestic politics appear to be the principal concern. The stridency of reactions to continuing, occasionally escalating, Pakistani mischief, for instance, reflects no 'new template' on security and defence, no new paradigm of response; but it feeds easily into a political approach that seeks to create an inflated sense of insecurity, to polarize the national discourse, and to impose an unquestioning and leveling 'nationalism' on all citizens.

The Indo-Pak confrontation in Jammu & Kashmir is a case in point. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs, possibly applying a new criterion for enumerating ceasefire violations, has claimed over 554 violations by Pakistan in 2014 alone. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has bravely declared that the security forces will give them (the Pakistanis) a befitting reply", with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar adding, India would respond “with double the force”. Tens of thousands of rounds of small arms and mortar fire have been exchanged across the Line of Control and International border over the past months. A Pakistani official claimed, for instance, that India fired at least 51,000 rounds of small arms fire on October 7, 2014, alone. While no comparable estimates of Pakistani fire are available in the open source, it is clear that the numbers will be staggering.

It is, however, not clear what strategic purpose the apparently massive use of firepower is serving, or what material damage it has inflicted on military or vital infrastructure. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a total of 15 persons have been killed on the Indian side in these exchanges through 2014. 11 persons were killed in such violations in 2013; seven in 2012; two in 2011; seven in 2010; and five in 2009, when such exchanges of fire were a minuscule fraction of what is being witnessed now. It is useful to recall that, prior to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement with Pakistan in 2003, hundreds of exchanges of fire were recorded on a daily basis. There is also an effort to create a sense of siege by emphasizing every new 'infiltration attempt' into J&K, but here, again, the trends are escalatory, but not discontinuous with the past. Terrorism linked fatalities have also risen, after they bottomed out at 117 in 2012, to 181 in 2013, and 193 in 2014. It is important, however, to notice that 4,507 persons were killed in J&K at the peak of terrorism in 2001 and numbers declined steadily, year on year, till 2012, after which some escalation is on record.

No quantum of terrorism is, of course acceptable; but strategic assessments must respond to realities on the ground. They cannot be located in hysteria and hypernationalism. Further, the exaggerated focus on 'muscular' military postures and transient conflagrations may seduce or appease  a particular domestic constituency, but it leaves the entire question of the real capacities and capabilities of the country's security infrastructure unaddressed.

Crucially, there is little evident appreciation in official and security circles that perception management is a key component of counter-terrorism. Public and international confidence, political legitimacy and policy success hinge on the credibility of regimes, and this is cumulatively undermined every time the deception and disingenuousness  of state agencies is exposed.

(Published: The Economic Times, January 7, 2015)





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