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Government Demands Steel in the Soul

A "new" and "proactive" (that word again) policy has now been announced for Jammu & Kashmir, even as the government’s enhanced threat perceptions have been eloquently articulated. Much has already been written on the policy, and most writers have tended to dismiss it, with fair accuracy, as old wine in a new bottle, and as little more than political rhetoric. The "important decisions" reflected in this allegedly new policy are, in fact, the usual melange of upgradation of existing forces and equipment, the raising of new forces, better co-ordination and command and control systems, and more funds for development and employment (going by experience, most of these funds will end up in private coffers, and at least some will feed the militancy). Only two of the decisions appear to have any policy content – but here again, the appearances are deceptive. The first of these is the decision to substantially augment the number of sectors in the counter-insurgency grid by a process of vivisection. This is, at best, a tactical response, and certainly does not deserve the title either of a strategic shift or a policy initiative. The second is the decision to ask the security forces to carry out round-the-clock operations. Are we to understand that, till now, the SFs have been functioning on a 9 to 5 workday? In any event, none of the "proactive" initiatives now announced can have any conceivable impact on the ground within a time frame of less than six months. Why then the fanfare?

I continue to hope, against the available evidence that a wider, more immediate and meaningful strategy has actually been devised and is being implemented on the ground. To the extent that I have no privileged information regarding such initiatives, it would be fruitless to comment on their possible character. My intention, consequently, is to understand the motivation and impact of the MHA’s grand announcement, both of a new counter-terrorism policy and of a radically heightened threat perception at the dawning of the new millennium.

The motives, first. This government is clearly suffering a crisis of credibility since the hijacking of IC 814, and the significant public perception of its humiliation at Kandahar. As the Minister for Home Affairs candidly, if inaccurately, asserted – the BJP perceives itself to have suffered as a consequence far more than the nation has. It is, therefore, necessary to project a posture of aggressive determination and great activity in order to recover face – even if this is nothing more than a posture lacking all substance.

The second, and more dangerous, motive seems to be to create a siege mentality among the population throughout the country – in effect, to create a "terrorised state", both in the sense of a state of mind and as a national entity. The secondary motives of such a move are complex, possibly conflicting, and unclear: in some measure, this is no more than a projection of the subjective panic among the national leadership itself; there may be a few among the more devious political elements who see in this an opportunity to secure a wide and indiscriminate mandate for the use of force, not only in the areas threatened by terrorism, but also in other, lesser and more partisan political conflicts; there may, moreover, be some attempt to subliminally feed the communal sentiment that has marred our national politics since partition.

Whatever the motives, however, the impact is uniformly unfortunate. The language in which the threat perceptions of the government have been expressed and interpreted by various leaders and commentators not only increases the general perception of a loss of control by the government, but will also contribute to the progressive demoralisation of the security forces. On the other had, the exaggerated projection of the new policy will raise unrealistic expectations of immediate results both among the general public and among the rank and file of the SFs – and these expectations will certainly not be fulfilled, given the very nature of the proposals. Inevitably, there will be another couple of dramatic strikes by the terrorists – no security force, policy or strategy can obviate this possibility under prevailing circumstances – and this entire house of cards will collapse on itself, creating a general sense of disappointment, betrayal and further demoralisation. In any event, the rubbishing of the new policy in innumerable editorials and articles has already produced a sense of confusion and vulnerability.

What we need today is not dramatic public declarations and postures in advance of the event, but unadvertised and critical policy shifts and a little imaginative action in the field. These will create the successes that we can then boast about as much as we please. I have said this before, and will repeat it again: There is absolutely no substitute for success in the field. And this is where we appear to be, and are perceived to be, faltering.

I would be the last person to underestimate or understate the threat in J&K, or to deny that the situation has worsened significantly over the past months. Several grave dangers exist and have been augmented by new threats. Our security forces have suffered enormously under a barrage of direct and audacious assaults. This said, let me add that the situation is far from out of hand, our fighting men have faced much worse in the past and have emerged victorious. The difference, however, is that, to do so, they must be allowed to operate under clear mandates, well-defined and internally coherent policies, and a leadership that exudes a sense of confidence and resolve.

The greatest weapon in war is the human mind. Vast armies, "unbeatable" technologies, entire nations have been defeated by demoralisation. And this is the first step at which we are losing the present war. We certainly need better counter-terrorist strategies, improved systems of co-ordination, command and control, superior weapons, surveillance and communications technologies. But the first element that must precede all these, and that must be sustained throughout the conflict thereafter, must be a clearer understanding of public perceptions, projections and a coherent media policy. Feeding the prevailing sense of terror, helplessness and public distress will not strengthen the government or create a greater mandate for strong measures against the terrorists. That mandate already exists in adequate measure and has, in fact, been frittered away by the government at least on some occasions in the recent past.

There is, today, far too much of theatricality in governance, a great deal of playing to the gallery, a constant hunger to justify oneself in the eyes of the people and to be seen and heard through the media. All this is natural, and has become more so as a result of the seduction of dozens of Television channels. In itself, there is nothing wrong here. As with all other instrumentalities, the media can lend itself to the best and the worst. It is, however, imperative that those who govern a nation understand this force, learn to harness it to national ends, and guard against being enslaved by it.

Governance demands a little bit of steel in the soul. In the midst of the disturbing consciousness of all the mounting violence, the cacophony of a thousand bits of information, the dissonance of desires and duties, the administrator must create a small area of stillness, of silence, and in this, make calm and calculated judgements. In this hushed mental arena, again, he must prepare himself to face the consequences of his failures of judgement. Those who cannot create this space, those who lack the steel, should, at least, seek to relocate themselves from the MHA.

(Published in The Pioneer, January 22, 2000)





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