Where irregular warfare is regular

How is it that there is so little in terms of scholarship, leave alone thought leadership in India on counter-insurgency, despite the country having continuously been engaged in such conflicts since independence? Surely, a plural, liberal democracy that has fought, defeated and managed various forms of insurgencies under various geopolitical and geographical conditions should have a thing or two to teach the world? Yet, even if we discount the western propensity to give weight only to contexts involving a Western power, India’s contribution to the study of insurgencies is conspicuous by its absence.

India and Counterinsurgency: Lessons Learned (Asian Security Studies), an edited volume brought out by Sumit Ganguly and David Fidler, both professors at Indiana University, does not tell us why Indian scholarship on counter-insurgency is so thin. But it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive—and yet very readable—surveys of the numerous counter-insurgency campaigns that the Indian armed forces have engaged in within and outside the country. The book is part of a remarkable series on Asian Security Studies, edited by Dr Ganguly and Andrew Scobell that previously published Praveen Swami’s India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004, one of the best books on the subject.

The book has case-studies and analyses of India’s counterinsurgency campaigns in the Northeast (including the one in Nagaland that is not only the oldest, but also one that is ongoing); in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab; against the Naxalites and in Sri Lanka. It also has a section that analyses India’s counter-insurgency doctrine and compares it against the one put together by the United States armed forces under the leadership of General David Petraeus. It is interesting that the case-studies of India’s counter-insurgency strategies are by military and police officers. This allows the reader the benefit of seeing from the perspective of an involved participant, but, at the same time, raises the question of how detached from the context the authors really are. Most of the authors—to their credit—are candid about the operational lessons learnt and ready to admit errors of tactics, strategy or politics that were made.

A week can be a long time in the portrayal of counter-insurgency operations. The popular discourse over counter-insurgency is polarised between a unquestioningly patriotic view of the security forces as heroic defenders of India’s integrity on the one hand and a Left-liberal demonisation of troops as violators of human rights. The media often swings from one position to the other in a matter of days. Lost is a sense of historical perspective, an objective non-partisan reading of what happened and why, that is necessary for an informed debate on today’s and tomorrow’s counter-insurgency campaigns. India and Counterinsurgency though aimed at conveying lessons from India to an international audience, can actually help inform the debate in India itself.

For instance, the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka is often projected in the media as a total failure. But in the chapter on the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Ashok K Mehta writes that it was the “monumental double-cross” by the Permadasa government and the LTTE that tilted the scales. “But for this treachery,” Mr Mehta argues “the IPKF may have had more time to continue to refine its (counter-insurgency) operations and gain the upper hand in the politico-military struggle with the LTTE.” But even he neglects to mention that the political leadership in New Delhi subordinated India’s strategic interests to domestic calculations—V P Singh, both in opposition and as prime minister, used the withdrawal of IPKF as a political instrument against the incumbent prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The option to stay on and seek ways to victory were not even on the table.

A recurring theme in the book is that lessons that were to be learnt in one counter-insurgency campaign were not learnt, and mistakes repeated over and over again. That is as much a damning indictment of the Indian armed forces—particularly the army—as it is of a political class that treats political violence as within the ambit of legitimate politics. But while the failings of political leaders are well-known and roundly condemned, the lapses of the security forces are masked by information asymmetries.

Shouldn’t a counter-insurgency doctrine help prevent mistakes from being repeated? Comparing the counter-insurgency doctrines of the United States and India, Dr Fidler writes that the exercise of developing the Indian Doctrine for Sub-Conventional Operations (DSCO) was “mainly one of codification—collecting in one document guidance accumulated over the course of more than fifty years. The objective was not to revolutionise how the Indian Army or government thought about how to fight insurgencies.” That sounds quintessentially Indian and evokes images of the Vedas, which were codified into written form after centuries of existence  as oral tradition. It will be a challenge to translate this kind of a document into a strategy for current and future conflicts.

Dr Fidler also points out that India’s counter-insurgency doctrine “has not involved the civilian government agencies affected, such as the state and central police forces.” This is perhaps its biggest weakness—by its very nature, counter-insurgency is a problem of (re-)establishing governance. The Indian pattern has been one where, even after a successful campaign by security forces, the civilian government is somehow expected to miraculously appear and resume administration. Unfortunately, this does not usually happen, setting the state for the insurgency to resume. It is unclear if this broad point has registered at the highest levels of the Indian government.

For all these faults, as the editors point out in their introductory chapter, India has never lost a counter-insurgency campaign within its territory. Why so? As much as competent execution of military operations, it is democracy, political legitimacy, political accommodation and civilian supremacy over the armed forces that make India resilient to insurgency threats. That’s the big lesson—but it’s a tough act to copy.