Why Parrikar’s Terror-for-Terror Formula Makes No Sense

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Manohar Parrikar’s  back-to-back remarks on Thursday on terrorism and terrorists are, to put it mildly, baffling and, looked at in some ways, alarming too.

Responding to a question at  the Aaj Tak conclave on how India would deal with another 26/11, he said that it were best if we ensured that such an attack did not happen. India should use all the tactics in the book—“diplomacy, pressure tactics or kaante se kaanta nikaalna (using a thorn to extract a thorn).” He went on to add amidst applause, “We have to use terrorists to neutralise terrorists.”

No one was clear what he meant, though many of those present wondered whether he was speaking of a new policy of pre-emptive strikes on terrorist camps across the border, something that could be hazardous and is not quite warranted by the current situation on the ground.

Later, in an interview to the Times of India, he clarified that he had not meant covert actions being undertaken “by our own people.” But he did add that India was going for intelligence based, “targeted kills” against terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir. The policy involved a “proactive attitude to identify terrorists and then effectively neutralise them.” According to the TOI report, in 2014, the Army had “neutralised”—its not clear whether that means killed or arrested or both—110 terrorists in 2014, “the highest such tally in the last four years.”

In the interview, Parrikar also spoke of the tactic of “turning” terrorists and getting them to betray their comrades.

The idea of using terrorists to fight terrorists is not new. It was the basis of the policy that created a cadre of “counter-militants” or Ikhwanis to fight the insurgency in Kashmir. In the desperate year of 1993 when the militant struggle in Kashmir was peaking, and also morphing into a Pakistani covert war against India, it was a legitimate tactic. However, as is its wont, the Indian state failed to exercise control over the counter-militants and subsequently, they were allowed to operate well after the back of the insurgency was broken and the result was that they degenerated into a group of state-backed gangsters responsible for a number of cases of excesses and extortion.

Though, Parrikar has denied the idea of counter-terrorist strikes “by our own people,” it would actually be a better idea of using “our own people” for covert operations, including strikes against terrorists, than using turncoats whose motives are suspect and who are not easy to control. Unfortunately, the intelligence agencies find that it is so much simpler to “turn” a captured militant, than to patiently create a cadre of their own deep cover personnel to penetrate jihadi groups.

Parrikar’s remarks about “proactive attitudes” and “targeted kills” are equally problematic. They represent a needless escalation of the current situation in the Valley. The tactic by itself, too, is old hat. In the bad days of the early 1990s, the security forces launched “Operation Tiger” in the Valley aimed at catching or killing militants. However, it is well known that in addition to netting militants, the operation also resulted in the death and torture of many innocent people. This was the experience in Punjab as well. They have left a legacy of hatred and mistrust which will be difficult to erase. This is a lesson that we should have learnt from the American Phoenix programme in Vietnam, but did not.

But unlike the Americans, the Indian security forces are operating in their own homeland. Barring one or two instances, whenever the Indian Army has operated in its home territory, it has acted,  in “aid to civil authority” not under martial law, leave alone conditions of war.  This enjoins them to use minimum, rather than maximum force, and to protect the soldiers from being liable for action for shooting people or destroying property, the government has invoked the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The letter and spirit of the law ought to only cover incidents that relate to the use of discriminate force, presumably, in the line of duty. Unfortunately, over the years, it seems to have become a cover for the use of maximum and sometimes, indiscriminate force, a development which can only have negative consequences.

Common sense would suggest that the way to deal with terror networks is to actually arrest terrorists, interrogate them and uncover terrorist networks pre-emptively, and then try the terrorists and jail or punish them as per the law. But when you shoot a terrorist dead, you lose those options, including the ability to pre-emptively neutralise them and prevent terror strikes and the consequent deaths of innocents.

The Parrikar remarks must also be looked at in the context of the situation in the Valley. A look at the latest Home Ministry report reveals that there has been little change in the situation over the last four years. In 2011, 33 security force personnel and 31 civilians were killed; in 2012, it was 38 and 11; in 2013, 53 and 15 and in 2014, 47 and 28. So, while there is an increase in the number of civilians killed between 2013 and 2014, there is a decline in the number of security force personnel. As for the number of militants killed, it, too, is neither here nor there—100 in 2011, 50 in 2012, 67 in 2013 and 110 in 2014.

Over the years there has been a dramatic improvement of the situation in the Valley as evidenced by the fact that in 2002, there were, by Home Ministry figures, 994 civilians, 433 security force personnel and 1536 militants killed.

Yet, Parrikar is seeking to make it out as though there is some major emergency in the Valley requiring a renewal of the iron hand. It would almost appear as though the minister is nostalgic for the bad old days of the 1990s and early 2000s when hundreds, if not thousands died in the state, so that he can be seen to be wielding the big stick and being a tough Defence Minister.

Fortunately for us, the situation has been on the mend for the past decade or so, and for this we have to be thankful for a number of factors, not in the least, good political leadership from both the BJP and the Congress. Blood and iron have never defeated any insurgency, but a mix of firmness and political wisdom has. Perhaps, the IIT-educated Defence Minister needs to widen his education.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation and the author of Lost Rebellion: Kashmir in the 90s, a book-length study of the Kashmiri insurgency published by Penguin in 1999)


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