The right of the Army to voice an opinion has been defended by Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju. The background to his defence was Omar Abdullah's complaint to the Prime Minister on an Army press release of a day earlier. The press release indicated that the decision to remove certain bunkers from Srinagar did not have the Army's concurrence.
The press release had stated: "Though it appeared to be a well-considered decision, the latest incident has raised many questions. It may have pleased a few separatists and their handlers in Pakistan, but what about the common man in the Valley? Will the reduced security and visible absence of security forces raise uncertainties, fear and doubt in the minds of the population during the long winter ahead?"
The Army Commander has since apologised for the offending press release saying it was unauthorised. The press release has been explained away as the 'personal predilections of a junior officer'. Yet, the Army being a highly centralised system, it is likely that the press release on a sensitive subject would have been vetted in the Command Headquarters Information Warfare section. The Army Commander, in tendering an apology to the Chief Minister, has apparently taken responsibility, as a good leader must, and there the matter could rest. However, does the contretemps have any ramifications?
This case can be seen as part of the continuum of the Army's unease with the security implications of moves towards normalisation of the Valley. These initiatives include the reported dismantling of 20 bunkers, removal of 1000 CRPF jawans and contemplation of removal of the notification of disturbed areas from some parts in Srinagar. The latter was to presage the progressive withdrawal of the AFSPA from the Valley where the security situation made it feasible.
The Army, understandably focused on the military dimension of the security situation, has apparently missed the larger gameplan unfolding.
The Army, understandably focused on the military dimension of the security situation, has apparently missed the larger gameplan unfolding. It has two aspects. One is wider regarding AFSPA as law. Deliberations in North and South Block have focused on diluting its less 'humane' parts by either reframing it or incorporating the legal cover the Army needs into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Army Commander had earlier made his reservations on any dilution of the AFSPA, terming it a 'holy book'.
The second is of local significance, relating to the security aspect of the draw down in Srinagar. The Army had been called out in July for the first time since early nineties in 'standby' in case the agitations in the run up to the foreign minister's meeting in Islamabad got out of hand. Such a situation would have placed the Army in a delicate position, that it no doubt apprehends in case control over Srinagar by the central police forces is diluted.
With regard to the latter, the Army has the Corps Commander in Srinagar as the advisor to the Chief Minister in the Unified Headquarters looking after the Valley. His position, taken with approval of the next rung in hierarchy at Udhampur, has doubtless been taken on board in its decision making by the Chief Minister. In any case, Srinagar town does not have Army deployment and is the responsibility of the state police assisted by central police forces. The onus is therefore of the state, legally and structurally. Therefore, the apology was due.
But it does indicate a major perspective in the military. Outside the small print is the fact that the Army Commander is due to retire at year end. He can therefore choose to go the extra distance in firming up the military position. Army Commanders in the Indian system have considerable stature and power. This has proven disruptive at times in J&K, since the Army Commander curiously does not figure as the security adviser, though corps commanders, reporting to him, do.
That the Army has a right to an opinion is well understood. This enables it to perform its advisory function in a democracy. That it should voice its opinion is also useful - in providing access to its view for the attentive public. This helps make the democratic debate better informed. However, the question is whether it can voice it openly in a manner as to bring a policy and the policy-maker under cloud.
Watchful commentators, such as AG Noorani and Srinath Raghavan, are of the opinion that the military's repeated assertion of its position is an attempt to expand its role. Such views are based on the recent publicly-voiced position of the military by multiple personages at different occasions against deployment in Central India and against reformulation of the AFSPA. The point these critics make is that this ties down the policy maker's hands, since the politicians who make policy are often short of wide political capital, and would not like to be pilloried for going against professional judgment if things go wrong.
In the political process unfolding in the Valley, there is a need for calculated risks to be run to bring about a modicum of trust necessary for talks to proceed. Over a hundred youth have died in the summer agitations, and something substantive must be done to reverse this downward spiral. The slow and limited draw-down of visible security in Kashmir is part of this effort. The problem is that the Army is apparently not on board with this agenda.
This is a structural deficiency and a political gap that needs to be filled. The state government which is taking the initiative, backed by North Block, has only limited oversight over the Army, since the latter reports up its channel to South Block. Compounding this, the top brass of the armed forces is skeptical of political processes in general.
The Supreme Court judgment in the Nagaland Human Rights case against the AFSPA for the North East in 1997 had required that the armed forces maintain a relationship of 'cooperation' with the state when in 'aid to civil authority'. They are however outside the scope of authority of the state government. This means that the military is accountable neither to the state nor the Ministry of Home, responsible for internal security. It is instead accountable to the Raksha Mantri, who has no answerability for internal affairs. This divergence requires reconciling.
In the interim the onus is on the military leadership to navigate the structural deficiencies of the system by better formulation and articulation of
the military's institutional position.