The Indian Army's Special Forces deployed in counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Wikipedia
The Indian Army's Special Forces are deployed in counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Wikipedia

The Indian government has celebrated the second anniversary of the 2016 surgical strikes featured in a cross-border raid into Pakistan-administered Kashmir in retaliation for the killing of 19 soldiers at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir by four heavily armed terrorists of the Pakistan-backed Jaish-e-Mohammed group.

The adjective “surgical” was added by the government to dramatize the fact that the raid on multiple terrorist launch pads did not involve hand-to-hand combat. The government claimed that some 40 terrorists and two Pakistani Army regulars were killed, though Pakistan denied that the raid happened. But telephonic conversations between Pakistani police officials and Indian reporters from the Network 18 news channel confirm Pakistani casualties, though the number remains ambiguous. 

Immediately after the raid, Indian politicians began boasting that Pakistan had been “taught a lesson,” and that cross-border terrorism would stop. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even proclaimed that he had called up Pakistan but no Pakistani general was “available” to talk to him, implying that they had gone into hiding with fear.

The government riding covert operations to garner votes has not only jeopardized similar future operations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir but has done precious little for the Special Forces. Units are holding an assortment of new-old weapons, even assault rifles. Communication equipment is grossly outdated and surveillance equipment is far below authorization. Holdings of combat military free-fall parachutes are nearing zero.

Even basic Special Forces equipment such as laser target designators and general-purpose machine-guns authorized since 2002 are yet to be fielded. There is no sense of urgency beyond publicity. The institution of a separate Special Forces Fund is anathema to the government.

The government-appointed Naresh Chandra Committee on security reforms recommended the establishment of a Special Forces Command in 2012. After six years of inaction, the Defense Ministry approved the establishment of a Special Operations Division in the military last year. But it still requires cabinet approval.

There is no move to have special operations set up under the prime minister for strategic-level tasks. Despite having adverse asymmetric advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan-China at the sub-conventional level, there is no will to evolve systemic sub-conventional response.

The government launched an electronic and print media blitz glorifying the raid through articles, books, TV debates, and documentaries. But violence levels rose exponentially from 2016 onward compared with previous years; 2,134 ceasefire violations (including 1,046 this year), 916 infiltration attempts, and 566 terrorists and 242 security personnel killed as of September 30.

To think that tactical-level retaliatory strikes would make Pakistan stop terrorism was naive but India never really mustered the guts to take the sub-conventional war inside Pakistan, because of lack of political will and intellect, fear of failure, focus on internal security and fighting elections. Increased casualties in Jammu and Kashmir are also because of warped policy. The number of security personnel killed matters little to the government.

The government’s surgical strikes celebration spanned universities, colleges and events at the national level including releasing another documentary. Never have such celebrations been made for major wars India won including the 50-day Kargil Conflict. The exclusive aim of making political mileage is reinforced by the fact that no such celebrations were held last year during the “first anniversary.”

The government wants students – youth comprise 65% of India’s population – to “show respect” to the armed forces despite every survey showing the military is already the most respected organization in India with an overwhelming majority. It is the politicians and bureaucrats that need to show respect to the armed forces.

If the valor of soldiers is milked for political gain while soldiers pay with their lives, the loss of lives is not the only apathy the armed forces face. Denigration and degrading of the military has been ongoing for decades, with the present dispensation accelerating the pace. Simultaneous to the surgical strikes, the Modi government slashed soldiers’ disability pensions.

More than 750 army officers have approached the Supreme Court against filing of a First Information Report (FIR) against military personnel serving in the Kashmir Valley for counter-insurgency operations.

The filing of an FIR leads to endless litigation for soldiers, who can be harassed by the police long after they retire. Ironically, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman gave her assent to the then-reigning Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to file these FIRs against soldiers who were forced to open fire against stone-pelting crowds in self-defense. However, the federal government has now changed its stance and has sheepishly stated support for these officers.

Despite using the military as the first responder in nearly every crisis, it continues to treat soldiers shabbily. The Modi government did grant one-time relief under subterfuge of the “one rank one pension” (OROP) policy, which it is not. Despite calling itself “nationalist,” the government resorted to a police baton charge on peacefully protesting military veterans in August 2015, shaming the nation. Veterans’ protests for full OROP in New Delhi completed 870 days on October 1 this year. A blanket media ban on their activities is a slur on democracy and constitutional rights.

The military’s Order of Precedence continues to be lowered in the Constitutional scheme. Anomalies of pay commissions with respect to the armed forces from the third Central Pay Commission in 1973 to date remain unaddressed. The seventh Central Pay Commission (2017) brought pay and allowances of police forces above the armed forces. A serving or retired civilian defense employee is five times as expensive as his uniformed counterpart or veteran. The army is asked to cut down its strength unilaterally but the civilian-support part of defense continues to bloat.

The worst apathy is toward widows and the disabled, who are made to fight prolonged legal battles for their dues and pensions. It is difficult to understand why a female defense minister hires batteries of lawyers, paying each an average of 200,000 rupees (US$2,750) from the defense budget, to fight pensions and dues of widows and the disabled, knowing some of them don’t have the means to fight legal battles. This despite that the Ministry of Defense hasn’t won a single case to date.

Sitharaman told Parliament that the Ministry of Defense would not withdraw legal cases against widows and the disabled. A non-functional upgrade allowance is granted to government services but the government is fighting legal battles to deny this to the armed forces. The government is also complicit in denying soldiers the right to vote, especially those posted in forward or remote areas.

Both the prime minister and the defense minister skipped the last Army Day and Air Force Day celebrations but the entire government machinery celebrated Surgical Strike Day; so much for votes despite proclaiming that there is no opposition or opposition leader worth the name.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was known for harboring suspicions about the military, and the current incumbent, Narendra Modi, is having his way. Beyond institutionalized criminality and corruption, where India is heading has been queried in these columns. How the next government will treat the armed forces is anybody’s guess.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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