Lately there has been debate on the quantum and type of force to be used in fighting Maoist insurgents. There is a strong lobby that seems to be advocating employing the armed forces for the job. To most outsiders, the army is an infallible organization that takes on all tasks and delivers, unfailingly, every time. This track record of reliability induces a temptation to use the army as a tool for all situations. A temptation that has serious implications.
The reasons being cited for using (or not using) them seem to be about protocol and role, among others. However, there are practical realities that must determine whether the army should be called in to deal with the Naxal issue. While there are strategic and political implications to this step, facts merit the bulk of the consideration.
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What makes up the army and what are they trained for? What are their core skills and are they equipped to cope with the situation? Finally, are they the best suited for this? Let’s explore the answers to some of these questions.
The army’s primary task is to protect the country from external aggression. They have additional responsibilities such as internal security and assistance to civil administration, but their core responsibility is defending the nation.
And to do that, soldiers typically train nine months a year. This training begins at the lowest level of a section of 10 men right up to higher formations consisting of thousands of soldiers. To take a raw recruit and convert him into a lethal killing machine requires hardening him physically and mentally, training him in weapons and tactics and drilling him to operate in extreme circumstances with several other contingents. A typical combat soldier trains and works for about 14 hours every day, 10 months in a year.
And then there is the training and maintenance of equipment. Soldiers of specialist battalions have to maintain fleets of armoured and fighting vehicles. They have to train to cross obstacles like raging rivers, cross complex bridging equipment, clear minefields and be able to do all this during day and night. They have to be ready to take on hostile aggressors across two fronts in the eventuality of war.
The rigour of this training is enough for any army man to take on any enemy, anywhere, anytime. To that extent, of course, the army could be deployed to address the Naxals in thick jungles and difficult, unknown terrains.
But are they the optimal choice?
The most important aspect of a soldier’s training is his mental conditioning. That training is oriented towards a single-minded objective—destruction of the enemy. This ethos is imbibed in every element of training.
A visitor to any firing range of the Indian Army will find two edicts written on the walls: No mercy, no regret, no remorse, and ek goli, ek dushman (one bullet, one enemy). These aren’t bravado graffiti. They are philosophical foundations on which the institution takes raw recruits from the mainstream community and converts them into fighting machines who will put their mission ahead of their own lives.
The first edict focuses on making the soldier impersonal and mission-focused. He has a task of capturing an objective and he will and must destroy anything that stands in the way—without mercy, remorse or regret. And the second trains him for deadly efficiency. This is the reason why even in aid to civil authorities, the army never ever fires warning shots in the air. The first bullet the army fires is for effect.
The psyche of soldiers—which takes years to build—is what melds them into a fighting machine capable of achieving impossible odds. This is why their use for internal security must be considered in the light of three cautionary aspects.
One, internal security situations such as the Naxalite insurgency are a different ball game from all-out war. The emphasis is on minimum force, not overwhelming firepower. There are no enemies but citizens with different ideology who need to be integrated back into the mainstream.
And while there are hardcore elements within the Naxalites, the downside of collateral damage is very high. As the US Army has learnt at a great cost, very often its actions create the accidental guerrilla—someone who becomes a guerrilla because of collateral damage.
The second reason is that modern warfare calls for high degree of specialization. Each combatant has to train for several months in a year just to retain his fighting prowess. Distracting that soldier and unit comes at a high cost of their primary role, particularly for specialist units whose efficacy depends on continuity and integrated training.
Thirdly, if we deploy the army for internal roles, we will play into the hands of the adversaries whose strategy over the last 20 years has been to foment internal disturbance and tie down nearly half of the second largest army in the world. We would just reiterate that this strategy has great return on investment.
One of the fundamental principles of war is to focus the right resources for the right task. It is only prudent, therefore, that advocacy of army’s employment for non-core tasks be considered in light of what dilution it would cause in their main role.
Else, we might end with a double jeopardy—the Naxal problem remains unresolved and an army that is believed to be infallible, fails—only because they were set up to do so.
Raghu Raman is an expert and commentator on internal security. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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