Keeping India Safe

Sub Title : Analysing Indian Army Chief’s media brief on the eve of Army Day 2024

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)

Page No. : 16

Category : Military Affairs

: January 27, 2024

The Army Chief’s recent media interaction provided insights into the challenges and strategies of India’s military. He addressed issues in Manipur and J&K, emphasizing the need for a realistic assessment. The situation in the Indo Myanmar border, particularly regarding the Free Movement Regime, was discussed, highlighting potential complexities. The Chief expressed concern over limited Assam Rifles units available for border sealing. In J&K, he candidly acknowledged concerns and the need for learning from setbacks, signalling a departure from routine responses. The Northern borders with China were addressed, emphasizing operational preparedness and the importance of maintaining the status quo ante for troop reduction discussions. The Chief’s emphasis on maintaining readiness in the face of geopolitical mistrust was noteworthy.

Every year on 11 Jan the Army Chief holds a media interaction and responds to all media queries related to India’s military strategic security issues, ranging from how the borders were being handled against specific threats, the internal security issues that bedevil and where the Army is directly committed.  The various aspects of modernisation, upgradation and procurement are of course inevitable.  This year was General Manoj Pande’s second and the last media interaction of his tenure. He reflected upon a period which has been afflicted by conflict resurgence and instability in some areas while exuding full confidence about the state of the Army and its ability to fully deliver the nation’s security needs. To his credit the Chief was neither defensive nor in denial of the problem areas, articulating a mature assessment of various situations.

Even without prioritising, Manipur and J&K instantly come to mind. The Chief was emphatic in saying that in Manipur levels of violence had decreased and the Army was working with several central and state agencies to restore the situation. Yet, the fact that of the 5000 odd small arms stolen from State Police armouries, only about 30 percent of the weapons have been recovered confirms the challenge before the Assam Rifles and the Army’s 3 Corps. The situation remains volatile at the Indo Myanmar border too. The instability in Myanmar forced 416 soldiers of the People’s Defence Forces to flee across the border to escape from the rebel groups. That volatility adds complexity. In addition, the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar permits the movement of border populations up to 16 kilometres on either side of the border without visas; only permits are required. This too facilitates infiltration of undesirable and anti-national elements along with smuggling of narcotics and contraband. The potentiality of negative situations remains high and the Chief expressed concern about the fact that only 20 Assam Rifles units are available for border sealing; others remain on the counter insurgency (CI) grid and work in conjunction with other forces. What the Chief did not mention is the fact that AR units by virtue of their near permanent deployment in the North East, are the best geared to handle the situation. They are manned by a permanent cadre of below officer ranks and officered largely by Army officers. This is one entity which can do with expansion, considering the scope for proliferation of security issues concerning the North East. Complaints against their lack of neutrality and bias towards one community or the other are an inevitable part of CI operations where efforts to counter an effective force such as AR will invariably be made. The Army has to resist this since the management of AR has always remained a contentious subject. The Manipur turbulence is likely to persist as ethnic battle lines are drawn up and remain even more complex than when the issue took centre stage in May 2023. Thus far it has remained restricted to some states in the North East but unless tackled robustly has the potential to spread into various areas bringing chaos across the vulnerable North East. It’s good that PM Sheikh Hasina’s electoral victory in Bangladesh ensures no interference from that quarter but something more permanent needs to be worked out to neutralise the potential of external support. The Chief’s clarity is encouraging but this will need to be integrated with the political and social narratives to take it to a successful end.

The Army Chief was frank with his opinion about the situation in J&K terming it a concern. It’s a welcome admission which in no way smacks of negativity. In fact, only if the threats are realistically assessed will there be more pragmatic solutions which are all available in the Army’s vast repertoire of experience. The attitude reflected by the Chief is indeed a welcome departure from the defensive and very routine responses that sometimes emanate from professional quarters. It’s refreshing to see admission by the Army’s highest office to state that “there were tactical lessons to be learnt from the series of setbacks in the region, which claimed the lives of 20 soldiers in the past year in ambushes by terrorists, and that the Army is studying tactics employed by the adversaries in the area”.  The abysmal ratio of losses to achievements, perhaps one of the highest of the long J&K counter proxy campaign, needs a fresh approach and maybe just the adoption of  back-to-basics which is often the case in military campaigns. General Pande’s mature outlook and Raksha Mantri’s deep support for winning hearts and minds augur very well for the coming years.

There is the entire gamut of the northern borders with China along the LAC. In this context General Pande stated – “Our operational preparedness in these areas continues to be of a very high level. The deployment is both robust and balanced …. Currently our attempt is to continue to talk to go back to the status quo ante which existed in the middle of 2020. And once that happens, we can look at the larger issue of troop reduction”. That is as good as any message needed to give confidence to the political community and the larger public. What is obviously clear is that the trust deficit is so deep that no dilution in deployment can be afforded at this juncture. While no danger of an impending war exists, tactical level differences can always manifest as misunderstandings. Any professional will tell you that change is unlikely unless there is a let up in the international geopolitical situation which currently exudes only mistrust among all key players. While China has attempted to coerce India, it has not succeeded although it perceives it has put us on the defensive. India has kept its options open and very demonstratively without going overboard in any direction. What the Army Chief needs to do is to keep the Army in a high state of readiness, wargame all contingencies, reorder force structuring for the most optimum response to two-front threats and avert any tactical and sub-tactical triggers which can upset the apple cart.

The Chief must also prepare his force for the inevitable technology transformation and even for what may appear mundane; the threats from climate change. With regard to the latter, not many will advise him but the wise need no push on issues which confront you in the face.