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Getting India’s priorities right

Does it matter if Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan are called off?

The government of India has cancelled the proposed Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan as a result of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, meeting with Hurriyat leaders.  The meetings took place apparently despite Indian warnings to Mr. Basit that Pakistan could choose to engage in dialog with either India or the separatists, but not with both.  It is possible that new red lines are being drawn on what India considers unacceptable engagement by Pakistani politicians and diplomats.  Reaction to India’s response has been mixed; some have called it an overreaction, while others believe India’s response was justified.

But whether India’s decision was an overreaction or a justified response is of no real relevance.  India and Pakistan hold such divergent and irreconcilable positions on Kashmir that a resolution seems almost next to impossible as things stand today.  For India this matters little, as a status-quoist state in a position of advantage in every area of contention vis-à-vis Pakistan on Kashmir.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has a problem.  As Christine Fair rightly notes in her book “Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War,” Pakistan is “revisionist, or anti-status quo, in that it desires to bring all of the disputed territory of Kashmir under its control, including the portion currently governed by India.”  Pakistan’s problem though, is that there exists a significant and ever-increasing disparity between its ends and means.  Its military campaigns to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India have failed with increasing decisiveness in each successive attempt.  India has also successfully thwarted – though at a significant cost – Pakistan’s sub-conventional war in Jammu & Kashmir.

In short, Pakistan’s attempts at resolving the Kashmir dispute through violent means have failed.  Pakistan is therefore left with the only option of negotiation through diplomacy.  But Pakistan’s leaders, present and past, have built a narrative around J&K that allows no scope for nuance, negotiation or compromise.  The resulting public sentiment in Pakistan is that it is unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of India handing Kashmir over to Pakistan on a silver platter.  And that is hardly going to happen.

It doesn’t matter how many whitepapers and non-papers are written and circulated about potential solutions to J&K.  Optimism about their viability isn’t shared by many beyond the confines of Track-II moots in which they are enthusiastically presented.  Ultimately, Pakistan cannot demand anything less than a total surrender of Jammu & Kashmir and India cannot (and will not) give Pakistan what it wants.

This is not at all to advocate a total cessation of dialog with Pakistan.  There is benefit to be derived from continued dialog on ancillary issues such as liberalizing trade and visa regimes.  As far as one can tell, India has only cancelled FS-level talks scheduled for August 25 in Islamabad, not shut the door on future opportunities for talks between the two governments.

Indeed, even as news of the cancelled August 25 talks hogged the limelight, state-run gas utilities from India and Pakistan appear to be in advanced talks for exporting gas from India to Pakistan via a pipeline from Jalandhar to Lahore.  Operationalizing such a project would be significant, considering our troubled histories.  India can continue to pursue these and other pragmatic initiatives with Pakistan, but there are more pressing foreign policy matters that demand India’s attention than its western neighbor.

For India, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority but a national security threat, given its continued use of terrorism against the Indian homeland and Indian interests abroad.  Dealing with such a threat requires a different set of objectives, actors and intended outcomes.  Currently, those actors do not reside in the Ministry of External Affairs, but in other ministries and agencies of the Indian government.  If India is to expend significant time and effort on Pakistan, it will be better served if they are spent in the pursuit of means to mitigate the threats to India’s national security emanating from that country.

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INS Sindhuranta and beyond

The casual attitude towards India’s defense preparedness at all levels is worrying.

An incident on board Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhuratna resulted in the unfortunate deaths of two officers and injuries to several other sailors.  Navy chief Adm DK Joshi has resigned, “taking moral responsibility” for the incident.  There have been as many as four major incidents pertaining to Indian Navy submarines in as many years. In August last year, a fire onboard INS Sindhurakshak resulted in explosions causing its sinking and the deaths of 18 sailors onboard.

There are similarities between the two ill-fated submarines.  INS Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna are diesel-powered, Sindhughosh-class submarines first introduced in 1986.  INS Sindhuratna was commissioned in 1988, while Sindhurakshak was commissioned in 1997.  Both submarines were retrofitted at the same ship yard in Russia.  In 2010, a faulty battery value on board INS Sindhurakshak is alleged to have leaked hydrogen, resulting in fire and explosion that killed one sailor and injured two others.  Reports, although preliminary, now indicate that a battery leak could have also caused yesterday’s explosion on board INS Sindhuratna.

The reasons for Wednesday’s incident could be many, including failure of the crew to follow standard operating procedures, poor maintenance, technical malfunctioning or failure due to obsolescence.  Indeed, a 2008 CAG report highlighted delays in induction and refitting of submarines and projected, at the time, that 63 percent of India’s submarines would have completed their prescribed life by 2012.  However as of 2014, continued delays in India’s Scorpene-class submarine project are further straining the Navy’s submarine force levels and the serviceability of its aging fleet.

To be clear, incidents are bound to occur in even the most sophisticated, well-maintained and well-equipped of navies.  However, what should be concern for India is the casual approach to investigation and remedial action when incidents do occur.  The Navy announced the constitution of a Board of Inquiry to investigate the August 14, 2013 incident involving INS Sindhurakshak.  It was later determined that a full inquiry could not be conducted until the submarine was salvaged.

Going by news reports, it has taken 6 months for the Navy just to identify a company to salvage the vessel.  It is expected that it will take another 4 months after a contract is signed and work commences, to retrieve the sunken submarine.  An official inquiry will commence only then.  It is unlikely, then, that we will understand what happened to INS Sindhurakshak any time before 2015.  Where, other than in India, can these delays appear to be reasonable?  And what is the Navy and the political leadership supposed to do with its other Sindhughosh-class submarines in the interim?  Ground them pending inquiry, thereby reducing the number of operational Indian submarines to a grand total of 4, or continue to operate them and risk further accidents?

It is unfortunate that, with the exception of a few media houses, these questions are not being put to the people entrusted with India’s national security.  Mainstream media coverage of Adm DK Joshi’s resignation and his apparently acrimonious relationship with Minister of Defense AK Antony has overwhelmed questions on the root causes of these incidents and the general apathy at both political and military levels with which they have been dealt.

Some former servicemen have, perhaps rightly, rallied around Adm DK Joshi on TV news channels.  No doubt, there is a chasm, deep and wide in civil-military relations in India.  These are issues that the mainstream media must follow-up on.  However, to allow subplots pertaining to personality conflicts – the honorable and upright Navy officer vs. a much-pilloried Defense Minister — to dominate issues relating to the state of defense preparedness just because the former makes good viewing is to do disservice to the country.

General elections in 2014 could, by design, address the issue of the lack of political stewardship in defense.  A mere change in political leadership, however, cannot guarantee that we will be any closer to identifying or resolving the issues plaguing our submarine fleet.  What happens when these issues resurface, then? Lather, rinse, repeat?

 

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Quickpost: Thoughts on Republic Day

What constitutes the most sacred duty of the government and citizens in a republic?

The meteoric rise of the Aam Admi Party in Delhi tells us that democracy is alive and well in India.  AAP rode on the wave of an anti-corruption sentiment and vanquished a hitherto well-entrenched Congress party from the seat of power in Delhi.  However, the party’s use of methods bordering on political vigilantism to address the legitimate concerns of the electorate tells us that while India the democracy is thriving, India the republic is hurting.

In the congress of developing nations, India distinguishes itself for its sustained commitment to pluralistic, democratic traditions.  At the same time however, the use of unconstitutional methods for seeking social, economic and political justice continues to be accepted.  The degree to which these methods are employed differentiates an unhealthy republic from a healthy one.

Many of us are familiar with B.R. Ambedkar’s concluding speech on the floor of the Constituent Assembly on achieving social and economic justice through methods provided by the Constitution of the land.  For any healthy, functioning republic, adherence to these methods is not just important, but essential.   The responsibility to ensure the adherence of constitutional methods, then, becomes the duty of both the government and citizens.

Indeed, as Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the American Republic, explained in a letter in the Federalist Papers, it constitutes the “most sacred duty,” and is the greatest source of security to the republic:

If it were to be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of security in a Republic? The answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws — the first growing out of the last. It is by this, in a great degree, that the rich and the powerful are to be restrained from enterprises against the common liberty — operated upon by the influence of a general sentiment by their interest in the principle, and by the obstacles which the habit it produces erects against innovation and encroachment. It is by this in a still greater degree, that caballers, intriguers and demagogues, are prevented from climbing on the shoulders of faction to the tempting seats of usurpation and tyranny.

Were it not that it might require too long a discussion, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that a large and well organized Republic can scarcely lose its liberty from any other cause than that of anarchy, to which a contempt of the laws is the high road.

But without entering into so wide a field it is sufficient to present to your view a more simple and a more obvious truth, which is this:  that a sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle the sustaining energy of a free government.

[Alexander Hamilton, Letter No. III in the American Daily Advertiser, August 28, 1794]

Let us hope this serves as food for thought as India celebrates its 65th Republic Day today.

 

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Stepping up on Afghanistan

India must use its good offices to ensure that the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a bilateral security agreement.

If the world was in need of a preview of things to come in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it got one on Friday.  A Taliban attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul claimed 21 lives. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s chief for Afghanistan, a senior political official at the UN and a British candidate in the upcoming elections for the European parliament.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of many of its citizens as well as those of NATO’s security forces.  But as the New York Times notes, attacks against foreign soft targets have been relatively less frequent.  The Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental was attacked in 2011; U.S. and Indian embassies have been hit in Kabul and in other parts of Afghanistan.  The more recent attacks have involved operations with the use of suicide bombers to breach perimeter security followed by commando-style assaults with the use of RPGs and assault rifles.

The Taliban have historically relied on suicide attacks against Western military targets, but the use of commando-style assaults in and around Kabul may point to a collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, loosely referred to as the “Kabul Attack Network.”

The goal, ultimately, is to weaken the will of the West to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  The U.S. and NATO winding down operations in Afghanistan will undoubtedly create a perilous security situation in that country.  Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to enter into a status of forces agreement with the U.S., even as the Afghan National Army remains ill-equipped to deal with a raging insurgency coupled with terrorist assaults on the capital.

Mr. Karzai is throwing caution to the wind by tying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to the U.S. facilitating “peace talks” with the Taliban.  He may get neither.  The U.S.’s ability to facilitate a negotiation with the Taliban remains in question, particularly when the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan have been working towards the goal of ensuring a total exit of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan all along.  Mr. Karzai, whose presidency ends in April 2014, may have little to lose, but the burdens of his action or inaction will be borne by Afghanistan’s future governments.

Meanwhile, anyone in New Delhi still under the delusion that events in Afghanistan have no bearing on the security of India would do well to reach for their history books.  It is precisely the sort of Pakistan-supported, Taliban-operated environment that could prevail in a post-2014 Afghanistan that allowed for India’s surrender of Maulana Masood Azhar (who was languishing in an Indian jail) in Kandahar in exchange for passengers hijacked onboard IC-814 in 1999.

As a result of our capitulation, Azhar returned to Pakistan to regroup members of the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2000.  A year later, JeM attacked the Indian parliament, killing 12 civilians.  Our members of parliament, rather miraculously, escaped unharmed.

A similar situation may present itself when the U.S. departs Afghanistan.  Although many of us have called for India to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, or at least play a more active role in training and supplying weapons to Afghan security forces, New Delhi has chosen to only limit its involvement to economy and institution-building.  Laudable endeavors undoubtedly, but insufficient to ensure the security of India and her interests in that country.

India has already rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for weaponry during his December 2013 visit.  But if India is disinclined to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, it must, at the very least, ensure that a U.S. security presence remains in the country to prevent it from being engulfed in yet another civil war that could render twelve years of development and progress to naught.

Indeed, India is most uniquely positioned — as a friend to both the U.S. and Afghanistan — to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both Afghanistan and the U.S. is signed.  Almost every other country is viewed with suspicion by either DC or Kabul.  Last week, U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan visited India to discuss the furture of Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence officials also met an Indian delegation led by Joint Intelligence Chief Ajit Lal to urge India’s influence with Mr. Karzai to conclude the BSA.

There is no doubt that India is in the midst of domestic political upheaval.  The economy is sagging and political stewardship is found wanting in almost every aspect of governance.  However, facilitating a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. must become a national security priority for India.

A U.S.-Afghanistan BSA cannot prevent attacks such as the one this past Friday, but it may stave off a total collapse of the state to the Taliban.  Ultimately, it is simply not in India’s interests to see Afghanistan relapse into the laboratory of terrorism that it once was under Pakistan’s influence. (And on a separate note, New Delhi’s assistance in facilitating a BSA could also demonstrate that both India and the U.S. are committed to putting the very unseemly squabble over Devyani Khobragade behind them).

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