What makes a country secure? Traditionally, a strong military was considered the main pillar of national security. Yet history has repeatedly shown that even overwhelming military capabilities cannot always achieve national security objectives. The struggle of the North Vietnamese against the US supported South is a contemporary example of the unmatched defence-in-depth provided by a resilient populace. Another is the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The liberation of Bangladesh also reflects how popular support can be a force-multiplier.
Theorists assert that earlier modes of modern warfare have evolved from the massed manpower of confronting armies to manoeuvre in the technological age, and now to “hybrid-war”. Since the post-medieval period the state has had a monopoly over the use of military force. Today however, there has been a reversion to a pre-modern decentralized form of conflict, with a “blurring of lines between combatants and civilians”. Moreover with commercial access to sophisticated weapons including Weapons of Mass Destruction, nation-states no longer have a monopoly over modern instruments of large-scale killing.
Because of this changing nature of conflict, a robust internal security architecture is crucial in ensuring not just public safety, but national security. The ‘proxy war’ launched via Pakistan-based non-state actors affirms this. The last major war between the two neighbours took place almost five decades ago. Since then political and social fault-lines in different parts of India were fanned into armed conflict against the Indian state. Exploited in Punjab, encouraged in North-East India and blatantly supported in J&K. Terror attacks have targeted India’s cities, the most destructive till date being the 26/11 multiple attacks in Mumbai. The other major internal conflict, the Maoist movement is ‘made in India’, though it draws ideological inspiration from international extreme Left-Wing militancy. It is not part of the proxy war, and has been surprisingly resilient (despite under great pressure) in the mineral-rich belt stretching across Central India.
A useful starting-point to review India’s security concerns, is to outline some major internal conflicts. The pro-Khalistan militant movement in Punjab took 14 years to contain with a loss of 12,000 lives. Lessons learnt included the need for an operational doctrine that built up capabilities for intelligence-led precision operations carried out by police SWAT units, and better coordination among different forces. Equally important, the strategic imperative to win support of significant sections of the public.
Credit for the improved situation in Assam must go to the state police and central security forces that carried out well coordinated intelligence-led operations while the government kept the door open for talks. The Unified HQ was a platform that successfully enabled coordination. At the same time, denial of sanctuaries in Bangladesh and Bhutan were critical. Here too, a major factor was erosion of public support to the militants, reinforced with a sustained thrust on local development schemes supported with central funding.
Maoist militancy has led to 7500 fatalities in the past decade, including 3000 civilians and about 2000 police personnel. Currently 35 districts in 10 states with varying intensities of violence are in MHA’s category of “worst-affected”. Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division has the highest quantum of violent incidents. The state response has been to improve coordination platforms, deploy a massive quantum of central forces, and use technology multipliers. Surrender policies, creating specially trained units, and raising local militias have also been tried. The ‘holistic’ approach of MHA that focuses on development schemes like road building, and in addressing grievances of affected communities such as protection of forest rights, have helped wean away public support.
There have been ups-and-downs in the counter-militancy campaign in J&K during the past three decades. The only consistent factor in the on-going militancy is continuing support by agencies and non-state entities in Pakistan, regardless of changes in the political regime. All methods have been used to fan unrest and sustain violence. First, it was pumping in huge amounts of funds, weapons and infiltrating foreign mujahedeen battle-hardened in Afghanistan. Counter-measures by the Indian state over the past three decades have been successful in containing violence- from a high of about 4000 fatalities in 2000-2001, militancy-related deaths in J&K today are less than 300. The central forces and state police have been able to develop the capabilities to carry out precision operations against identified militants.
The current thrust is stoking communal ideology, motivating vulnerable local youth for ‘jihad’, while encouraging the public to come on the streets in an ‘intifada’ type of confrontation with security forces. The recent Pulwama suicide bombing by a lone Kashmiri youth that killed 44 CRPF jawans highlights the potential magnitude of this threat. The inability to designate Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a global terrorist under the UN Sanctions Committee reveals the challenges India faces in combating terrorism sponsored from beyond its borders. Differing national security objectives and perceptions come in the way of a classification accepted worldwide
Yet the primary challenge in the Valley today is not so much to achieve a high ‘body-count’ of the estimated 150-200 militants ( majority locals), as it is to conceive of a counter-narrative that inspires the local youth to embrace being part of a democratic, secular, economically resurgent India. After 3 decades, many among the young are hardened to violence, no longer intimidated by armed forces, frustrated with the lack of opportunities, and psychologically vulnerable to extreme ideologies.
In addition to these conflict areas, India continues to experience major outbursts of social violence whether between communities or against the state on issues like formation of separate states or reservation in government jobs. Social media has at times fuelled suspicion against outsiders and led to lynch mobs taking the law into their own hands, aggravating tensions.
Continued increase in population is being accompanied by waves of internal migration, particularly to cities. India continues to experience a demographic youth surge with large numbers looking for livelihood opportunities wherever available. Urbanization is a major trend; it has enabled millions to live together. It is also leading to a mix of cultures with inevitable strains, since formerly homogeneous communities have to adapt or acculturate new arrivals. There has been unprecedented growth in India’s GDP. At the same time disparity between the rich and poor has widened. Hundreds of millions still live on US $ 2–3 a day; yet there are many millions who earn incomes comparable to the middle-class in developed economies, and a few super-wealthy with as much wealth as the richest in the world. Efforts to improve the lives of those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ are moving forward but have miles to go. Widespread corruption is the ‘elephant in the room’”; the continuing regulatory obstacles faced by Mico, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME)s in most states remains a crippling handicap for the start-ups that are indispensable for the millions coming into the job market each year. It breeds frustration when the poor who are deprived of the benefits of welfare schemes or unable to find jobs, lose faith in the system’s ability to improve their lives.
Online social media has virtually connected hundreds of millions globally. Events in the furthest parts of the world are communicated rapidly via Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and other such social media platforms. Ideologies and cultures are increasingly attracting loyalties as strong as nation-states. The world of today is in fact global village with easy mobility, untraceable transactions over the ‘dark-web’ and even virtual currencies poised to replace legal tender. Trans-national organized crime organizations are responsible for crimes such as drugs, weapons or human trafficking, money laundering, extortion, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, wildlife items smuggling, and cyber-crime. The sums of money involved are huge, and can directly impact governments through corruption of officials.
Today cyber techniques commonly used for trans-national criminal activities can target India from anywhere in the world. This is a growing threat to national security since these criminals could provide logistical and other support to terrorists. And this threat goes beyond the South Asian crime syndicates that base themselves in the Middle-east or Pakistan. The Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the heist of USD 81 million from a Bangladeshi bank by hackers indicate the vulnerabilities of an increasingly digitized India.
The transnational nature of these criminal enterprises will need closer political and law enforcement relationships, both domestically and abroad. Specialist agencies will need to build up domain experts familiar with the array of information databases and techniques needed to address transnational crime. Existing legal framework will need to be revamped to be able to take on entire criminal enterprises, not just individuals.
Even within India, closer coordination between different intelligence and investigation agencies and even between investigative agencies under different ministries is essential both to identify international criminal organizations operating in India and effectively pursue their complex webs of activity and trail of finances that span the globe. More needs to be done to make effective regional and global platforms for coordinating efforts against transnational crime such as drugs, wild-life items, human trafficking and money laundering.
In such a situation of rapid flux, both within and external to India, social stresses are inevitable, calling for changes in the approach to national security. Two aspects of internal change needed for stronger national security are considered here, both currently neglected: transforming policing to meet contemporary challenges, and an architecture that enables local communities to be engaged with security governance. These will prove an invaluable supplement to the conventional national security matrix that looks at the number of missiles, submarines, aircraft, and army divisions that a country has.
In fact, the US President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for a return to greater engagement with the community. The Police Reforms and Social Accountability Act 2011 in the UK gave authority to elected Police & Crime Commissioners to give directions regarding priorities to Chief Constables of counties and hold them accountable for performance. The national Home Office identifies Strategic Policing Requirements to ensure building up of capacities and coordinating mechanisms to deal with issues that spill over local boundaries, such as terrorism, mass disturbances, organized crime and major cyber incidents.
In most states of India, there is a need for greater public-police engagement. The police need to be seen more as a provider of services related to ensuring rule of law and public safety for local communities and the ordinary citizen, not just an instrument to enforce the state’s authority. There are many issues that are beyond the police mandate yet lead to policing challenges when unresolved. Another issue in some states is that communities feel a lack of connection with the police because of little representation and a consequent perceived bias. When there is a protest on any issue, this soon escalates into an ‘us versus them’ confrontation leading to disproportionate violence. There have been individual initiatives in some states toward greater public engagement and states like Kerala have tried to incorporate this into policing doctrine, but much more effort and capacity building is needed to make this a natural component of the police-community relationship.
Panchayati Raj or local self-governance with villages as the primary unit was a Directive Principle of India’s Constitution that became with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. However this model of local governance has focused mainly on development, not public order or internal security. Yet it is acknowledged today by the world’s leading development experts that without a secure internal environment, sustainable development is a non-starter. That’s why Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations specifically highlights the need for “peace, stability and effective governance”.
In the colonial era the central power was considered ‘mai-baap sarkar’ – the job of the rulers was to rule and the masses to obey, with an intermediary layer of local power centres to enforce the writ of the imperial rulers. Even many thinkers today support the marginalization of rural governance on grounds that villages were “sinks of localism, and dens of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”. Occasional media reports on actions taken by ‘khap panchayats’ in parts of India even today are taken as affirmation that these institutions remain trapped in a regressive framework of patriarchy, superstition and casteism. However, there is sufficient documentation to attest that in the pre-colonial era, many of the 700,000 villages of India in different regions undertook significant responsibilities of local governance, including prevention and detection of crime. An old adage states “it takes a village to raise a child”. It is only when a community takes collective responsibility for their youth, that there can be commitment be to robust value systems that make a nation strong.
The British Raj established a policing system that served the colonial objectives of protecting trade routes, ensuring revenue collection and introducing a modern policing model in the Presidency cities where most Westerners lived. Yet, the colonial rulers understood that to contain costs to the exchequer and to secure community cooperation, some system of village policing needed to be retained. Hence village headman and watchman were given responsibilities and social recognition that provided invaluable support to the formal system- which is why it was said that a daroga would know ‘even if a leaf fell in his ilaka’.
Today, we need to explore ways to restore the social responsibility of village and traditional communities for maintaining routine public order. The overwhelming deployment of central armed forces in conflict areas and in roles like border policing can be reversed only by strengthening the capacity of the police-station while finding ways to engage local communities more actively in governance. States like Chhattisgarh alone have about 100 battalions of central forces engaged in counter-Maoist operations; a similar quantum is deployed in a counter-militancy role in J &K. There is also a massive deployment of central forces on even non-militarized borders like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. At the same time the principle reflected in UN Resolution 2151 needs to be kept in mind: “police reforms are related to needs of particular societies.” India is a sub-continent comprising many diverse societies. Local cultures and traditional social institutions need to be factored in while advocating reforms in policing in different regions of India.
Modern policing was in fact a response to policing challenges thrown up by the emerging metropolises of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. In modern India elected city governments hardly play any role in policing. With 30 percent of the population living in urban areas that generate over 60 percent of India’s GDP, we need models that provide efficient policing services and security to millions living together in mega-cities, several of which have bigger populations than many states. There is a growing acceptance that effective policing and internal security is not possible without a far more proactive engagement of the community. However the 74th Constitutional Amendment that provided a framework for devolution of urban governance has little reference to public safety and law and order. In fact the inter-connectedness of urban governance is such that policing cannot function separate from other municipal functions. While city police do enlist public support through informally constituted bodies like Mohalla Committees or Neighbourhood Watch, this cannot substitute for systemic engagement with elected city governments. Yet, even the ‘Smart Cities Project’ that aims at engaging citizens to plan and execute urban improvements to improve quality of life, gives little space for addressing crime and security issues of the Digital Age. Yet the very technologies such as social media that have thrown up new policing challenges can be leveraged to strengthen bonds within communities and also used to build up needed capacities.
Police are just one component; the framework of laws, judiciary, prosecution and corrections all play key roles in determining public confidence in the criminal justice system. Laws that are out of touch with current social mores continue to criminalize actions that may be socially acceptable today and not harm others. The recent bill to decriminalize’ attempt to suicide’ is an example of contemporary knowledge of mental health. Moreover, prolonged trial process and a weak prosecution could negate even effective investigation. A corrections system that ruthlessly incarcerates large numbers of people even for minor offences is a breeding ground for more serious criminal activities and recidivism.
The Malimath Committee (2003) had made recommendations that addressed weaknesses in the criminal justice system as a whole. The effort was to reduce the huge backlog of cases under trial, and to improve process efficiency. At present over 3 crores cases choke our courts, a significant proportion pending for decades, many of which are petty offences. The all-India conviction rate has dropped steadily in the past 4 decades. In some states overall conviction rate is 6 percent or less. Key policing areas will need to be addressed in coordination with the judiciary and prosecutors to achieve effective change.
There are areas like improving the ratio of civil police to population, and a greater focus on training and research that need to be pursued. There are areas where the police leadership itself can work towards benchmarking higher standards and learning from other fields. A police leadership that keeps the welfare of subordinate ranks as a priority will be able to achieve the behavioural changes in the rank-and-file needed to make citizen-centric policing a reality. Performance metrics that incorporate citizen-engagement, and define standards for ethical conduct or individual accountability will provide the framework for a transformed paradigm of policing in India. The image of the police must be transformed from “brutal, incompetent and corrupt” to ‘protector’. Greater public awareness of the supreme sacrifice made by 35,000 policemen in independent India both while safeguarding national integrity and protecting the common man can generate the citizen support that is indispensable to effective policing.
Independent India is an ancient civilization that is relatively young in its avatar as a modern nation-state. Its history has revealed fault lines that enabled invaders to repeatedly exploit a fragmented polity. Recall that the Battle of Plassey (1757) that marked the beginning of British rule in India was won by a force of just 3000 of the East India Company defeating the 60,000 strong army of the Nawab of Bengal. The people from whom the Bengal army was drawn up did not feel a commitment to their rulers. The real building blocks of nation are local communities, who make up the abstract construct of a nation-state. These communities must have confidence that their voices are heard and that institutions of governance are effective in ensuring the primary role of a state – protection of the life of all citizens and creating an environment that nurtures opportunities for livelihood and a good quality of life. Successful empires of ancient India were clear regarding the role that national security plays in the functioning of society. Here are excerpts of a letter from Kautilya to Emperor Chandragupta: "The Mauryan soldier does not the Royal treasuries enrich nor the Royal granaries fill. He does not carry out trade nor produce scholars, artistes, craftsmen, and administrators. He does not build roads and ramparts nor dig wells and reservoirs. The soldier only ensures that revenue collectors travel forth and return safely; that the farmer harvests, and markets his produce unafraid of pillage; that the merchant can trade and travel across the length and breadth of the realm unmolested; that the maestro create works of art, literature and philosophy in quietude; that the architect designs and builds without tension; that the tutor and the priest teach and preach in peace; that the doctor invents cures and medicines undisturbed; that masons work unhindered; that the mother and the wife go about their chores and bring up children in harmony and tranquillity; and that cattle graze freely without being lifted or stolen. Pataliputra reposes each night in peaceful comfort, O’ King, secure in the belief that the distant borders of Magadha are inviolate and the interiors are safe and secure, thanks only to the Mauryan Army standing vigil, day and night, in weather fair and foul, quite unmindful of personal discomfort and hardship, all through the year, year after year.
While the citizenry contribute to the prosperity of the State prospers, the soldier guarantees it continues to exist.
Swami Vivekananda provided a contemporary touch to the role of the community in nation-building: “Let a new India arise out of the peasant’s cottage grasping the plough; out of the hearts of the fisherman, the cobbler and the sweeper. Let her spring from the grocer’s shop, from beside the oven of the fritter-seller. Let her emanate from the factory, from the marts and from the markets. Let her emerge from the groves and forests, from the hills and mountains.” This spirit of belonging, as much as missiles and tanks will defend our motherland even if it calls for the supreme sacrifice and fulfil India’s destiny : “Each nation has a destiny to fulfil, each nation has a message to deliver, and each nation has a mission to accomplish.” We can only achieve India’s destiny when every Indian, each local community believes that he or she has as sacred a mission toward national security as the soldier serving in Siachen or the policeman protecting society in the cities and villages of our nation.
The Author is a former DGP of Assam and DG NSG