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The Soldier's Dilemma

By Colonel (retd) Dr Anil A Athale
August 24, 2004 15:03 IST
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On Monday, Colonel (retired) Dr Anil A Athale, former joint director, War History, at the defence ministry, began a two-part column, arguing for the Indian Army to retain its Special Powers, but limiting its role in the insurgencies in Kashmir and the North East.

Part I: Why the army needs special powers

The problems encountered and the situation is different in the North East. Here the armed forces have been operating almost for last 40 years, even longer in Nagaland. Till the time East Pakistan was in existence, there was massive help to the insurgents and there was a real possibility of secession. Since 1971 that danger no longer exists.

The insurgents have sanctuaries in Burma and Bangladesh, but no massive support. China has also long ceased its active support to the North Eastern rebels. The real threat today is due to drug trade and money that goes to the insurgents to keep their movements alive.

I recall my visit along with a defence ministry official to the North East in 1988. As a part of our study we met the late Mr Laldenga, then the chief minister of Mizoram and many other former rebel leaders. The conclusion was inescapable --  NONE in the North East wanted the bad old days of active insurgency to return. On the other hand, a responsible politician once told me if there is no insurgency then the North East falls off New Delhi's radar.

The inertia of the days of insurgency is such that while a large portion of the Indian Army (two full divisions as a matter of fact; 80,000 soldiers) has indeed been withdrawn from the area, there is still a large paramilitary presence like the Assam Rifles.

The Assam Rifles is manned by army officers on deputation and has a large number of soldiers on deputation. In the eyes of the public at large the army and Assam Rifles are one and the same.

Two incidents during that trip are etched forever in my mind and are in a way illustrative of the problems we face there. We were staying at an Assam Rifles battalion mess in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. The mess is located in the centre of the town, right opposite the state secretariat. Imagine an army cantonment opposite Parliament House in Delhi or opposite Writer's Building in Kolkata. The location is tailor-made for confrontation.

Even in Manipur, the Assam Rifles battalion located in Kanglei Park in the heart of Imphal is an eyesore and an affront to Manipuri sentiment. That is the legendary seat of Manipur's kings, occupied by the Assam Rifles from the days of the British Raj.

Compounding the locational problem in Aizawl was the attitude of the Assam Rifles commander. He had given strict orders to his sentries, fully armed, not to permit any Mizo inside the battalion compound. One evening a football match was going on and Mizos with their love for sports had crowded at the fence to watch the match. One then saw the disgusting sight of the soldiers roughly shooing off innocent onlookers. A talk with the commander in the evening confirmed our suspicion. For him the insurgency was still on, Mizos are not to be trusted. This, when Laldenga was chief minister!

On my return to Delhi I submitted a report strongly urging corrective action and warning that the situation was being un-necessarily aggravated by the local commander. It came as no surprise that within a month of this report that very battalion was involved in an altercation with Mizo civilians. In the firing that took place over 12 people lost their lives. This was one occasion when one got no pleasure in being proved right.

During the same trip we also visited Imphal, currently in the eye of the storm over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. One evening we were invited by the local commander, a brigadier, for dinner. I had no illusions that the honour was mainly due to the presence of the civilian official attached to the defence ministry. All aspiring officers know that higher promotions are determined by civilian officials at the defence ministry, much more than the army hierarchy.

When our dinner was about to conclude, as if on cue, the brigadier got a report of a dacoity at a nearby bank. With great flourish the brigadier donned his uniform, and gravely told us he must go into action. The shrewd deputy secretary and I exchanged meaningful glances and on return to our rooms we both agreed that the drama was enacted to impress him about the good work being done by the brigadier and the 'insurgency' that continued in Manipur. How a petty crime can be equated with 'an armed challenge to the State' (the definition of an insurgency) only the brigadier knew.

These two incidents, though of vintage, in a way focuses on the real problem in the North East today. The armed forces have got used to the special powers and are loath to give them up. Being in the backwaters, the armed forces often act on an individual agenda. Since the North East is remote from Delhi, both physically and emotionally, year after year, the Disturbed Areas Act and the consequent armed forces special powers have been extended.


A soldier is trained to shoot to kill. In a situation of war, the dictum is to use the maximum force to destroy the enemy. In an insurgency, on the other hand there is no enemy. The individuals fighting are citizens of our country and therefore the key word is to use 'adequate force' to counter violence. The aim is to win the hearts and minds of people and not break heads. This is easier said than done since the opponent has no such qualms and uses maximum force and wants to 'kill' the soldier.

One way out of this dilemma is to use the armed forces sparingly, both in terms of time and location. For instances, like in Jammu and Kashmir, the army is now increasingly used in open terrain and paramilitary forces are in charge of populated areas.

Kashmir poses a particularly difficult problem due to the mixing of insurgency and proxy war/international jihad. One way out is to have a different set of rules for dealing with insurgents and jihadis. Adequate force against the former; maximum force against the latter. A proxy war is, after all, a war and NOT an insurrection or revolt. This would have an added dividend in that the opposition can be divided. The policy must be made clear to the local population as well.

If we are not to let the Indian Army go the way of the American army, there is no question that the practice of using civilians as a shield must cease forthwith. This may appear costly in the short run but in the long run the armed forces have to prove not only their material but MORAL superiority over the militants.

Once this sinks in the minds of people, support to the insurgents will dwindle and the army will eventually come on top. We are in the closing stages of the Kashmir insurgency. Brutal actions now will only prolong the agony. It is time to revert back to the soldier's code and avoid shortcuts.

The problems in the North East need drastic action.

First and foremost, there is a great need to keep the situation under constant review by giving a short tenure to the extension of the Disturbed Area Act. An amendment to the Act by making it possible to apply it to parts of the state, thus limiting its scope is worth considering. On the other hand, till such time as the soldier has to face an armed opponent he must have the authority to fire.

The army should consider formalising a procedure whereby while the authority to open fire remains with non commissioned officers it could enforce a mandatory review two steps up. This could act as a check on individual high handedness as well acts with malafide intent. 

After reviewing the overall situation, in the North East at least, the army should return to the barracks. It should stay in strength on the borders, but internally law and order ought to be handed over to the local authority. This is not a suggestion to withdraw the army from the North East, merely a suggestion to change its role and mandate.


The armed forces' special powers and continued exposure to the war against an 'invisible' enemy could brutalise the armed forces. This in turn will make it lose its greatest asset, the willing support and respect of the people. Special powers in the North East have come to resemble the tendency of overuse of antibiotic drugs. Overuse makes it ineffective as the body politic gets used to it. And like bacteria, the insurgents evolve newer and newer tactics.

Colonel (retired) Dr Anil A Athale is former joint director, War History, at the defence ministry

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Colonel (retd) Dr Anil A Athale