Come summer and the military affairs scene in India heats up; this has been a kind of trend over the past half-decade or so. In mid-1997, we witnessed an escalation of firing, including artillery, along the Line of Control. 1998 was a landmark year in which both the pivotal states in South Asia blasted their way into the nuclear club. Despite the expectation that nuclearization would put an end to war, the Kargil War broke out barely a year later.

Year 2000 was marked by political maneuvers from both sides, with the Hizb ul Mujahedeen declaring a ceasefire in Kashmir and then reneging under pressure. India followed suit with its own version, called 'non-initiation of combat operations'. These moves flattered to deceive; no political solution emerged despite the close call at Kargil. That no lesson was learned was evident from Indian muscle-flexing in the form of an 'exercise', Purna Vijay, in which armored formations practiced their drills in the peak summer of 2001. The Agra Summit the following year excited the political context in which military affairs are situated in the subcontinent. Its failure may well have been the proverbial 'last chance'; followed as it was by the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament. Thereafter, Year 2002 witnessed the largest military mobilization on the subcontinent since 1971. In mid-May the two countries were but a trigger pull away from war in the wake of the ugly Kalu Chak incident.

While it is too early to be complacent on the way the strategic scene will shape itself this year, 2003 might in retrospect be seen as a turning point, if the initiative towards normalization is taken to its logical conclusion. While this aspect may be revisited with the benefit of hindsight later, at the moment the military scene has been enlivened by what has be critically termed as a 'fake war', Operation Sarp Vinash. Ostensibly, Sarp Vinash, involving troops of Romeo Force, was conducted in April-May in the HilKaka area of Surankote region near Rajouri. It has been regarded as the highest profile counter terrorist operation launched by the Indian Army and has been credited with a correspondingly high success rate including the killings of 40-60 terrorists and the destruction of 90 hideouts. Strategic gains have also been claimed, notably the ending of a threat to Indian supply lines and elimination of a terrorist safe haven.

The nation requires knowing how its valiant Army is combating the scourge of terrorism, and transparency in this regard has always been welcome. However, a sound media policy must be based on truth, with minimal departure from reality.
However, Praveen Swami, arguably India’s best informed - and also perhaps the most committed - media commentator on the Indian Army in Kashmir, has a different take. His latest scoop (Frontline, Jun 21-Jul 02) has been to credibly bust breathless Army-generated media accounts of Operation Sarp Vinash. The operation had drawn critical editorial attention in its initial phases. Reports of camps within Indian territory were treated as yet another instance of negligence by intelligence and defense agencies. This perhaps led to a defensive inflation in figures of hideouts and terrorists put out of action. A few issues that warrant further attention have been obscured by the claims and charges.

The human rights angle, touched upon by Swami, has not received the attention it deserves. There are reports of these camps having young boys, taken from their families either for training or for logistics duties. It is not known how the Army has chosen to cope with their complicating presence. One cannot self-reflexively state that these boys boost statistics in 'success ratios', since the Army does value its human face. Nonetheless, human rights watchers must not uncritically rely entirely on auto-regulation by the Army on this aspect; the army's characterization and treatment of these boys must be queried.

Another significant issue is the departure from the traditional Indian approach to counter-insurgency. The Army appears to have borrowed more than Americanisms such as 'Shock and Awe', using helicopters in a combat role for the first time. This owes perhaps to the remote terrain, absence of possibility of collateral damage and the demands of that demanding principle of war - surprise. That a 'US-returned' commander (The Major General in charge is reported to have worked earlier in the Indian Defense Attaché office in Washington) was in charge of the operations tells us that the expanding Indo-US military engagement will likely bring in the American 'gung-ho-ism' into Indian tactical thinking. But the fact is that the Indian way has thus far been remarkably successful, and must not be abandoned. We must examine whether the traditional reliance on manpower for saturating an area with a 'grid' deployment, needs to be supplemented by stand off firepower,

The Army claims to have recovered an Inmarsat set that was used to contact places in India ranging from Aligarh Muslim University to Mallapuram. The release of such information can be ascribed to over-zealousness of operational commanders. Not being politically sophisticated, they are unaware of the usage such information has in quarters inimical to minority interests, for it does not require any clairvoyance to estimate as to whom these calls may have been made to. When such information of dubious authenticity gains official imprimatur it lends credence to the canards used to ghettoize Muslim communities all over India. The Army needs to be more circumspect in handling such information, lest it lose its hard-earned apolitical aura. In this era of subversion of institutions from within, national institutions such as the Armed Forces require sensitization to this aspect, and consequently greater introspection and vigilance.

The nation requires knowing how its valiant Army is combating the scourge of terrorism, and transparency in this regard has always been welcome. Therefore, there is no faulting the publicity surrounding Operation Sarp Vinash. The publicity could be a deliberate ploy to make the area off limits to infiltrating terrorist groups this summer. It could also have been meant to signal Indian resolve despite simultaneously extending the 'hand of friendship'. Such perception management remains an important weapon. However, a sound media policy is based on truth, with minimal departure from reality. The policy must also lay down parameters for any 'spin doctoring' that may be required. Failing to do this would have the implication of imposing on democratic space.

An informed citizenry is the strength of a democracy. Manipulation of information in the public sphere for institutional ends may detract from the quality of debate attending an issue. Since the military has access to privileged information, it must be wary of planting information of dubious quality that may render such debate askew. If the success was not quite of the order claimed, inflation of figures would have a greater impact than foreseen. The ongoing peace initiative could be affected by a strengthening of the hard-line lobby. The origins of the impetus to publicity in this case could well lie in a bureaucratic tussle with commanders south of the Pirpanjal trying to match the more intensive counter-insurgency regimen of those to the north. These are aspects that the media policy of security forces has to address more comprehensively than can be discerned to have been done so far.

It's possible that too much must not be read into Sarp Vinash; it may have been merely another operation oversold by a media-savvy commander. Nevertheless, the issues it has raised require deliberation not only within security forces but also by a concerned citizenry. The latter helps put the onus on the former to apply themselves in a manner that benefits a liberal democratic order's authority over the armed forces. This is the firmest safeguard against the suppression-alienation-agitation cycle's runaway risks. The public must remain seized of the issues raised by discerning and courageous observers such as Praveen Swami and others; without this the future will merely replicate a past found wanting.