Saturday, April 16, 2022

A Force to reckon with

There is considerable alarm in India’s strategic community as to whether the moves towards restructuring the armed forces to create theatre commands have been sufficiently thought through. A great deal of it arises from concerns that the man chosen to lead the task in 2017, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, has never really had the intellectual heft to handle it. He proved this spectacularly last week in declaring at a seminar that the Indian Air Force was merely ‘a supporting arm to the armed forces, just as artillery support or the engineer support the combatant arms in the Army.In one sentence, he negated the advances in warfighting that have taken place since World War II, and raised huge question marks about the intellectual underpinnings of the process he and his team are planning to put the Indian military through.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the next conventional war will, in all likelihood, be initiated by cyber attacks, followed by air strikes on the land and sea. To be successful, the Army, Navy and the Air Force will have to use the Indian variants of the American AirLand and AirSea battle doctrines. There will be no room for single service ego trips here; ignore the compulsions of fighting on an integrated war plan, and you lose the war.

The purpose of creating a theatre command is the need for a structure that can fight an integrated battle. This is not about ordering a platoon on parade to make a right or a left turn. It is about taking a million-and-a-half-strong, somewhat archaic, war machine and putting it through new paces. The danger is that bits and pieces of that machine may fall off, be forgotten, or be incapable of meeting the new demands.

The IAF has categorically made it clear that it has very different views from those expressed by General Rawat. These were put forward at the same seminar by Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria. In such circumstances, it would be foolhardy for the military to undertake the leaps being envisaged.

Decisions taken without careful study could unbalance the armed forces which, in India’s case, are half-mobilised all the time. For this reason, the Naresh Chandra Task Force of 2011-2012, recommended that a CDS-like figure be appointed immediately, but the process of creating theatre commands be carefully fleshed out through experimentation based on paper studies and joint exercises to debug issues relating to command and control and joint logistics.

There are other reasons for caution as well. In 2001, India created the Andaman & Nicobar joint services command, hoping that its experience will show the path towards more geographic joint commands. Few will deny that the experiment has been a failure.

India has a long history of dysfunctional jointness of its military. Even though combined arms operations were a legacy of World War II, the Indian military never quite took to them. One of the biggest fiascoes of the 1965 war was when the IAF was not even informed that the Army was launching an attack towards Lahore. The Army’s designation of the 1999 Kargil operation as ‘Op Vijay’ and the IAF’s nomenclature as ‘Op Safed Sagar’ in 1999 tells their own story.

It is easy enough, and General Rawat intends to show us, to issue the orders and create the theatre commands. But it will be quite another level of challenge to get these to work as intended. The process of taking forces that have been used to fighting their individual battle and getting them to work with others is not easy. It requires not just paper orders, but large-scale war gaming and simulation, training and exercises on the ground at various levels of complexity. Only when a certain structure becomes viable should it be incorporated into the war plans. The issue is not theatre commands but their shape and the sequential timeline of their creation.

The structure of a theatre command also requires a foundation of jointness in a range of other areas. For example, the need for seamless communications between fast moving combat aircraft, slower armoured and ground force units. It may be a better idea to first put in place a series of functional commands — a joint logistics command, aerospace command, a cyber warfare command — to lay the groundwork for the geographic theatre commands.

Even greater is the need to establish their intellectual underpinning through joint operations doctrines. One such document was issued in 2017, it was widely criticised for its shortcomings. Just as you need a map to figure out the best and easiest way to reach your destination, so, too, you need a doctrine to first set a goal, then provide a guide that will enable the many parts of the system to work along the commonly agreed path. For practical reasons, doctrines are the intellectual product of collaboration of the different component services. To work effectively, they must be consensual documents, rather than adiktat.

The making of all these military moves without first articulating a national security strategy (NSS) is truly to put the cart before the horse. A changed military posture must be based on a larger politico-military guidance from the political leadership as to what is expected of the military. The task of crafting an NSS was assigned in 2018 to the National Security Adviser, as the chairman of the powerful Defence Planning Committee. Since then, there has been radio silence.

The Tribune July 6, 2021

100 Years in Power: Challenges Before Xi & China's Communist Party

The Communist Party of China (CPC) is 100 years old. This is quite an achievement for any political party especially one that has wielded supreme power continuously for 70 years. It has overcome many near-death experiences—Mao’s Great Famine, his Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen uprising as well as what should have been a destabilising development— the most explosive economic growth in history.

This ruthlessly authoritarian party led by Xi Jinping, today runs a nation with well-run cities, vibrant economy, a huge academic and science & technology establishment in a market where more than a million foreign companies operate. It commands vast resources and with its rapidly modernising military, and is recognised as a global power second only to the United States.

The trajectory of the country under Xi could lead it to world power status, or place it in a middle-income trap. The CPC’s standing in China is related to its ability to deliver economic growth decade after decade, economic stagnation of the kind that hit Japan in the 1990s, could destabilise its rule with consequences for the rest of the world.

From Deng to Xi: The Changing Worldview of the Chinese Communist Party

And, instead of loosening its hold as China has grown as a middle-class urbanised nation, the CPC has tightened its hold on power and seeks to regulate every aspect of the life of the country, aided by advanced communications and surveillance technologies.China owes its current standing to one man, Deng Xiaoping, who reoriented the self-destructive and factious CPC towards a market-led economy. More important, he sought to check the power of national leaders by introducing term limits and collective leadership. Vitally, he also provided a framework for China’s world view, wherein he advised his CPC colleagues to “hide our capacities and bide our time and be good in maintaining a low profile.”

But the man who is presiding over the 100th anniversary celebrations, Xi, has upended the Deng dictums. He has crowned himself the leader-for-life in the style of Mao. He has also upended China’s strategy of engagement with the West for unbridled strategic competition.

And, instead of loosening its hold as China has grown as a middle-class urbanised nation, the CPC has tightened its hold on power and seeks to regulate every aspect of the life of the country, aided by advanced communications and surveillance technologies.

What Xi Jinping has Accomplished & His Plans for the Future

The big question is whether Xi’s way will prevail and China will attain greater heights of material achievement by the time in 2049 when the CPC celebrates the centennial of the state it created—the People’s Republic of China. Or whether his mistakes, especially that of disregarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictums will prove to be his and his party’s undoing.

Xi’s economic plans for the future are ambitious. Indeed, as J Stewart Black and Allen J Morrison have pointed out that “decoupling” is not something the Americans thought up to deny China technology, it is something central to the CPC’s long term plans for China.

It was the CPC that walled off the Chinese internet developing an extensive system of censorship and control, even in the seemingly free-for-all that prevailed in Weibo (equivalent of Twitter). It kept out Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, freeing Chinese companies to develop their own alternatives resulting in the rise of giant companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and TikTok.

Xi has doubled down on the strategy. His Made in China 2025 and Internet Plus strategies are geared to a massive aatmanirbharta plan. Through a range of strategies like strategic acquisitions, subsidies and funding, forced transfer of technology, theft, China is seeking to eliminate its dependence on foreign countries for critical technologies and products, promote domestic dominance for indigenous firms, and using that to offer globally competitive products.

Xi's Challenges: From Corruption to the Army

Yet, there is a crisis like situation confronting Xi arising from strong demographic headwinds and a structural economic slowdown. Added to this is the emergence of a high-tech denial regime that has emerged in the West.

But in China’s mastery of the new digital technologies and the relative decline of US power, Xi senses opportunity. As is well known, the Chinese ideogram for the word “crisis” is a compound one which emphasises “danger” as well as an “incipient moment”. That moment could be the time when things could go awry, or, move in your favour. Xi, the great risk taker, has bet all to move forward and grasp what he thinks is China’s moment.

Xi has earlier proved to be the man of the moment for the CPC when he assumed power in 2012. Even though China had a huge wind in its sails as a result of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis that laid the West low, by the time XI came to power, the CPC was drifting.

First and foremost, there was a huge problem of unchecked corruption in the country which had even infected the People’s Liberation Army, where ranks were being bought and sold. Factionalism had become almost routine in the Party, which looked confused and directionless under the colourless Hu Jintao.

Xi initiated an anti-corruption campaign that spared none. From Zhou Youngkang, an erstwhile member of the all-powerful CPC Politburo Standing Committee and the security chief of the country, to Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who had occupied the topmost rungs of the PLA, all were brought low.

Unlike other militaries, the PLA is unique in that it is the armed wing of the CPC and, in that sense, its ultimate weapon. Xi’s second major effort was a comprehensive overhaul of the PLA. The reforms initiated in 2013 have restructured the way it is run by the Central Military Commission, as well as the way it is deployed in theatre commands. Xi’s constant exhortation to the PLA has been, first, the need for it to be loyal to the CPC, and second, to transform itself into a war-winning force.

China's Worrying Shift Towards Becoming an Aged Country

Xi is a man in a hurry because despite its huge achievements, the Chinese per capita income is still a quarter of that of the high-income countries and there are sharp regional variations within the country. There may be many Black Swans ahead, but the obvious Grey Rhino is China’s rapid demographic shift towards becoming an older country.

The most recent census of China says that in 2020 just 12 million babies were born, compared to 14.65 million in 2019. China’s fertility rate— the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime—now stands at 1.3. While the replacement rate, through which the population will remain stable is 2.1. Japan’s fertility rate was 1.36 last year, while that of the EU is around 1.5.

The demographic shift will mean a smaller workforce, as well as a much bigger social welfare and pension bill. As it is, the rise in China’s wage rate is pushing many global companies to shift their plants abroad to Vietnam or MalaysiaChina has ambitions of emerging as a high-tech manufacturing country, but as of now it seems to have major road blocks because the census reveals that the average age of schooling of people aged 15 remains less than 10 years. So, Chinese universities may churn out highly educated and competent engineers and researchers, but the industrial workforce could be found wanting.

The Undeniable Centrality of CPC to the Chinese People

The CPC has been central to the lives of the people and now, as China pushes forward towards a high-tech future, you can be sure, that they expect it to remain at the vanguard.

For most Chinese, it is the all-powerful and authoritarian CPC that had uplifted hundreds of millions of citizens from poverty, undertaken large-scale infrastructure construction, and made China the manufacturing centre of the world. For a moment last year, when COVID struck, the CPC was a bit shaken. But it quickly shrugged it off and undertook an aggressive strategy helped bringing it under control, even as it rampaged uncontrolled elsewhere in the world.

Contrary to what many expected, the CPC remains central to Chinese life and intends to stay that way. As Rana Mitter and Elspeth Johnson have recently put it, is not an authoritarian state wanting to become liberal, but an authoritarian state wanting to be successful politically and economically.

The Quint July 1, 2021

A Patch-Up Attempt on Kashmir Will Not Restore What Is Lost

The tragedy of  Jammu and Kashmir today can be expressed by that dark nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the kings horses and all the kings men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The Kashmiri Humpty was, of course, wantonly pushed off the wall, the chances that the various Kashmiri political actors, represented at the meeting convened by the Union government on Thursday, can undo the damage inflicted do not look good.

For the Opposition, after having faced mass incarceration and repression, the trust levels are understandably low.

As for the Union government, there is no cause to believe that, given its propensity to use Pakistan, and hostility towards the Muslim community,  for electoral purposes, it will strike a different course.

Reports of the three-and-half hour meeting between Modi, the Union Territory leadership and the Kashmiri leaders are necessarily fragmented. But they are agreed on the point that the government is committed to, in Amit Shah’s words, “Restoring statehood as promised in parliament.” Prime Minister Modi has noted, “Delimitation has to happen…so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected government.”

Given the rollercoaster Jammu and Kashmir has been on, some skepticism is warranted because even now we do not have a clear idea as to why Prime Minister Modi has changed course. But what the meeting, and the seeming walk back by the government has done, is to check the dangerous political drift between the Union government and the Kashmiri political opinion.

You can also take at face value the Union government’s claim that District Development Council and Panchayat elections have given new meaning to grass-roots democracy in Kashmir.

No extravagant claim was made about its economic transformation at the Thursday meeting, because none has occurred.

And neither has direct rule generated any special goodwill for New Delhi. Violence has not abated, terrorist strikes continue, as does the security forces’ heavy-handed response. More alarmingly, the recruitment of locals into the militancy continues apace.

National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti and other members of the Gupkar Alliance during a media address in Srinagar, June 22, 2021. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

Perhaps, in keeping with its governance style, the Modi-Shah duo acted first on August 5, 2019, and began thinking through the implications of its actions only later, and now want to walk back a bit.

Also read: Kashmiris Sees Modi’s Invitation as Climbdown But Absence of Agenda Leaves Valley Leaders Wary

Or maybe, they are worried about that other joker in the pack: The Supreme Court has been remarkably laid back in handling the numerous petitions before its five-member bench. But when they do get around to it, they may find it somewhat difficult to uphold the government’s actions.

Recall that the removal of Article 370 was done through patent constitutional chicanery – the President first declared that  instead of the constituent assembly, the revocation could be done by the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly, and since this assembly was itself dissolved, it would be assumed that the governor, a representative of the Union government, would decide.

The Kashmiri people and their representatives had no say.

As for the demotion of the state to the status of Union Territory, it is unprecedented in democratic practice around the world to deprive a people of a legislature, instead of conferring it on them.

It was done through a gross misreading of Article 3 of the constitution which gives that parliament power to create new states, divide or unite states, increase or decrease their area, and alter their name. But the article says nothing about extinguishing a state.

Also read: Does Modi’s Meeting With Jammu and Kashmir Parties Signal a Thaw or a Trap?

In addition, any bill arising from Article 3 is also expected to have the view of the legislatures of the states concerned. Here, as we noted, the legislature stood dissolved.

The demotion of the state is a dangerous precedent which could allow any Union government with a majority in parliament to downgrade and take control of any state ruled by the Opposition.

India is, famously, a ‘union of states’ – entities which have considerable autonomy in the matter of public order, police, public health, agriculture, water and communications. Unless there is a breakdown of the constitutional machinery, occurred in the 1990-1995 period in Jammu and Kashmir, the Union government has no business to interfere with the powers reserved to states.

In 2019, as is well known, there was no constitutional breakdown, the assembly had been dissolved in 2018, and fresh elections should have been held as a matter of course, instead of the dubious  and drastic remedy used by the Union government.

There is a stream of thought which suggests that the developments relating to Kashmir arise from some secret negotiations that the Modi government is conducting with Pakistan. Contacts between the two governments have been going on through the period of the Pulwama bombing and have been pushed by the United States which has been keen to stabilise the region before it pulled out from Afghanistan.

Security personnel stand guard on a street during restrictions imposed in the wake of the first anniversary of the Article 370 move, in Srinagar, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo: PTI

India-Pakistan history is even more tortuous than that of New Delhi and Srinagar. In fact publicity to the talks could well lead to a blow-back in the form of a terror strike. This has happened all too often in the past and we can see things going back to square one again.

At this juncture, having faced extreme repression in the past two years, the mainstream Kashmiri parties are unlikely to directly challenge the Union government. Besides the possibility of a court ruling, there is nothing to compel the government to a particular course. No timelines have been offered, statehood could be restored in one year or five.

As for Article 370, it is more of a shadow than substance, but even then the BJP, whose founding father Syama Prasad Mookerjee, fought against it, is unlikely to bring it back.

Having enjoyed total authority in the past two years, the Modi government would prefer to give shape to a new hybrid Jammu and Kashmir state, something like Delhi, which has its own legislature, but few powers. But there is no room in the constitution for such a monstrosity. But that  will not deter the government from trying. They are not impressed by the letter or spirit of the constitution since their political forbears had nothing to do with the freedom struggle or the creation of the constitution.

For their part, the Kashmiris will continue to fight for their identity and rights and pay the price. There is nothing in the current political discourse that suggests that Modi and Shah can lead to a new politics of reconciliation in the state.

In history, as in life, there is no going back. Those who think there can be status quo ante will be disappointed.

A huge gulf that separates the motives and actions of the Union government and the expectations of the Kashmiri parties in the erstwhile state. You can patch up the Kashmiri Humpty Dumpty, but it’s unlikely ever to be the same again.

The Wire June 25, 2021

‘Juneteenth’ for black lib

The Biden administration’s decision to declare June 19 or ‘Juneteenth’ as a national holiday, on a par with Independence Day (July 4), Christmas, Veterans Day (November 11) and New Year’s Day is yet another hallmark of the unfinished socio-political agenda of American democracy.

The recent years have made no secret of the fact that the US is a divided society. There are large segments of the population who are denied equal political and social rights and exist as an economic underclass, minus educational or financial equity. A strong current of US political opinion has been able to prevent through legal, monetary and social means, the fulfilment of America’s own vision, put out in its Declaration of Independence in 1776, that ‘all men are created equal.’

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of Black Americans, most of who were slaves in the US till the middle of the 19th century. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War (1860-1865), had declared all slaves free as of January 1, 1863. But it was only when the victorious Union Army reached Galveston that some 2.5 lakh black slaves in Texas learnt they were free through an order issued by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865.

For the record, black Americans had arrived in the US at the same time as the whites in the 1620s, only they had come as captured slaves shipped across the Atlantic to labour in the American colonies.

Thereafter, black Americans celebrated this date as their independence day, because July 4, the traditional American independence day, had meant little to them. The deep divide that these two dates represent continues to this dayIt took exactly one more century after Juneteenth to August 1965 when the blacks got the legal right to vote, some 15 years after all Indians did. This was a century of enormous suffering that saw a migration of freed slaves to ghettos in the northern cities. Blacks were barred in many places from buying property, permitted limited access to legal processes, prevented from voting and their children sent to segregated schools. Businesses did do well in black enclaves like Tulsa, Oklahoma and east St Louis, only to be destroyed by white mob violence. Thousands of blacks were lynched often for no cause — lynching was a means of controlling and dominating the blacks.

As the US rose to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, a substantial proportion of its citizens were socially and politically handicapped and denied the ability to generate equity as the whites were, in the form of property and savings or educational attainment comparable to the white community. Recall that fully 25 per cent of all Americans were black at the time of independence, most of them slaves. Today, they number 13 per centIt is difficult to sum up the historical injustice that black Americans suffered. Or the extent to which they helped to enrich America. The labour of black slaves in cotton plantations enabled the US to become an economic power in the 19th century. Since they were bought and sold in the market, it is possible to estimate that their value in 1860 was ‘three times greater than the total amount invested in (US) banks’. And it was seven times the total value of currency circulating in the US at the time.

Home ownership rates for black families are around 44 per cent compared to 74 for white families. A Washington Post analysis found that a typical middle class black household in 2016 had $13,000 in wealth, compared to the nearly $1,50,000 for the median white household, and that the gap had actually increased since 1968.The US has seen periods where it has overcome the divisions to meet enormous challenges — World War II was one of them, as was the competition with the Soviet Union. Sending a man to the moon was a huge scientific exercise, but it came in a political era that saw a slew of social security measures like healthcare for poorer and older Americans, reforms in education, rural education, the environment, public broadcasting, transportation and it was not surprising that it also provided the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to bring blacks into the political mainstream.

But now, as the American demographic profile becomes less white, we see a last-ditch stand of the conservatives. They detest where America is right now and are afraid where it is headed. Across the country, right-wing politicians are passing laws to restrict voting by the poorer and less educated black community.

The principal competitor of the US, China, simply wiped out its social divisions by executing several million people at the time when the People’s Republic was founded and in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Homogeneity is something that is intrinsic to the Hans who have a history of assimilating diverse peoples and cultures. You can see the effort being made now to do so in Xinjiang and Tibet and the turmoil makes China that much weaker.

In President Biden’s recent European tour, the central message was that of competition with China and the virtues of democracy over autocracy. Yet, Biden knows that the root of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, and the refusal of large numbers of the opposition to acknowledge him President, is racism, which not only weakens him, but the country and all its institutions.

For countries like India, who are relying on a strong US to meet their own geopolitical goals, this is not good news.

The Tribune June 22, 2021

Can India & G7’s Democratic Pledge Block China’s Illiberal Might?

The great value of the recent Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Cornwall, UK which concluded on Sunday, 13 June, was that it took place in the circumstances that it did, and put across a picture of a rich and democratic world looking more united than it has done in the recent past.

This is important because of the disarray created by the presidency of Donald Trump which probably contributed to the G7’s signal failure to provide any kind of leadership to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The meeting now is all the more important when it is clear that the G7 is facing off against the illiberal might of China, which has successfully combated the pandemic, and whose economy is already on the path of recovery, while a large part of the world, including India, are flailing.

It is in this context that we should read the lengthy joint statement at the end of the meeting on Sunday dealing with health, climate change, democracy and open societies, economic recovery, trade and future research and innovation

G7’s Pledge to Fight COVID

The G7 comprises of the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, as well as the EU. The UK, which is the host, had invited India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa to attend as guests. The leaders of all the countries, except India, were physically present at the meeting. Prime Minister Modi participated in its outreach sessions through video.

Heeding the call of activists and organisations, the G7 has promised to do more to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and has pledged over 1 billion more vaccine doses for poorer countries over the next year.

Learning from the crisis, they have also agreed to establish new early warning systems and boost scientific support to enable vaccine development and treatments in a span of 100 rather than 300 days. In line with this, the communique pressed for a Phase 2 study by the WHO, on the origins of COVID-19 which should include China as per the experts group recommendation.

All Eyes On China

China’s was the looming shadow over the meeting and its focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Where countries like the US and Japan had earlier taken the lead, today we see them joined by Germany, UK and France in calling for the maintenance of “a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of the law,” as the joint statement noted.

It added that the G7 “remain seriously concerned” about the situation in the East and South China seas, and “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.”

There was also an unprecedented reference to Taiwan which had been discussed by the G7 foreign ministers in their May meeting. Sunday’s summit communique said, “we underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” The communique bluntly told China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms with respect to Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

G7’s ‘Build Back Better World’ Initiative Is Also Targeted At China

China also figured in the economic front with the G7 offering a united front to declare that it will adopt “collective approaches” to take on China’s “non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy. This is an important development which indicates that the US has been able to get the EU to fall in line with its hard-line strategy of dealing with China.

There can be little doubt that China is also the context of the new Build Back Better World (B3W) partnership announced by the G7. This is an infrastructure investment initiative based on “democratic values and norms” to promote “clean green growth” in developing countries.

Clearly, it seeks to target China’s ongoing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though there was no specific reference to China here. It is not clear, though, what kind of money the G7 would be willing to put up for the project.

Climate change and a “green recovery” was an important leg of the summit, with President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson strongly endorsing measures towards achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and increasing climate finance by 2025.

G7’s Shared Belief In Democratic Values Reaffirmed — And PM Modi Being Its ‘Torchbearer’

Since the competition with China is also being framed as a contest between autocracy and democracy, it is not surprising that the communique also emphasised the overarching theme of shared values of the open societies that constitute the G7.

This was underscored by a separate outreach session on “open societies and economies“ whose lead speaker was Prime Minister Modi.

Later, the summit also adopted a statement that reaffirmed the shared belief in open societies, democratic values and multilateralism for the “responsible stewardship of our planet.” It made a ringing call for the upholding of rules and norms that promote human rights for all, “online and offline”, and opposition to any kind of discrimination. It gave a ringing endorsement to democracy, which it said included voting in free and fair elections as well as the promotion of social inclusion, equal opportunities for all, freedom of expression, the rule of law with “effective, independent and impartial judicial systems”.

It also criticised the threat to democracy from “rising authoritarianism, electoral interference… politically-motivated internet shutdowns.”

There is some irony in Prime Minister Modi’s remarks hailing India’s solidarity and unity with “open and democratic societies and economies” and on recalling that “democracy and freedom were part of India’s civilisational ethos,” given the erosion of democratic norms in the country under his watch.

But Modi had been billed as the lead speaker in the “Open Societies and Economies” session, and he had to say those things. Perhaps the G7 intended a message in inviting him to speak at the session.

The Quint June 15, 2021

'New' Defence Ministry Policy on Declassifying War Histories Isn't Original, More Must Be Done

It is difficult to know what to make of the Ministry of Defence’s new policy on archiving, declassifying and compiling war operations and histories announced last week.

On the one hand, Rajnath Singh’s decision has opened the gate to declassification of defence information; on the other, where this gate takes us is a maze of bureaucracy-driven processes that will ensure nothing happens. Singh certainly seems to be well-intentioned, but the babu authors of the policy seem to have only a vague idea of the problem.

Cutting through the verbiage of its June 12 press release, this is what the Ministry of Defence seeks to have defence organisations do:

1.  Transfer their records, “including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books” to the History Division of MoD.

2. These would be records that were already vetted by the organisations to see if they were fit for declassification3. Thereafter, the History Division would use these declassified records to publish authoritative compilations and war histories. This process would be done in a time-bound span of five years after “completion of war/operations”.

4. After the compilation or publication of the official history, records older than 25 years will be transferred to the National Archives, presumably to be made available to the public.

Established procedure

In fact, the Public Record Rules, 1997 – which framed the rules of the Public Record Act, 1993 – have already established a procedure for the declassification of records and their transfer to the National Archives after a period of 25 years or more.

All ministries are supposed to have a records officer responsible for liaison with the National Archives. As for declassification, the 1997 rules say the ministry or office “shall by an office order authorize an officer not below the rank of the Under Secretary to the Government of India to evaluate and downgrade the classified record being maintained by it.” The officer concerned is supposed to evaluate these records every fifth year for the purpose of downgrading. Finally, when these are deemed records of “a permanent nature”, they are to be transferred to the National Archives. Otherwise, presumably, they will be destroyed.

Two processes mixed up

The MoD’s June 12 press note seems to have mixed up two things: first, the process of declassification and transfer to the archives, and second, the writing and compiling of war histories.

While these are indeed bureaucratic processes, the MoD has also bureaucratised the writing of the histories by appointing a joint secretary as its nodal figure.

The History Division which has, in the past, authored a number of well-received war histories, will not, lead the process of “compiling” or writing future accounts. The job will be done by a committee headed by the joint secretary, who may or may not have a background in history, or for that matter, the military. This committee will have representatives of the three services, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs. As for “prominent military historians” they will be inducted “if required”.

Also read: Rajnath Singh’s Booklet on ‘Reforms’ Shows Defence Ministry Is Still a Serial Propagandist

By the way, the press release confuses the 2012 Naresh Chandra Committee, which actually gave recommendations in the area, with the 1993 N.N. Vohra Committee, which dealt with the criminalisation of politics.

But more important seems to be a complete absence of understanding of what history is all about. You get a hint, perhaps with the use of the word “compilation” in the press release, implying that all you have to do is to compile “facts”. As E.H. Carr pointed out, history is not just about “facts” but sifting, interpreting and analysing facts on the basis of the expertise of the historian. When writing on any given modern battle, the historian will not be wanting for “facts” which are plentiful; his/her challenge will be to sift through them, select the most relevant and provide a coherent account.

The background

The reason for this development arises from the contorted history of India’s wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. The History Division of the MoD is an old one and had, after independence, published the history of Operation Polo, the “police action” to liberate Hyderabad in 1948, Operation Vijay to liberate Goa, the History of the Indian armed forces in UN Operations in Congo (1960-63) and that of the Indian Custodian Force in Korea in 1953-4.

All are now out of print. None are officially available online.

The real problem began with the History Division’s work on the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars. Under the talented team headed by Dr S.N. Prasad, all three war histories were prepared based on declassified documents and records of the day, as well as interviews of participants. The History Division then went through the difficult process of finding approval from various departments. The manuscripts readied for publication were signed off by the then defence secretary N.N. Vohra in 1992, who actually wrote the foreword for all three books.

At this point, however, objections came primarily from the Ministry of External Affairs. It was not too happy with the idea of releasing the 1962 history because relations with China were sensitive. For the same reason it felt that a 1971 war history, too, would be imprudent because of Bangladesh.

So, the government gave the MOD authority to circulate these histories in a limited way to training institutions and higher command levels.

Around 2000 or so, the Times of India obtained the manuscripts and put them on their website from where they were downloaded across the world. Since these were PDFs of ready-to-print manuscripts, scholars around the world have believed that these were actually officially released histories. Today, as far as the academic world is concerned, they are.

And now comes the bizarre part. In 2011 and 2014, S.N. Prasad and U.P. Thapliyal, who had already retired from service, updated and published the histories of the 1965 and 1971 wars. But, though the copyright of the two books is held by the Ministry of Defence, Thapliyal noted in the foreword that the ministry had merely “sponsored” the books, and that they did not reflect the views of the armed forces or the MoD. In other words, we still don’t have the official history of those two wars.

As for the Sino-Indian War of 1962, that remains off-limits for the MoD, though the leaked version continues to be authoritatively cited by scholars around the world.

So, there is nothing particularly unique in what Rajnath Singh has done. The Public Records Act of 1993 had already mandated some of these actions. Most ministries have already created records rooms to transfer older documents. The MEA has tasked former ministry staffers to author a number of authoritative works based on these records. But whether they have transferred those documents to the National Archives or not, is not known.

Also read: Not Just the MoD, the Military’s QR Overreach Is Also Culpable For Impeding Modernisation

One big problem which is mentioned only in passing is declassification. All agencies involved in security – the armed forces, intelligence agencies and so on – have a system of ascending scale of classification (confidential, secret and top secret) by section officers, under secretaries and deputy secretaries and so on. Only the Official Secrets Act of 1923 is clear about what is secret – maps, sketches, codes, passwords, note or document relating to the sovereignty and integrity of India. Needless to say, this does not even begin to meet the requirement of secrets in a digital age.

The government has yet to work out a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security related information. It needs to set up classification standards and levels of classification, and categorise the classification authority, duration of classification and the process of declassification or downgrading the classification of a document in clear terms.

Having the junior-most person in the hierarchy to declassify documents, as the 1997 rules provide, is a problem. No officer, specially a junior one, would be willing to take the risk of declassifying something really sensitive, even if it is 50 years old, assuming that she or he even understood its importance.

In this era when information is generated in huge volumes, separating wheat from chaff is the key issue. If you have too many secrets floating around, the chances are some will spill out. There is need for an automated process through which documents get downgraded every five years, till they are declassified at 25. Any decision not to automatically downgrade a document should be taken by a small committee and they should record their reasons in writing so that the decision can be reviewed again later.

The government can, if it is wise, begin involving retired officers to aid the process of declassification. Their expertise and domain knowledge would ease the process considerably.

The Wire June 14, 2021