Rethinking internal security in India

PAUL STANILAND | Updated on January 23, 2018

Mountain-watch: Take people seriously   -  Reuters

The government needs to be bold and imaginative in taking measures that will win the confidence of the local population

The ambush of Indian Army forces in Manipur, the signing of a peace accord with the NSCN-IM in Nagaland, and the Gurdaspur attacks have all put internal security at the centre of Narendra Modi’s agenda. India has a long history of dealing with armed groups, yet many of the lessons are consistently ignored in popular and policy discourses on how to respond to armed groups. Many important insights have received insufficient attention.

The effects of ‘development’ in war zones are far more complicated than is generally appreciated. Pouring huge central funds into regions of violence is at least rhetorically intended to encourage economic growth and employment, providing alternatives to involvement in militancy. But this seemingly straightforward policy often misses the mark. Many militant leaders are not unemployed, uneducated young men; they are educated children of the respectable middle-class. It is entirely possible to be disaffected with the political status quo while also holding a job and receiving an education. Development initiatives may dissuade some recruits or supporters, but many poor areas are not sites of rebellion, and many rebels are not poor. Assuming a tight link between poverty and militancy does not make for good policy.


Development funding can be counter-productive when it is not properly distributed. Central funds are frequently siphoned off by local politicians, their families, and patronage networks. This fuels corruption and undermines both accountability and bureaucratic effectiveness. The endless revelation of government-linked scandals in Kashmir makes clear what happens when local powerbrokers become entrenched, and does little to endear ‘pro-India’ and ‘mainstream’ politicians to their constituents. This may ultimately work for the Indian state’s purposes, as AS Dulat’s recent revelations about the use of money in Kashmir suggest, but it is a very different mechanism than encouraging broad-based prosperity.

These funds may also end up in the hands of insurgents. They often directly extract money from bureaucrats and firms, while companies owned by or linked to armed groups can win contracts from the government. Nagaland is a classic example of government funding going to armed groups rather than to services. Providing resources has a place in internal security policy, but should not become an easy but ineffective substitute for harder political initiatives.

The pathways to government success have been quite diverse. In some cases, such as Punjab in the late 1980s and early 1990s, West Bengal in the early/mid-1970s, and Kashmir in the 1990s, aggressive, often brutal, security operations broke the back of militant movements. These campaigns involved extensive human rights abuses. Counter-insurgency is a nasty and grim affair. The Indian Army and ministry of home affairs have devised a set of euphemisms to describe what happens in war zones (as have militants), but we should not ignore their realities.

In other cases, however, notably Mizoram in the 1980s, direct negotiations with an armed group led to peace deals that demobilised and incorporated it into the political structure. Successoften hinges on including the local population in the benefits of the settlement and preventing ‘spoiler’ factions from undermining implementation.

Many approaches

In Nagaland and northern Manipur, we have seen recurrent rounds of ceasefires and negotiations that neither establish a government monopoly of violence nor lead to recurrences of extensive violence. These are zones of limited cooperation between the state and armed actors, which sometimes break down into violence but can also be quite enduring. Imposing state dominance is not the only way to restrain violence.

There is no single approach that has ‘worked’ for the state. Political elites and security managers have adopted radically different postures across conflicts, from intense suppression to live-and-let-live bargains. A range of strategies exist that deserve creative application and experimentation.

Reducing local mobilisation to Pakistani perfidy is inadequate. There is no doubt that Pakistan has played a destructive role in fostering violence. Yet too often, unrest in Kashmir, in particular, is framed as fundamentally a result of Pakistani policy.

Foregrounding Pakistan ignores the agency of people on the ground. They are political actors with goals, fears, and strategies, whether these are viewed favourably or unfavourably by India’s mainstream sentiment. Turning them into simple pawns of Pakistan is a way of avoiding or deflecting the hard questions raised by their demands. This approach reproduces the underlying political problems, rather than resolving them. Instead, India’s policymakers and public need to take Kashmiris seriously.

Politics is not PR

Politics cannot be equated with public relations, fiscal transfers, or electoral turnout. Substantial numbers of people within India, especially on its unstable peripheries, either do not consider themselves Indian or view the state as an inimical, colonising force. Talk of returning to ‘normalcy’ ignores the deep history of places like Kashmir and Nagaland. Rather than trying to enclose these zones of conflict into a homogenising image of India, real imagination, boldness, and risk-taking are necessary to create sustainable, inclusive political orders. This requires political investment from the very top of the Indian state; else day-to-day policy will continue to lie in the hands of bureaucrats, military officers, and local officials with little incentive to radically change the status quo.

Because of his credibility with the right wing and his political clout, Modi is well equipped to make major reforms. In the North-East, the recent agreement with the NSCN-IM may help end Nagaland’s decades-long conflict. The Naga public needs to be incorporated into a broadly inclusive settlement. While much recent press has been devoted to tactics and military operations in Manipur, the true key is working to make political adjustments within Manipur that can satisfy politically motivated militants, build up local institutions, and empower independent politicians who are not reliant on Delhi’s largesse. Throughout the region, development assistance needs to be better targeted and peace deals need to accommodate unarmed citizens as well as armed groups.

Jammu and Kashmir represents both the greatest challenge and opportunity for Modi. He can continue to play to the hardline preferences of his Hindu nationalist base, but this will not lead to lasting improvements in the State.

A dramatically less likely, but more far-sighted, approach would be to actually implement some of the recommendations of various ignored commissions and interlocutors’ reports of the last two decades, to refrain from propping up and manipulating the major political machines in the Kashmir Valley, and to demand greater accountability from the security forces operating in the State. This should include a serious assessment of AFSPA that prioritises local sentiment. These kinds of initiatives would mark a tentative, but welcome, break from the dysfunctional politics of the status quo.

(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania)

Published on August 10, 2015

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