In the aftermath of the shooting of two young Kashmiri men by the Army on November 3, it is imperative to draw attention to the conditions of governance that control the everyday lives of millions of citizens. In several parts of India — the Northeastern States, Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh — the coercive arm of the state is also tasked with the creation of conditions under which civilian governance can proceed. This has not been perfectly achieved.
Since 2008, I have been researching India’s counterinsurgency campaigns in the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoist belt in Central India, particularly Chhattisgarh. In 2011, I spent a few months in Chhattisgarh. I recall here part of an interview with a Border Security Force (BSF) officer stationed in Bhilai, Durg district. The officer said, “We [the BSF] have been providing security for about one year. In this one year, there has been no development work. [The] State government has not undertaken one project. So now the BSF is doing civic action. We are providing resources. We have been distributing medicines, clothes, essentials, food, blankets, seeds for farming, utensils, sports items to children, school supplies. We have even given local panchayats and tribal leaders TV sets and DTH [direct to home] facilities. They need to have some information about the outside world … We have been providing security to the contractors, saying now get the work done. But no development has happened. We provide security, but no one carries out the job. This is the problem with our system. The Naxals are fighting this system. Their final target is the politician.”
Layering of roles
During a visit to Kashmir in September 2014, I found ‘Sadbhavna’ schools set up by the Indian military around the Line of Control (LoC) in villages like Dawar in Gurez sector, which are poor and lack much infrastructure. In an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of people, by following U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, the Indian Army had launched in the late 1990s “Operation Sadbhavna” (Goodwill) that is aimed at providing health services, undertaking women’s empowerment, operating schools under asbestos roofs, and, providing relief and rehabilitation.
What these accounts reveal is a layering of roles for the coercive state apparatus.
Schools and medicine aside, these are also the same state actors that possess the power to barge into local houses at will, arrest or kill people in fake encounters, impose curfews, order crackdowns and commit sexual offences against women with impunity. This is all done in the name of counterinsurgency. I argue here that in conflict-ridden areas of India, governance has increasingly come to be seen through the lens of the counterinsurgency paradigm. These are abnormal conditions of governance that I call garrison governance.
Garrison governance is governance conducted under the protection of the coercive arm of the state. The logic that underpins garrison governance rests on an assumption that without the presence of soldiers, normal state institutions will be severely crippled in their everyday functioning because of the threat of anti-state groups operating in the region.
Garrison governance is the enmeshment of the bureaucratic with the coercive. This leads to a governance outcome that privileges the everyday coercive over the bureaucratic avatar of the state. This code switching of roles that the Army and paramilitary play, also creates various levels of cognitive dissonance on the ground among locals. The uniformed state actor is not only creating the conditions for governance, but is also governing, while the regular bureaucrats are missing or incapable of governing. Local political representatives appear with their political party paraphernalia around election time and then disappear. The only constant state actor in such areas is the uniformed soldier from one of the various paramilitary forces, the Army or the police.
The Indian state has had to invest heavily in a security apparatus to facilitate incorporation and control of dissenting populations. But how did the Indian state reach this point? I argue here that a combination of factors has precipitated garrison governance. India had to become a counterinsurgent state along with becoming an independent democracy. Because the police forces were not adequate to address hostile rebel groups in the Northeast in the 1950s and 1960s and the local State’s bureaucratic apparatuses were underdeveloped at the time, the state relied heavily on the military and on special regiments like the Assam Rifles and Manipur Rifles, leading to an early institutionalisation of garrison governance. This over time became path-dependent, i.e., it was easier to allow garrison governance in the hands of uniformed actors to continue, than to actually try to find political solutions to persistent problems of insurgency. Political solutions only came with regard to Mizoram and, to a limited extent, in Tripura with the Tripura National Volunteers and in Bodoland. Several other ceasefires or “Suspension of Operations” agreements with insurgent groups in the northeast have only reduced levels of violence against the Army, but not between insurgent groups and have also not contained violence by the Army against unarmed locals.
However, Army, police and paramilitary officers that I have interviewed over the last seven years express much displeasure with the Central state. One officer in particular said that the Army was sent in to control populations and directives that came from the Home Ministry were almost never clear. So, he said, the Army “just does what it is trained to do”. A high-ranking official similarly suggested that in the end, all solutions would have to be political. The Army, he said, was only stabilising certain areas and helping in conducting elections.
The formula for garrison governance is rather simple — boots on the ground combined with some feel-good handouts. This obfuscates a larger architecture of oppression. Soldiers are still protected by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, which has led to several reported incidents of human rights violations and sexual assault. The landscape is dotted with armed soldiers and the police; civilian movement is filtered and controlled in shopping districts and government offices, curfews and crackdowns are imposed at the slightest suggestion of dissent, and phone tapping is common. An Intelligence Bureau official stationed in Kashmir told me that they were tapping 10 lakh phones in Kashmir alone by 2014. In the last two decades, most Governors of Northeastern States have been former military generals.
Even the police in places like Kashmir have become more militarised. Assault rifles have replaced traditional lathis, which are now deemed insufficient for crowd control. Alongside this, Special Police Officers are being locally recruited, trained and deployed in Kashmir. Visitors to certain States are often visited by the special branch of the State police, which can, at will, investigate individuals and their intentions for being in the State. Security forces routinely stop inter-State buses and local buses for spot checks. Travelling in trains in the Northeast means being willing to open up your baggage to the officials of the Railway Protection Force.
During election time, troop deployment doubles across the Northeast. At a higher level, General Officers Commanding (GOCs) in these States have a high degree of power in maintaining counterinsurgency strategy. As reported by one bureaucrat deployed in Manipur in 2011, the GOC and the Chief Minister of Manipur often got into disagreements about what needed to be done about the hill tribes. Often the GOC won.
In spite of six decades of counterinsurgency, insurgencies in India have thrived. I have personally counted at least 196 insurgent groups since 1950 in India, many of which are still active. It is clear that a strategy meant to secure sovereignty has instead led to a permanent state of exception in some areas, where the character of governance itself is at odds with democratic norms since the power of elected representatives and bureaucrats is circumscribed by and enabled only at the behest of soldiers. Some constitutional rights of people stand suspended under such governance because non-insurgent, democratic political dissent has also come to be seen as a form of anti-state activity. Under such conditions, it is vital to reopen a debate into India’s counterinsurgency strategies in different areas and start thinking about political settlements to insurgencies.
(This article was originally published in The Hindu dated November 18, 2014 and is available on https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-soldier-as-state-actor/article6608758.ece?homepage=true )