Former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon discusses internal security & India-US relations with SUSHANT SINGH
From your time in the government to now, how do you see the internal security situation changing in the country?
Over time, the state in India has learnt how to do counterterrorism better and better. Terrorism is not the kind of strategic threat that is in the public mind and in the media. If you look at deaths from terrorism, they have come down steadily. But if you look at where is the violence in our society and so on, it is from communal violence, polarisation – that has actually gone up. Since 2012, it has been going up. That for me is a real risk because that leads to other things. It leads to radicalisation, communities being alienated and so on. And social violence.
Part of this whole urbanisation or rootlessness, crimes against women, that kind of personal insecurity, that is dangerous. We need to do much more in reforming the way we police, we run internal security. If you look at external security, external affairs, all these have been reformed pretty basically compared to what we inherited from the Raj. Internal security is one area where we haven’t actually changed the structures, changed the way we do things. If anything, we have lost some of the capabilities that we used to have because we no longer are a settled society. For a police station to keep a list of ‘Dus Numbaris’ today makes no sense. Nobody is struck in one village or around one police station.
The images coming out of Haryana now…
We need to improve the way in which we handle these things. And we have been talking of police reforms, community policing and all that. The Supreme Court has given us orders since 1996 and there we really need to do
In Kashmir, the number of militants has come down but the problem remains. The numbers for terrorism have been going down, they are nothing. It is the alienation problem. It is more than a law and order problem. It is a combination of law and order with politics and society. Society has changed in Kashmir. It is no longer the same old Kashmiri society. You can’t count on Kashmiriyat or… you need to look at the whole picture. The economics of Kashmir have changed because there is now an economics of insurgency actually. Unless you start looking at various parts and dealing with them separately… it is not enough to say ‘Oh, you must talk’.
Why is India, as a state, so obsessed with kinetics even now?
We had very few metrics of hard power before. This is new to us so like anything new, we are thrilled with it. You saw this with the Myanmar border where you had new people doing things which we had done for many years but they were so excited: look, what we have done. This is part of the problem, these are new tools. These are new capabilities. This is natural, this is human… I don’t think you can hold this against people. But you have to put it in a context and remember that there is more to these problems than just the kinetics and kinetics never solves it. It is a part of the solution, can be a big part of it, but never sufficient.
What do you make of President Trump’s speech on Afghanistan, and statements by other US officials, particularly concerning the Indian role there?
From our point of view, it has three positive elements. For the first time, we have seen such high-level recognition by the Americans of the role of Pakistan and how dangerous these safe havens are and what they mean — and to actually tell Pakistan to do something. We have heard it before at Secretary of State’s level when Hillary Clinton told Pakistan that you can’t nurture snakes in your backyard only to bite your neighbour. But this is much much stronger. And its linkage made to Afghanistan and the situation there.
Secondly, he made it quite clear that the Taliban can’t come to power, which frankly is a much clearer political goal than saying that we will have a political settlement in which we will include the Taliban and bring them into the mainstream. This he was absolutely clear and laid out a result-outcome based approach rather than the number of troops and dates and deadlines. That’s the third part, there are no deadlines. So, it is not just a question of the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and the ISIS waiting them out. To that extent, it was good.
The trouble is that all three elements were diluted immediately by people in his own government. Rex Tillerson, for one… General Nicholson saying that the Taliban has to be brought into the political process. If your whole goal is to defeat them and exclude them, then how are you going to… so it’s very hard and speech was itself very weak on specifics.
Pakistan will do what it can do to avoid any cuts in aid or any diminution in its role in Afghanistan or to prevent any increase in India’s role which is what Trump has actually specifically asked for. They will use the levers that they have, other friends, they have got the Chinese to make statements. They control NATO supply lines into Afghanistan – in 2011, they actually cut them. That threat is always there.
This is still a fluid situation. When he says India should do more, does it mean more economically? That we are doing anyway. We have already done more than $2 billion… The development, the assistance, that will go
institutional building. If he is looking for a direct Indian military role, frankly, that risks two things. It risks bringing us into direct military conflict with Pakistan’s proxies but even with Pakistan. Because that is one thing Pakistanis use as their excuse to justify all their bad behaviour and their support to all these terrorist groups. I am not sure whether that is they expect. Mattis is coming, Tillerson is also coming. By the end of the month, we should have a good idea about what it means in actual practice.
The speech was built as a big policy but it is not a policy. You don’t see the implementation part of it. You see a couple of headline statements, some big goals, some improvements on previous administration’s Afghan policy — these three things. For me, the biggest hole in this is that you cannot think of a regional approach to a settlement or improving the Afghan situation without Iran, without Russia. And there was no mention, or recognition of this. If the idea is, as Nikki Haley said, regional solution, which India is ready, has always been ready to work with others
to try and stabilise Afghanistan and defeat terrorism coming out of and in Afghanistan, then it has to include everybody and that was a big hole in this policy.
Does it end up hyphenating India and Pakistan?
People say it is rehyphenisation. It depends on how you do it. When Tillerson says India, be nice to Pakistan so that Pakistan is nice to us in Afghanistan, that is hyphenisation. That I don’t see any Indian government or any Indian accepting. But when he says will you work with us in Afghanistan, that is not hyphenisation.
Should India be in wait-and-watch mode?
No, we should follow our own interests. Our interest is in helping to stabilise Afghanistan in doing as much as we can to see Afghanistan becomes a normal, stable society. And that terrorism in Afghanistan, represented by the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and ISIS is defeated. That is our goal, and to the extent Trump is saying that, that is the US goal.
How much of that help should be military help?
That depends on the situation. Horses for courses, strengthening the Afghan government, certainly it makes sense. They have been kept on a very thin military diet by the US, because of the worry of Pakistani sensitivity. If today he is less sensitive to what Pakistan thinks, and is willing to help Afghan create a real army, good. Because it is not that Afghans don’t know how to fight, they have proved that in history. But certainly, they haven’t been given the weapons or means to do so.
Should India be sending boots on the ground in Afghanistan?
Boots on the ground is a different thing. You have to look at the actual cases and the actual utility of it. You don’t want to go there and create more trouble by just putting boots on the ground. If it helps to stabilise the situation, if it helps to defend your interests, then it is worth it. It is something that you can consider but today I don’t see a situation where it works for India.
Where do you stand on the SC judgment on right to privacy being a fundamental right?
It is a very good judgment because the right to privacy needs to be maintained. But my problem is that the domain itself, cyber and technology, makes privacy almost impossible. And you can have good judgments, good laws if Parliament decides. But who will it constrain? It constrains the government, government will follow its own laws, I presume. It constrains the law abiding citizens. But the real threat to privacy come from the corporations who actually control your data, and the whole domain is a domain of anarchy where there are few large corporations controlling it and those who actually do not respect the law. The threats from these two, to privacy, are not addressed by passing laws or by having good Supreme Court judgments. At least not this kind of judgment.
You can mitigate the effects of what corporations do. You can say that you can only keep this type of data, keep so many days… that is mitigation. It doesn’t solve the problem of what is happening in the domain. This is all
very well so far as it goes, but you also need to have a much bigger conversation, and change your definition of privacy actually. You can’t carry on with the old habits and expect the same things to work in cyber. I assume that everything I do on the web is in the open.