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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

1984,one lesson

The national security challenge Rajiv so quickly grasped,and his legatees still cannot....

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
June 12, 2010 2:26:01 am

In a season when some of the late Rajiv Gandhi’s own political legatees are busy besmirching his name,post the Bhopal verdict,it may be useful to also remember some of the good he did in his very early days,in fact even months before he had taken any office. It is important to highlight this for three reasons. One,because he is given far less credit than is due for the contribution he made to our national security. Second,because this is precisely what may hold a lesson for us as we grapple in our supremely and typically Indian confusion on how to respond to the Maoist challenge. And third,because this was also an idea that came up in 1984,probably the most difficult year in our contemporary history (Operation Bluestar,mutinies in the army’s Sikh units,Indira Gandhi’s assassination followed by the massacre of Sikhs,and then the Bhopal tragedy in the middle of the election campaign).

As a reporter who covered all these awful stories but the last,I would agree entirely that after the 1971 watershed,India had never felt more vulnerable,internally and externally,than in 1984. In fact that was one of the main factors contributing to Rajiv’s landslide win. The people of India were in no mood to take any chances. As I confessed earlier,I did not quite get to cover the Bhopal tragedy. But I did happen to go past Bhopal within days of the tragedy,on my way to cover the court-martial of Sikh mutineers in Jabalpur. I mention that to highlight the state of multiple crises India was then facing,under a caretaker prime minister with five weeks in public office. So one reason why Bhopal did not get the detailed attention it may have got in more normal circumstances was how distracted and wounded the establishment in New Delhi was,at that point of time. If you had your army fight a battle with fellow countrymen in Sikhism’s holiest shrine,with tanks and howitzers,suffer countrywide mutinies,see the country’s most powerful politician ever (to date) assassinated and thousands of a much loved and respected community butchered in a one-mile radius of Rashtrapati Bhawan,you would be dazed by one more crisis.

It is probably because of the many and mostly self-inflicted political crises that overwhelmed Rajiv Gandhi’s government,overriding the early euphoria,that we forget some of his most useful contributions. And the one relevant today is the thought process that led to the formation of the National Security Guard (NSG),the popular “black cat” commandos who the entire world saw in action in Mumbai in November 2008.

Rajiv was not in the government yet when Operation Bluestar happened (June 1984) but was never far from the PMO either. The operation was a military success,but a political and tactical disaster. Worse,it forced the army into a combatant’s position vis-a-vis the Sikhs. It is the mutinies that followed that got Rajiv thinking. Was it unavoidable to pitchfork the army into such a tricky internal situation? Could it have been done some other way? After all,his grandfather had sent the army to Hyderabad in 1948 and called it “police action”. In 1961,he sent the army,navy and air force into Goa — and still called it “police action”. Nehru was not stupid. He knew that the army must always be kept above all internal divisions and shielded from controversy. As for the police,they are meant to be the “bad guys” anyway,and can afford to take the flak.

I speak from some pretty good reportorial insight into the internal debate at that time. It was out of this thought process that the idea of the NSG emerged. A dedicated counter-terrorist force,managed and controlled by the home ministry,consisting of the finest men of all our armed forces,given specialised training and capable of carrying out not merely smaller,precise counter-terror operations like anti-hijacking and hostage-rescue,but also larger ones where sizeable bodies of men and material may be required,like Bluestar and,eventually,26/11. What made it such a brilliant innovation was that its spearhead,the Special Action Group (SAG),was almost entirely drawn from the elite units of the army. The recruits for the Special Ranger Group (SRG),which usually forms outer cordons during operations,provides a crucial support role,and whose commandos you usually see involved in VIP security,were mostly hand-picked from the paramilitary forces. The entire force was led by an IPS officer,to keep its civilian veneer,who was in turn assisted by senior army officers who headed operations.

The brilliance of the idea lay in the fact that you could use all the might and resources of the armed forces in an internal situation without exposing the army as an institution. Its first success came with Operation Black Thunder in the summer of 1988 when terrorists again had to be evicted from the Golden Temple. There was no controversy,no mutinies and no collateral damage. It may be of academic interest,but still deserves a mention,that the army officer who was the NSG force commander in that first,and to date finest,operation was one Colonel Kishan Pal. He returned to our headlines last week in the controversy following the armed forces tribunal expunging some of his remarks,as Kashmir Corps Commander,from his battle performance appraisal of Brigadier Devinder Singh. Another man who has been in the headlines lately is former BSF chief E.N. Rammohan for conducting the Dantewada inquiry; he was one of the tiny core group that designed the NSG.

We talk about this today not merely to set the historical record straight,but to underline the imaginative,firm and decisive way in which Rajiv Gandhi had responded to India’s most formidable internal security challenges. We need to contrast it with the self-destructive waffling and intellectually bankrupt “debate” which has now broken out among his own legatees over a response to the greatest internal security challenge of “their” times. Instead of putting their heads together and crafting an imaginative new response to a formidable new challenge,they are hunting for excuses and finding cover for their utterly mindless pussyfooting by unleashing “leak warfare” in the media. No country that takes itself seriously anywhere in public discusses issues of tactics,like which equipment and which forces to use in which situation. This problem gets more complicated when “debate” is used as a tactic even by important ministries and ministers,resulting in a loss of time,opportunity and morale.

That there are indeed “root causes” of Maoist violence and that these must be addressed is a no-brainer. So is the fact that you cannot address them unless you can either end the violence,or at least get an upper hand in the fight against it. How you do it,what is the minimum force that is required to achieve it are for the government of the day to decide on,and take responsibility for the outcome. That is why we elected them and accorded them their hallowed places in the Cabinet room. Maybe you cannot conjure up a brilliant idea like Rajiv’s NSG at will,but you need to find a strategic resolve and then look for tactical innovations to back it up. And if you still feel lily-livered or quake in your chappals,you will only be dumping the formidable legacy on national security that you have inherited from leaders in whose names you still seek votes and are accorded the blessing of public office and power.

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