Jaideep Saikia

A recent article written by a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army’s South Western Command, Lt Gen Arun K. Sahni and myself which was published in The Indian Express on India’s “Act East” policy and the need for an alternate route through Bangladesh to reach the Bay of Bengal as a result of the virtual closure of the land route to South East Asia via troubled Myanmar elicited quite a few positive reactions from people across India and the globe. However, a pertinent question that accompanied almost all the laudatory messages and calls were, “I hope the powers that be in New Delhi are listening to you, or are your recommendations falling on deaf ears”?

I could only—as I feel might be the case with Gen Sahni who was my able co-author—shrug and respond by stating, “I am doing what I am modestly capable of, forcefully, without fear or favour, putting across my point of view about issues of import on aspects that pertain to India’s national security—traditional and non-traditional. Besides, I have always sought to do so after having not only carefully studied the situation as it pertains to a particular problem but having physically visited—as was the case with a visitation to the India-Myanmar border—the area that I normally write about.”

But the question which I was confronted with is not something that is new to me. Indeed, I have invariably been posed such a question every time I write about an issue that is of import to India’s national security and particularly when I have laced my writings with recommendations. It would also be significant to note that such questions have been from quarters that have some comprehension about my background, ie., about my association with the government in advisorial capacities.

Perhaps it was thought that my close proximity with certain people in high offices who are charged with policymaking makes my counsel more acceptable. While I confess that a few of my suggestions have found their way into serious policy formulation, I cannot say for certain whether all my suggestions—or indeed even 50 % of my submissions in open source—have even made a dent in the manner in which the government dispenses on certain important issues. I have—at the beginning of my continuing studentship in India’s national security—tried to pursue the point of view that I have either written or spoken about in open forum. In other words, I have sought to embark upon a follow-up process, especially if it was something that I am particularly convinced about—that a particular point of view is crucial for the nation’s security.

Indeed, one aspect that I cannot complain about is the fact that I have always—for the last over two decades—been granted a “forum” or a “stage” by way of either columns in newspapers, websites or important national and international conferences. To that end, I have been fortunate that I have had at least been heard if I have not been listened to. But whether the hearing has ever amounted to more than listeners (in the case of seminars/conferences) coming up during the working lunches et al and proffer, “Jaideep, that was forcefully articulated. I couldn’t agree with you more” or even (since the student in me has always solicited feedback) “I would unhesitatingly award you 9/10”. 

But when it came to translation on the ground the suggestions would invariably limp away from the interest that one thought that it had caught. Indeed, the frivolousness exhibited for the seriousness with which I have sought to conduct myself has, at times, been rather depressing. This is particularly true of the people in the three-lettered “avatar services” that I have been referring to in this latest series of write-ups. This has been so glaringly evident in recent years that I have almost decided not to accept invitations for lectures to civil servants in the state of Assam.

Let me give an example. I used to be frequently invited to deliver lectures to mid-career civil service officers on security issues, aspects such as the insurgency situation in the Northeast and on the strategic encirclement, radicalisation and anti-terror doctrine. One of the recent experiences by which the disillusionment came to the fore was while I was holding forth on a very serious issue: a matter I consider to be of utmost importance to national security. It is the India-China boundary issue.

I had as usual prepared a power point presentation on the subject. I did so by engineering what I thought was a veritable interplay of words, graphical representations and even music to convey the history, present state of affairs and possible way out of the bewilderment that the boundary issue with China is causing India. While referring to the unfortunate border war of 1962, the struggling student in me felt it would be appropriate to both convey a point and at the same time pay homage to the revered singer of India, Lata Mangeshkar who had left us poorer when she passed away on 6 February 2022.

Indeed, the presentation on the India-China boundary issue for the mid-career “avatar services” personnel took place close on the heels of the sad episode of Lata Ji’s demise. In any event, I had hired a professional film editor to insert her immortal song E Mere Watan Ke Logon—actually, the last heart-rending part when the “nightingale” laments by singing Par Mat Bhulo Seema Par; Viro Ne He Praan Gawaye; Kuch Yaad Unhe Bhi Kar Lo—for the purpose. Such exercises have cost a man of my modest means much more than the honorarium that I used to receive for such efforts. I am referring to the tardy process of preparing a power point presentation which necessitated professional help and for which one had to pay. But, I have—and I will be borne out by all who have seen my presentations—always striven to instil interest in an otherwise dreary subject by peppering it up with interlude including music which provides both a sense-perception “pause” as also add to the information layer. But on this occasion, the moment I played Lata Ji’s song, someone from the audience that made up the “avatar services” interrupted and said “you know, even Bhupen Hazarika sang about the 1962 war”.

I duly noted the addition to the information base by stating “yes, that is correct” and sought to continue. It would be of interest to the reader that the member of the “avatar services” not being contented with the input that was inserted said, “I will sing the song” and went on to—the accompaniment of others thumping (tabla-like) on the tables—render the otherwise beautiful song by one of Assam’s greatest cultural doyens. My respect for Bhupen Hazarika is no less than the next man, but the episode left me surprised and I wondered as to what I was doing in the auditorium trying to analyse the reasons that led to Eastern Ladakh and how one might circumvent the problem in sensitive Northeast that closely abuts China.

The reason didn’t take long to dawn: the mid-career members of the “avatar services” was in the auditorium just in order to go through the motions of the mandatory one-week course which probably had no bearing on either their professional or personal interests. Unlike their counterparts in the armed forces for whom courses intertwined with their career prospect right from their very inception to senior leadership, the ones that the “avatar services” had to attend—to my mind—were not connected in any manner to any upward movement in their services. Therefore, even as an Indian armed forces officer’s fate is determined by the fact that he successfully competes for and completes professional courses such as “Defence Services Staff College”, “Higher Command” and “National Defence College” (where I have had the good fortune of imparting some of my continued studentship familiarity to!) there is nothing comparable in the “avatar services”.

To that end, a person who joins say the Indian Police Service (IPS) would—unless something terrible befell the officer by way of misdemeanour of a truly serious kind or one in which integrity was compromised—reach at least a “three-star” rank without having to pass anything equivalent to what say a Brigadier in the Indian army would have to race for and attain. I mean one would have to just look around and see the number of Additional Director General of Police ranks in the country and the ones in the Indian army that terminates as a Colonel or a Brigadier. It must also be noted that I am referring to the same country, India where this disparity continues to be engendered!

In my first very offering to this triadic series (see https://nenow.in/article/national-security-should-be-made-of-sterner-stuff.html) I had wondered whether there would ever be a National Security Adviser (NSA) in India from the annals of domain specialisation. I had provided the examples of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice or Jake Sullivan from the United States. I am querying today whether the Indian state would ever see a retired three-star Indian armed forces officer in the chair of the NSA, not to talk of lowly “conflict analysts” who the Indian system, in my opinion, simply tolerates! But what about a true blue-blooded Lieutenant General of the Indian army who has spent his entire career first as a young officer combating insurgency and terrorism in the North East and Kashmir, then (having passed all the requisite courses which test ones professional competence—lest the readers are not acquainted, they must take a peep into the rigours that characterise even getting into the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington) a posting in either the Line of Control, Line of Actual Control (LAC) in inhospitable conditions followed by either a posting in the People’s Republic of China as a Defence Attaché or in exceptional cases to complete the Higher Command or the even more prestigious National Defence College course in challenging places such as the United States, China, Australia or even Indonesia?

Finally, the truly deserving three-star general—after a lifetime of rich experience in India’s national security management and having out-runned others in the same service—ends up as an Army Commander of an important command such as the Northern Command and implements all the security imperatives that he is called upon to perform. It is for the reader to discern whether such a person is more qualified in every sense of the word to be the NSA of India than someone whose sole claim to fame is a single posting in an intelligence agency either in Kashmir or the North East? I doubt whether the person manning the position of the NSA and by default that of the Special Representative for boundary talks with China has ever been to Asaphila, Hot Springs or Sangcha.

Now, readers might turn around and ask that it’s not necessary for the NSA to visit every disputed area on the India-China border in order to be a good Special Representative or a negotiator. Indeed, there is probably no need for it. But, I am referring to qualifications here. Who would be the person better endowed for holding the post of NSA? One with a better knowledge of the ground by dint of what I have proffered above in the Indian army or a person who sees a disputed area as a red dot on a map in the Operations Room in South Block or S.P. Bhawan? I am asking readers to give me three points whereby an IPS officer—notwithstanding his theoretically touted “operational” abilities—is better than a General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of an Indian army command which necessitates that the incumbent must (I underscore must) visit and take correct stock of the areas that I referred to above in the LAC, had been part of the Joint Working Group for boundary talks with China and had even commanded an Indian army brigade such as the one in Lohitput when it comes to being a Special Representative for boundary talks with China?

I have spent the last two decades with people from both the services and I can hold my hand to my heart and say that even a Colonel attending the Higher Command course in Mhow is far more knowledgeable than his counterpart in the IPS/IAS in both strategy and tactics. As for diplomacy, I am of the view that it can never be taught. If diplomacy can be taught then one could not have thought of a better diplomat than the late, revered Atal Behari Vajpayee who neither went to Mhow or Hyderabad to attend professional courses. Yet he was once chosen by an equally judicious Prime Minister to head the Indian delegation in 1994 to Geneva and conclude a diplomatic triumph on the Kashmir issue. But that took a P.V. Narasimha Rao who understood the importance of Vajpayee and the need for India to “talk in one voice” when it came to countering the nefarious designs of Pakistan.         

I must confess that the Indian armed forces impress me every which way that they have gone about their duties in India. Yes, they have constituted the mainstay of much of my interactions and interfaces but I think I am entitled—as an observer—to pass a value judgment about the chasm of difference between even an average Indian armed forces officer and members of the “avatar services”. It is also important to understand the reasons for the distinction that I am making, especially as I am fully aware that I am going to make enemies aplenty by making such a statement. It would also be interesting to see how I am “fixed” (as I have been several times over in the past!) for my “sins” and for calling a spade a spade! But the fact of the matter is that the “avatar services” have—after clearing a rigorous examination conducted by the UPSC—seldom sought further acquisition of knowledge.

It is not immediately known whether the colonial hangover is responsible, but people who enter the “avatar service” have taken it upon themselves that they are the chosen few. Entry of others are not only looked down upon but prohibited. Incidentally, I wonder whether the reader is aware that there are many in the “avatar services” who could not clear the Services Selection Board (SSB) which is a prerequisite for entry into the Indian armed forces! Have people ever felt that there should be a similar delinking of the written examination and the interview that characterises the entry into places such as the National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy for entry into the “avatar services” as well?

A candidate for entry into the Indian army has to separately clear the UPSC examination and the SSB (the SSB incidentally is not a 30-minute interview, but a three-day affair which closely tests a candidate’s physical, psychological and adaptability to the calling that he/she wishes to enter namely the Indian armed forces) and is not tailored in the manner in which a candidate for the “avatar services” acquires a wondrous score in his/her written examination and still gets to be a topper in the service despite the fact that he/she is awarded poor marks in the interview. In other words, the “avatar services” are crammed with crammers. No wonder there was—it is recollected—a hilarious wall writing in the washrooms of the Jubilee Hall in Delhi University that once prophetically announced “99 % perspiration—1 % inspiration”. I have already alluded to the fact that there have been toppers in the “avatar services” who have failed to make the grade in the SSB which an Indian armed forces officer has to clear before he/she enters a military academy.

In any event, this piece of writing is primarily about India’s national security. But it was important for a general reader to know the India that they are living in, and the difference between the Indian army and the member of the “avatar services”. It is also important to know that the NSA of India is/will be always a member of the “avatar services”. In fact, it might even be worth one’s while to dig out the background of some of the top policymakers of India and find out whether there have been any SSB rejects from among their midst.

My disappointment about the manner in which India’s national security is being managed presently is, therefore, not only about the incompetence which eggs it onto dangerous ends, but the superiority complex that has come over the people who are charged with the task of guarding India’s national security. It is amazing, but there are people in this country from the “avatar services” who can actually sell “tap water” to all and sundry and term it “Ganga Jal”.

There are no easy answers to correct this malaise. Indeed, nothing less than a revolution would be required to correct the aberration which unfortunately is growing by the day, pushing India onto a cesspool of what a former but an exception to the rule from among the “avatar services” clearly told me a few days ago after reading my first two instalments to this write-up. Prakash Singh of the 1959 Batch of the Indian Police Service was perhaps right when he lamented that an “intellectual arrogance” of a severe kind has gripped the national security managers of present-day India.

Jaideep Saikia is an internationally acclaimed conflict analyst and a celebrated author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. He is also the sole Asian Fellow of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA

Jaideep Saikia

Jaideep Saikia is a well-known terrorism and conflict analyst. He can be reached at jdpsaikia@gmail.com.