By Ali Ahmed
Ajit Doval’s appointment as India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) was among the first appointments made by Mr. Modi on becoming prime minister. That Doval was perhaps tipped off by Modi of post-election possibilities is evident form a lecture Doval delivered at the Sastra University in Tamil Nadu early last year in which he outlined his strategic world view. That he is now India’s NSA makes this speech consequential.
The speech has become infamous since for the wrong reason. Excerpts of the lecture having been uploaded on YouTube early this year, it has erroneously been reckoned that Doval as NSA has threatened Pakistan with losing Balochistan in case it triggers another Mumbai 26/11. While Doval did threaten as much, it was in his capacity then as head of the conservative think tank, Vivekananda International Foundation.
Nevertheless, Doval perhaps anticipating his next assignment used the opportunity of his lecture on ‘India’s Strategic Response to Terrorism’ to lay out his worldview. Since he has been India’s leading spook, with a penchant for the tactical, it is not unlikely that his strategic worldview goes no further than the intelligence domain covered in the lecture. This makes the lecture more important then merely yet another lecture by a think tank head.
That India’s current day strategy appears to be unfolding along the lines he laid out makes the lecture virtually a key statement of India’s strategic doctrine. Since Pakistan is taken as a state sponsor of terror, the lecture also goes some way in also explaining India’s Pakistan strategy. The lecture consequently bears critical scrutiny.
Doval restricted his counter terror strategy discussion only to terror incidents attributed to India’s largest minority, its Muslims. As he was head of IB when a spate of terrorism broke out in the Indian hinterland, dated by him to March 2005, he would know that not all incidents attributable to the minority have been perpetrated by Muslim terrorists.
The manner India’s current regime is covering its tracks in letting off majoritarian terrorists lately is suggestive of something to hide. In case the terror incidents Hindutva elements are responsible for is subtracted from the volume of terror India has been subject to, minority terrorism emerges as a bogey. No wonder the home minister has made a show of taking offence to the term ‘saffron terrorism’, hoping to marginalize such allegations and obscure any truth behind them.
This becomes clearer by dissecting Doval’s prescription. His strategic response to terrorism is, firstly, ‘smothering’ terrorist outfits; pitching nationalist Indian Muslims against the anti-national Islamists within their community; and making Pakistan hurt through a strategic doctrine of ‘defensive offense’.
Of the first, the smothering of terrorists by denial of arms, money and support, superficially, there is little to complain. The problem is when a distinction is not made between terrorists and common folk. Security forces are apt to see potential terrorists everywhere in Muslim ghettos.
Under the circumstance of right wing prejudice now mainstream, resulting impunity can only multiply this tendency. With tall tales of Daesh making a South Asian debut, rushing the home ministry into thinking up a counter radicalisation doctrine, surveillance of the community is not unlikely.
The second – ‘divide and rule’ by using the pro-national and anti-national Muslim against each other – smacks of Chanakyan cunning. Strategy is mistaken for cunning in light of the iconic status of home grown strategist Chanakya.
The association of cultural nationalists with the pro-national Muslims can only serve to marginalize them, leading to non-secular alternatives. Take for instance, Zafar Sereshwala, a Modi acolyte, hardly has a constituency. Instead, ever since mainstream parties were sidelined in the last elections, a firebrand party, the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), appears to be filling the vacuum.
Equally disturbing is Doval’s intent to buy terrorists: by paying out ‘one and a half times’ more of their price! His experience teaches him that since they are mercenaries, they can be bought and turned against theirs sponsors. Is it that this strategy is already in play?
If so it may account for some of the terror Pakistan is subject to and perhaps explains the defence minister’s cryptic remark of fighting terror with terror (‘removing thorns with thorns’). The rare complaint of Pakistan being subject to terror by proxy by India coming as a corps commanders’ conference outcome makes this a compelling possibility.
However, more disturbingly, terrorist turncoats can also be used for questionable strategic purposes. For instance, they can be used to attack Indian targets to project that such attacks are Pakistan perpetrated. The commentary in Pakistan questioning the antecedents of the Dinanager terror attack of last month is a case.
Terror attacks so engineered can enhance the case against Pakistan, enabling that state to be subject to Indian pressures with greater vigour. They can also be used to push India’s minority further into tis corner through manipulation of guilt by association.
Clearly, there is a case for political control of the intelligence apparatus. This cannot be entrusted to Mr. Doval, himself an intelligence czar. With a right wing regime in power, democratic control would instead of implying restraint, may imply quite the opposite.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly on account of the nuclear overhang, is Doval’s assertion that India can prise loose Balochistan. His assumption is that there would be no nuclear fallout, as this would not involve military engagement and the consequent need to be wary of nuclear thresholds
As current custodian of India’s nuclear doctrine in his capacity as head of the Executive Council, he is by now surely better briefed. He would know that Pakistan in an uncharacteristic fit of transparency had in 2002 let on that in case it is faced with internal destabilization on a large scale, it would resort to the nuclear weapon, implying it would up the ante perhaps by first going conventional. This puts paid to Doval’s notion that the military would not come into the equation.
Clearly, the Doval doctrine is problematic with cultural nationalism contaminating strategic rationality. And, worse, remedy is four years away.
*Ali Ahmed, author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia, On War in South Asia and On Peace in South Asia, blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in. Views here are personal.