Former Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who helmed the 2016 surgical strikes, elaborates on a vision document on national security that he presented to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and highlights issues of politicisation of the armed forces and the role of surgical strikes as an anti-terror tactic .
You have just presented a vision document for the Congress on national security. Can you briefly elaborate on it?
There has always been a talk, at least among the strategic community, that India needs a national security strategy which will serve as the basis subsequently for other organs of the government and military to be able to come out with their own respective defence policies and doctrines. We do not have a written strategy. So I was asked by Congress president Rahul Gandhi if I could write a document suggesting what the national security strategy should be. And having written it, I think they intend putting it in the public domain so that there is some debate and discussion and then it can be formalised by which ever government is in power. You can also fine tune it with public comments on what exactly is required.
I have structured it in the format that there are five pillars of national security strategy that we need to focus on. First of these is how India stands in global affairs. What should India’s place be in national affairs and how should we have relationships with major powers, our place in global affairs, internal organisations like the United Nations and so on. Second is having a secure region — how are our dealings, not only with Pakistan and China, but with other regional neighbours and how can our cooperation grow?
The third pillar is resolving our internal conflicts. For that I suggested some strategies to deal with Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, Left Wing extremism and also international terrorism. .The fourth pillar of the strategy is protecting the people. End of the day it is the people who are at the heart of national security and we need to provide them an environment in which they are safe, secure and prosperous.
The last one is if we want achieve all this, it will only happen if we build up our capabilities. In this I am talking of border management posture, military capability, indigenisation, restructuring of police, cyber, nuclear, space and also our strategic communication capabilities.
The 2019 elections seem centred around nationalism especially after the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strike. How healthy is such politicisation for the armed forces?
We can’t ignore the fact that there are huge national security challenges and so this is an area that needs to be addressed. You can’t ignore it if you keep having incidents like Pulwama. There will be a response and therefore, national security is an important part.
But, I think, along with that we should not look at national security narrowly from the spectrum of Pakistan or terrorism. What does our population want, what are their aspirations and how do we meet them? There are major issues of economy and jobs. Those issues should also be brought to the front.
The ruling party has been saying that nobody should ask questions of the armed forces. Are armed forces above accountability?
In a democracy, all institutions are accountable. Therefore, taking this very narrow view point that you must not question the services, is not correct. Having said that, also it doesn’t mean you question everything. I think we need to strike a balance in this.
How do we find the balance between what can be revealed while addressing national security concerns?
It’s also got to do with what the circumstances are. After the Uri attack, there were so many questions being raised on our ability to counter major terror attacks. There were questions that if you are not able to secure your own garrison, should we have faith in you to secure the country. Therefore, after the cross border strikes were carried out (2016), I was of the view that we needed to tell the people of the country that this is what we have gone and done. We also needed to tell our own community — people in the military were asking what are you going to do, you have lost so many soldiers.
So I think it depends from one circumstance to another. Certainly we shouldn’t pull the military into each and every debate. But I do think at some stage the leadership has to turn around and say this is what we have done.
In last five years has the political pressure on armed forces increased?
I can’t answer for the last two years since I retired. I was the Northern Army commander till the end of 2016 and frankly I didn’t see any pressure on the Army that you must carry out and do this only for a political purpose. Even when we were planning the cross border strikes of 2016, there was complete consensus between us and the political leadership that we needed to go across and do it. And similarly, [where] routine day-to-day operations are concerned, the Army is fairly independent in what it does.
We had cross border strikes in 2016 and now Balakot strikes... is this a permanent measure to stall the terrorists?
I don’t think single incident is going to stop Pakistan. Therefore, I have always believed that we need a consistent and long term strategy which combines all elements of national power, diplomacy, economic pressure, political pressure and where required, military pressure. We should not expect anything to happen in short term, because we have this long festering problem with Pakistan. Rather than attempting to portray single events as game changers, we need a long term policy.
Are the cross border strikes a credible deterrent against terrorism?
They are deterrent to some extent. After all when you conduct air strikes that took place in the Pakistan mainland, [it] will give them some pause and reflection that are we willing to risk an escalation and limited conflict with India? Will it completely stop them from pursuing state sponsored policy? I don’t think these strikes alone will bring about a change in Pakistan.
What are you recollections from late Manohar Parrikar’s tenure as Defence Minister?
My impressions are mostly from the time he would come to Northern Command. He was very keen to talk and understand the job at hand. He would want to meet soldiers and get to understand their problems. He would tell the officers to keep away because in their presence the soldiers may not express themselves freely. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Finance did not co-operate. He, too, was disappointed that the pace at which he wanted work done, was not done.
What are your observations on our Kashmir policy of last couple of years?
Whichever way we look at it, violence has gone up everywhere whether you look at security forces or civilian casualties. There is an increase in local recruitment. It used to be 20-25 around 2013 and now has gone up by ten times. You have people coming out in the streets to protest against Army operations, which is something new. There is a growing sense of alienation in Kashmir. Earlier nobody used to talk about sharia . The whole theme used to be azadi (freedom) or autonomy. Now we find groups coming out and talking about it. These are worrisome trends we need to look at and tackle.
Somehow we are focusing too much on success in terms of number of terrorists killed. I am not saying that you shouldn’t kill the terrorists, but this is not the only measure either for long term success or either for conflict resolution. We need to see how we can mainstream Kashmir with the rest of India.
Despite nationalistic fervour across the country, there is disgruntlement among the services with respect to civil-military parity and related issues. How serious is it?
I think civil-military relations in India need a serious review. There are major issues as far as the services are concerned and I think it’s not as if they are unreasonable or not genuine. I think we need to take a hard look at issues of status equation, outstanding issues of service pay commission, anomalies, veterans issues and so on. These are issues that if we don’t slowly address them, could in some ways chip away at professionalism. Therefore, there is a need to address these seriously.
Will we see you in active politics?
Not really. I have no desire to contest an election.