Beleaguered though it is for various reasons, some of them of its own creation, the Union government’s decision to appoint a task force on national security, internal and external, merits a welcome. It hasn’t come a day too soon. The composition of the task force is also reassuring.
Its chairman, Naresh Chandra, is a former defence secretary, home secretary, Cabinet secretary, ambassador to the US and currently, chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. The choice of other security experts on the panel, including a diplomat and a non-official, is equally apt.
However, there is a deficiency in the panel’s terms of reference, though even its limited remit is of undoubted importance and urgency. The group of experts has been asked to recommend both the broad strategy and specific steps to cope with major changes in external and internal threats to India’s national security, keeping in mind the nuclear environment, security challenges and the country’s needs of energy and raw materials. There are areas where internal security challenges and external threats are inextricably intermixed. But in the field of purely internal security the daunting task is to curb and eventually eliminate what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accurately describes as the “biggest internal security threat”: Left-wing extremism, also called Naxalism or Maoism.
To achieve this objective successfully would require an adroit combination of removing the legitimate and long-ignored grievances of the tribal population of the Red Corridor on one hand and elimination of the woeful and chronic inadequacies of paramilitary and state police forces on the other. Sadly, these formations continue to be ill-equipped, ill-trained and badly led. Repeated killings of security forces’ personnel speak for themselves. The task force therefore has its task cut out for it.
Without detracting from the significance of the work assigned to the existing panel, let me say that what the country needs, and needs immediately, is a comprehensive and thorough review and reform of the entire national security structure, especially of the state of the three armed forces, their relations with one another and the relationship between all three and the civilians of the ministry of defence (MoD).
To their credit, at the time of every crisis the armed forces have managed to rise to the occasion and, despite their many limitations, including those of resources, managed to cope. However, to muddle through this is not enough. Surely, not at a time when China’s still expanding military might is much greater than ours in both quantity and quality, the Chinese deployments and infrastructure along our border far superior to ours, and the “all-weather” military cooperation between China and Pakistan is in full blast.
Whoever heard 19 retired military officers of three-star rank on the current state of the armed forces at a seminar in New Delhi recently had felt a chill down the spine. The consensus among the speakers was that the Army was “overage”, “under-provisioned even in ammunition”, dangerously short of officers at the cutting-edge level of majors and captains but had a needless glut of lieutenant-generals. Even more depressing was the regret expressed at the seminar over growing corruption within the armed forces, underscored by the Adarsh scam and the court-martial of serving lieutenant-generals for the first time since Independence. The dismal controversy over the Army Chief’s date of birth, which should have been squashed instantly, has become a running sore.
The shortage of fighter squadrons in the Indian Air Force is frightening and will persist for years because it will take a long time for the 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) to arrive. Their purchase has yet to be finalised. Mercifully, the Navy is in somewhat better shape.
Above all, the paramount issue of inter-services integration, under a chief of defence staff (CDS), and of removal of apartheid between the armed forces and the MoD remains unsettled, resulting in such aberrations as the Air Chief’s public pronouncement only the other day that CDS was unnecessary. If this is indeed the considered view of the top policymakers, then the appointment of a CDS should be firmly ruled out for ever with whatever consequences this would have. An acute problem, in that case, would be how to have effective integrated Theatre Commands, without which a modern war cannot be fought.
Up to now, the curious CDS story is as follows. In February 2001 — in the light of the report of the Kargil Committee, headed by the incomparable late K. Subrahmanyam — a group of ministers (GoM), presided over by former Bharatiya Janata Party president Lal Krishna Advani, had strongly recommended that the armed forces should have a CDS and concomitant institutions. A host of other suggestions of the GoM were accepted and implemented (with varying degrees of success) but the one on CDS was kept “pending”.
It is no secret that the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, held it over for two reasons: First, because of the “bad blood” created by the Air Force’s vehement opposition to the proposal (nine former Air Chiefs had called on him to voice their protest) and secondly, the advice he had sought and received from former President R. Venkataraman and former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, both of whom had earlier served as defence ministers.
Some weeks later I had occasion to ask Mr Vajpayee how long it would be before a decision was taken. He replied that the issue would be settled before the end of the year. Not only this did not happen, but the matter hangs fire to this day, often causing acrimony among the defence forces. It is time that the crucial matter was resolved one way or the other without further dithering.
That, of course, is not all. The working of the entire national security system, including that of the National Security Council and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, also needs to be reviewed holistically so that it can be upgraded and even reorganised, if necessary. Another task force for this purpose should include national security experts, scientists and economists aware of the imperatives of national defence. Whatever the proposed panel’s nomenclature, it must have the status of what the Americans call a blue-ribbon commission and the British describe as a royal commission.