India’s new army chief and ‘cold start’ military doctrine
The ‘Mail Today’ reported (February, 6 2007) that the Defense Minister of India has set up a high-level committee of two retired Generals of the army to monitor and ensure transparency and fairness in army promotions. This is significant in the context of the controversy caused by the recent appointment of General Bipin Rawat as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who has superseded two of his immediate seniors Generals Praveen Bakshi and PM Haris.
This is rather unusual. The appointment of the army chief in India is generally made by the Cabinet Committee on security strictly based on seniority.
Only once in 1983, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did General AS Vaidya get appointed COAS overlooking his senior General SK Sinha who had been critical of the decision to induct the army into the insurgency hit state of Punjab.
In the present case, the selection of Bipin Rawat for the post of COAS appears to have been made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself who the media says is known for his ‘extremely personalized ways of functioning’. However, sources reveal that the PM was almost certainly guided by his National Security Adviser (NSA) who hails from the same state as the new army chief does, namely Uttarakhand!
The NSA is also known to have brought into top government positions officers who hail from Uttarakhand especially the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R& AW), an important external intelligence agency.
The government has praised not only Bipin Rawat’s military mettle but also his counterinsurgency experience especially in the Northeast, which is essentially not an army job. There are police agencies for the job, such as the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) including its rapid force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Border Security Force (BSF) often used in counterinsurgency situations.
Rawat’s appointment caused heartburn among his superseded colleagues. One of them, General Praveen Bakshi, army commander in the Eastern sector, in a new year broadcast to his men, referred to a ‘malicious campaign to smear his name’ and a ‘deep rooted conspiracy by ‘men in the shadows’.
Similarly, Rawat’s predecessor, General Dalbir Singh too had complained about his ‘victimization’ by his predecessor General VK Singh who had earlier sought to extend his tenure in office to prevent another General from becoming army chief.
Though he had a murky past, General V.K Singh, after retirement, joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), successfully contested the 2014 election to Parliament and became a cabinet minister under Narendra Modi.
Another former General and Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, J J Singh has recently become a politician and is contesting elections to the state assembly in Punjab.
While army veterans criticized the likely encouragement of sycophancy in the army, Opposition politicians attacked the appointment of Bipin Rawat as COAS was motivated by the aim of winning the forthcoming state assembly election in Uttarakhand.
After Narendra Modi became Prime Minister (May 2015), a militant faction of the Nagas based in neighboring Myanmar ambushed an army convoy in the Northeast and killed a number of Indian soldiers.
It was General Bipin Rawat who was asked to carry out a cross-border army raid into neighboring Myanmar territory to destroy anti-India militant camps located there. This operation was appreciated in policy circles in New Delhi but was resented by Myanmar.
In his maiden news conference, General Rawat while referring to the emerging unrest in the subordinate ranks, warned them of disciplinary action if they used the social media to air grievances as has happened recently.
However, discontent in the subordinate ranks appears to be growing.
Rawat was appreciative of India’s ‘surgical strikes’ against terror units based in Pakistan and admitted the relevance of the more or less forgotten but aggressive military doctrine of ‘cold start’ expounded by the Indian General Sundarji following the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament.
‘Cold start’, a former COAS said, was part of India’s overall defense strategy to maintain territorial integrity’.
‘Cold start’, it was stated, was an attempt by the Indian army to develop an integrated retaliatory option to strike at Pakistan in response to a terrorist attack but without ‘triggering wider conflict or nuclear retaliation’.
Before Rawat, an army chief of India had said that ‘as part of an overall strategy, we have ‘a number of contingencies and options depending on what the aggressor said and did. In recent years, we have been improving our system with respect to mobilization but our basic military posture is defensive’.
This has now become outdated dogma.
There has been a significant change after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office and recruited Ajit Kumar Doval, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and a ‘tough guy’, to be his National Security advisor’.
Doval’s theory and strategy has been named ‘Doval Doctrine’. The doctrine advocates a strategy of ‘offensive defense’ rather than the previous defensive approach. It holds that India has been hitting below its weight in the past and was losing. It must hit ‘neither above nor below its weight but must hit appropriate to its weight, in order to succeed.
Doval ‘s approach to Pakistan says ‘you do one more Mumbai; you will lose Balochistan’. He was referring to the massive Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008, masterminded by Pakistani agencies, which the Indian intelligence and police services had failed to detect and prevent. The failure of intelligence on Mumbai 2008 had been a national humiliation (see Menon 2016), not unlike that of the US in the wake of 9/11. As a proud Hindu, Doval would like to teach a lesson to Pakistan by the Indian annexation of Balochistan if Pakistani terrorist attacked India in a manner similar to Mumbai 2008.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on Independence Day 2015 was a warning that Pakistan would lose Balochistan if it instigated a major attack on India again.
Modi’s Pakistan policy has been entirely in tune with Doval’s thinking. His approach that Kashmir is an integral part of India and there is nothing to discuss with Pakistan (aside from recovery of Pakistan occupied Kashmir) is a strong message. Modi has totally rejected his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee’s approach of dialogue with Pakistan.
In Kashmir, after the killing of Burhan Wani massive violence by security forces took place. Despite the killings and extensive blinding of children, Modi was insensitive enough not to visit the Valley.
The tough line of Doval on Pakistan is reflected in Modi’s tough line with India’s other neighbors including China, Myanmar and others.
It is in this context that the army chief Bipin Rawal’s revival of the ‘cold start’ military doctrine needs to be understood.
Rawal will likely be aggressive. He has, after all, been specially selected for his job.
India and Pakistan are both nuclear armed neighbors. An accident can trigger a nuclear conflict.
Fasten your seat belts!
Menon, Shivshankar, 2016 Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Allen Lane, Penguin