Deploying the Army for internal security duties blunts its edge
The controversial death of Thangjam Manorama Devi while in the custody of the armed forces in Manipur has raised a storm over the Armed Forces Special Powers act. Under both civic and political pressure, the government has made noises to the effect that abuse of the Act in this instance needs to be addressed by its repeal. That knee-jerk response would damage India’s ability to handle terrorism and insurgency without any gains in ensuring that such incidents are not repeated.
For one, the deployment of the Army and its related paramilitary forces on internal security duties has been due to a failure of governance at the central and state levels. State police are generally used as tools of the ruling political party while the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is insufficiently prepared to take on the very different challenges from handling riots and armed clashes that it is was originally raised for. The inadequacy, failure and in many cases lack of competence of these civil authorities has led to the tendency to call in the army early and for extended periods of time.
The army on the other hand, exists to handle a very specific sort of threat – to handle external aggression. That involves using deadly force to secure primarily territorial interests of the state. But dragging the army into cities and villages for counter-insurgency tasks frequently pits them against its own countrymen, that too in very civilian contexts where target-to-innocents ratio is relatively low. The inherent dissonance in using the army for internal security operations ultimately leads to incidents like Thangjam Manorama Devi’s death. Therefore, calling in the army must be the last resort of the state.
Over the years though, the poor record of the police in tackling insurgency has been taken for granted, resulting in the army being called in early. Unfortunately, currently proposed solutions are nowhere near tackling this fundamental problem. The CRPF needs to be beefed up, and fundamentally reorganised to enable it to take on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism duties. It should also a line of reporting to the National Security Advisor. Until this happens, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, with all its warts and potential abuses, needs to stay in place. India’s civil and judicial mechanisms are already in action and Manorama Devi’s killers must be punished. But falling into an emotional trap, very likely motivated by political interests and exploited by militants, will be a step India may well come to regret.
Related Link: Jasjit Singh writes managing internal security means deploying the right force for the right task.