A Lost Opportunity For Kashmir: Why Scrapping The Army’s Intelligence Unit Was A Blunder

by Madhur Sharma - Jun 19, 2018 12:41 PM +05:30 IST
A Lost Opportunity For Kashmir: Why Scrapping The Army’s Intelligence Unit Was A BlunderArmy soldiers at forward posts beyond the illuminated fence in Hamirpur area near Bhimber Gali. (Gurinder Osan/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • When the Technical Support Division was felled, it took away the Army’s intelligence and covert operations capabilities.

    The Army’s brilliantly laid out unit could have very well been a game changer for Kashmir.

The government has now decided to discontinue the cessation of operations in Jammu and Kashmir after Eid. The cessation of operations came as the government’s yet another approach to the Valley. Prior to this, the government had last year appointed an interlocutor to hold dialogue with all stakeholders. The interlocutor’s dialogue has since gone along with Operation All Out – a relentless pursuit of terrorists and militants in the state by the security forces. This shows that the situation in the Valley has been approached from all sides, and yet the results have not been very promising. As policymakers continue to juggle with their approaches, a recent and seemingly unconnected development made this writer delve into an episode in our recent past that cost us what could have been a game changer in the Valley.

Recently, Colonel ‘Hunny’ Bakshi of the Army’s intelligence corps was given a clean chit in an investigation that had been going on from the days of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. While the media was awash with reports about the colonel’s acquittal, most reports came without a background. A background check of Col Bakshi and the investigation led this writer on a very murky trail. The trail snakes its way through a secretive Army unit – disbanded scandalously in 2012 – to the ugly tussle involving the then UPA regime, the Army, the Ministry of Defence, and two service chiefs, which got uglier with a string of media reports that made sensational claims, culminating in a scandal unparalleled in the living memory, and one that would cost us an Army unit called Technical Support Division (TSD).

Most of the people learned about the unit on 20 September 2013, when The Indian Express published a front-page report stating that Technical Services Division, a military intelligence unit set up by General V K Singh in May 2010, had been investigated by Board of Officers inquiry led by Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, then the Director General of Military Operations. The report claimed that the inquiry report – submitted to the defence secretary in March 2013 and then presented to the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister’s Office – found that the unit had engaged in a wide range of illicit activities, from paying Rs 1.19 crore to Ghulam Hassan Mir, then the agricultural minister in the Jammu and Kashmir government, to topple the state government, to paying NGOs to affect the Army’s line of succession, and suspiciously buying interception equipment.

Board of Officers had also reportedly recommended an external inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The report created a storm, as the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party launched into heated exchanges. The report was regularly followed by more reports tracing developments in the investigation. As the investigation and reportage went on, the storm too continued to rage. The unit was vilified and its officers were hounded. At the centre of the ire was Gen V K Singh, who was demonised to the extent that by the time the storm finally blew away, there was barely any accusation that was not made against him, from trying to topple governments to snooping on ministers.

Here it should be noted that the TSD reports were not the only set of reports involving Gen V K Singh.

Earlier in April 2013 The Indian Express had published a full front-page report that had shocked the nation. The report stated that earlier on 16 January 2013, two Army units had moved towards New Delhi, one from Agra in Uttar Pradesh and the other from Hissar in Haryana. As per the report, these units were moved without notifying the defence ministry. Even though the report did not mention the c-word, the writing on the wall was as clear as it could be. Also, it was on 16 January that Gen VK Singh moved to the Supreme Court regarding his date of birth row with the government.

Even as the choicest of words were used in media reports throughout 2012-13 to refer to the unit and the men running it, little attempts were made to understand the unit and its significance. Even though some indeed called out the hollowness of The Indian Express reports, they were overshadowed by the systematic vilification of the unit. The paper also went to the length of issuing legal notices to those critical of the coverage.

The unit was eventually scrapped under Gen Bikram Singh, Gen V K Singh’s successor, and its personnel were deputed to positions unbecoming of their profiles – intelligence veterans were sent to look after construction of residential quarters and stock winter ration in Ladakh. Such a clampdown can be better understood by looking back at Gen V K Singh’s tenure as the Army chief. As chief, Gen V K Singh sought to work towards transforming the army into a lean and mean fighting force. He came down heavily on corruption and the arms lobby, against which he remained very vocal throughout his tenure. The highlight of the career, however, remains the controversies he generated ever since the date or birth row erupted between him and the government.

After all these years of the clampdown, a comparison between the state of affairs in the years the now-scrapped unit was active and the period since reveals that the situation has only gone downhill. Summers in the Valley are known to be bloody. Khoon ka badla June me lenge remains a saying. In 2011, however, the situation was that Gen V K Singh called it ‘a summer of peace’. There was a significant decrease in fatalities in the years 2011 and 2012. Since then the numbers have only increased. The year 2013 was quite bloody. It witnessed not just terrorist attacks but also a very intense situation along the border that saw large scale confrontations between the Indian and Pakistani forces. This was also the beginning of Pakistani Border Action Team actions, and it was in this period that the first beheading incident occurred.

It was in this period the TSD was scrapped under Gen Bikram Singh.

This gives us an idea of the consequences of the unit’s fall. To fully understand the significance of the unit’s clampdown, one needs to understand the Technical Support Division, without the prejudice of its critics in media and political circles.

The unit has roots in the wake of 26/11 attacks, when the National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan, approached the heads of all intelligence and security agencies, asking if they had capabilities to strike terrorists at their home in Pakistan. No one replied positively. No one got back to him with any plan to figure out a way either. In 2010, shortly after Gen V K Singh took over as Army chief, Lt Gen R K Loomba, then the Director General of Military Intelligence, approached him and said that he could form such a unit. Gen V K Singh gave him the green light. That moment led to the birth of Technical Support Division, a human intelligence unit that was to be a force multiplier for the Army. It was meant to feed Army real time intelligence, operate behind enemy lines, and engage with the public both overtly and covertly and engage them psychologically.

Here it should be noted that the unit was a human intelligence unit, and had little technical work. Claims of snooping through surveillance equipment and bugging the government therefore fall royally.

The unit’s fall paralysed the Army as it took away its intelligence and covert operations capabilities. When most were vilifying the unit, Col J K Achuthan wrote a very stimulating piece for the Indian Defence Review. In his piece, he wrote that the TSD ought to be there at every corps level as it leads to domain specialisation, something the conventional functioning the Army otherwise lacks. Also, the TSD was addressing the Army’s dependence on external agencies – primarily the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) – for intelligence. He wrote that the role of RAW and IB should only be complementary and not primary. All of this was undone when the unit was scrapped.

It has been commented that the unit could have avoided attacks like Samba and Pathankot, as with the sort of operations and human intelligence network the unit had been engaged in, the army was able to reach and address the actual sources of terror and it was also working towards predicting terrorists’ targets with a high level of accuracy.

After the Pathankot attack, Manohar Parrikar, then the defence minister, too said that the unit fell to politics. He said that the unit was sacrificed at the political altar and the deep assets and intelligence networks the unit had developed fell to political aspirations.

While it was active, the unit was doing something of paramount importance – it was engaging with the Kashmiri psyche. In recent years, people have often commented on how the security forces have been neutralising more and more terrorists, but is the ordinary Kashmiri beginning to see the futility of taking up the gun? The answer is an uncomfortable no, as local recruitment has risen significantly and local sentiment has largely been negative towards India. The current situation in Kashmir is in sheer contrast to the situation in the decades after Independence. One of the reasons for the failures of Operation Gibraltar in 1965 was that local Kashmiris were largely pro-Indians back then, but the same cannot be said for now, when the symbols of the Indian state are highly antagonised entities.

Even though the government and the Army are engaging Kashmiris through a wide range of activities, the situation does not seem to be working out right, as the local recruitment is constantly on the rise, the population is largely hostile, and border situation too is not healthy.

Above all, the state of Army is not healthy either. The Army has been bogged down in a manner in Kashmir that experts question whether it has been reduced to a glorified police force. Rather than developing its intelligence networks and preparing for its ultimate objective of dealing with external threats, the Army seems to be completely focused in internal affairs of the state.

While the Army’s special operations capabilities have been proven through surgical strikes and other such operations, its covert operations and behind enemy lines operations have severely suffered. Not just that, since the TSD’s clampdown, the Army’s acquisition process too has suffered. In 2016, the government did not allow the Army to buy necessary equipment, which was linked to the fear, insecurities, and mistrust developed from the TSD episode. Financial constraints too have been put up on the Army’s intelligence activities.

The resultant loss of the TSD has not just been in terms of critical assets, but also in terms of human resources. The officers running the unit have had their professional and personal lives ruined, as they have faced humiliating postings and severe family issues in the wake of the unit being scrapped.

Kashmir – and the nation at large – has therefore paid a very huge cost for the previous unpopular government’s insecurities and the machinations of powerful individuals and lobbies both in and out of the government, which all resulted in Technical Support Division’s fall, a unit that was not just making a significant difference in Kashmir, but was also boosting the Army’s operational capabilities in the longer run. It was a strategic asset that was bringing in real time intelligence, conducting covert operations, engaging the local psyche, bridging the gap between Kashmiris and the rest of the country; all of which received a great setback with the unit’s fall.

The Technical Support Division episode thus remains a dark episode in our history, in which the politician-bureaucrat-intellectual combine brought down the Army’s brilliantly laid out unit that – had it not been scrapped – could have very well been a game changer for the Valley.

Madhur Sharma is a post-graduate student of journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and a history graduate from Delhi University. He tweets at @madhur_mrt.


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