Blowing the Covert Lid

Are the revelations by VK Singh, a dirty “secret” or standard operating procedure for maintaining peace in India?

Blowing the Covert Lid
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The only recorded statement till date on what is being called “covert operations” in Jammu and Kashmir by the controversial Technical Services Division of the Indian army is by the former army chief General VK Singh. General Singh has courted enough controversies and this one too is unlikely to cause him any discomfort.

Should the General have gone on national networks and revealed dirty “secrets”? This is what many in the armed forces are asking. Paying ministers in Jammu and Kashmir since Independence as he puts it is more of a sensational claim than anything else.

According to my source, who used to serve in the Army, in December 1998 a young Major of the Indian army boarded an Indian Airlines (now Air India) flight from New Delhi to Srinagar. He had a simple task, to hand over a briefcase of currency notes to an authorised person at Srinagar airport which he did and returned. At the Officers’ Mess these kinds of stories are routine over-a-drink gossip.

As reported in the media at the time – sadly the Internet doesn’t hark back that far and few seem to have bothered to archive news reports from then – in 1997,Farooq Abdullah after becoming the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was suddenly faced with renewed violence by militants. The situation was so critical that Abdullah couldn’t even address rallies in his own constituency, Ganderbal because there was a Hurriyat diktat to people not to attend any political rallies. The army had to step in to give the sense that everything was fine and democracy still prevailed in the valley.

The sarpanch (village head) and volunteers of Jamaat-e-Islami were paid to collect people for the rally while transport was organised by the army units. This is not unusual in any part of the country where active insurgency exists.  Is anyone so naïve to imagine that people throng political rallies on their own? They are paid to do so. In disturbed areas, politicians with clout are provided with money and logistics to get people and give a semblance of peace. Let me give you an example – for decades, Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations in the North-eastern states have been boycotted by militant groups but the Republic Day Parade and speeches by governors and chief ministers are held with an impressive audience. Many are huddled in vehicles and placed there to avoid embarrassment to the Indian nation state.

The budget and role of the Technical Service Division is a bit of a blur but there is no ambiguity in how the Intelligence Bureau or Military Intelligence works. There exists a “source money” which is a “hidden budget” and is “unaudited”. These are not state secrets, but universal policy decisions. This is how intelligence gathering works. The briefcase of currency at Srinagar airport which I was told about, was possibly “source money” to cultivate sources or pay off and buy peace in a situation which could slip out of control. The possibility of this money being misused is very high but that is something agencies monitor. If their monitoring mechanism is flawed that is something else. Here we are speaking of money paid. Yes, not just ministers but several people in the system are paid in disturbed areas and border areas to secure control over situations.

To go back to the immediate years after Independence, let me narrate what was a completely open and transparent “operation” shared with me by R Roy, the then-private secretary to Assam Chief Minister, B P Chaliha. Chaliha was a member of the Naga Peace Mission. The other members were Reverend Michael Scott and Jayprakash Narayan. The Naga Hills, then part of Assam has been insurgent even prior to Independence, but a Naga army was raised in 1956 to fight the Indian state. In the Sixties, the Naga Peace Mission tried to broker peace between the rebel Naga groups and the government of India and for sometime India believed that peace had arrived. But it’s important to realise how that short-lived peace was achieved.

Roy recalled how he took a chartered Fokker aircraft to Nagaland with salt, wrist watches and currency notes. The brief to him was to distribute the cash and other materials to whoever he wanted. It was a random and unaudited process of peace. Nagaland has been witness to several other peace overtures but the fact that money is paid to buy peace is an old, yet not very effective method in the state.

Similarly, there are several cases (which cannot be substantiated) of how the Indian state through its various agencies fund and influence elections from the local level to even in neighbouring nations and use money and other means to earn goodwill and maintain a status quo in disturbed zones. To put the entire controversy in context, it is important to understand the history of Indian peace processes as well as how government agencies are mandated to function in sensitive areas. And that what VK Singh has stated is nothing new, it is simply standard operating procedure in India.

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