Burhan Wani’s killing showed Indian security agencies were clueless. Careerist deadwood just doesn’t make the cut

Facing multiple challenges, India can’t afford careerist duffers who end up in charge of security. Too often, they fail to strategise, think out of the box, and prepare for the unexpected.

ByDavid Devadas
Burhan Wani’s killing showed Indian security agencies were clueless. Careerist deadwood just doesn’t make the cut
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The Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani was killed this day four years ago. I was told that, about an hour later, the police officer in charge of the area sent a message to friends in the corridors of power, announcing a party. That’s how clueless he was about what lay ahead.

He spent that night navigating the flood of protesters who poured onto the roads of South Kashmir. He and the rest of the security establishment were at the end of their tether over the next several months as demonstrations rocked every corner of Kashmir.

Burhan had been projected as a heroic figure on social media the previous summer, making him hugely popular. It is entirely possible that the uprising was planned, and he was set up as the trigger. In fact, information about the young man’s whereabouts may have been fed from across the Line of Control.

Early warning

Those who were given huge salaries, lavish perquisites, and secret funds to fathom and deal with such things apparently had no clue, before or even after that uprising had hit them hard.

It’s not as if it was tough to see. Already the previous year, I had realised that killing Burhan would be a colossal trigger. Whatever you do, don’t kill this boy Burhan Wani, I had told a senior officer ten months earlier. Arrest him instead. The officer had introduced himself as he and I were leaving a function in Srinagar. When he said appreciatively that he had been reading my work, I seized the opportunity to give him that warning, for what it was worth.

It was evidently water off a duck’s back.

Indeed, Burhan’s father told me a month after his son was killed that the entire Azadi movement would have collapsed if Burhan had been arrested. The Indian state had shot itself in the foot by killing his son, he held.

Instant response

The day Burhan was killed, I was standing in front of my host at the Kashmiri home that had invited me to visit around Eid (which had been celebrated two days before) when his son phoned me to say Burhan had been killed. I didn’t reply to the son. With the phone still at my ear, I asked my host to send for rice and lentils and oil. I had realised instantly that we needed to stock up for a long disturbed period.

I wrote the next day that: “Whoever in the military, police, intelligence and political class, planned the operation to kill Burhan – the poster boy of Kashmir’s new militancy – their opponents evidently planned much better...they were ready. The state was not. The various kinds of intelligence outfits – 11 at last count – apparently had no clue of what was coming. If they knew and did nothing, they should be prosecuted for treason; if they did not, they should be sacked for dereliction of duty...Over the 24 hours since Friday evening, this war has escalated to a new level. The only thing that is easy to predict is that things will get worse, much worse.”

Those strong words were more water off that duck’s back. The well-connected fop who held charge of intelligence there at the time earned the sobriquet “plumber” (in Kashmiri) as those in the know sniggered about help being arranged for high society ladies who had problems with clogged drains during the uprising.

That milk is simmering again!

To remember how badly things were handled – not handled – four years ago by those who are paid to understand, prevent, and deal with such things may seem like crying over spilt milk. It is not. This year’s Chinese challenge has further underlined both how dubious their performance can be and the vital importance of their task.

Two divisions of the People’s Liberation Army just turned up in Aksai Chin, and nobody apparently knew until they literally barged into Indian patrols. High on the “Wuhan spirit”, those who hold charge of satellites, cyber tools, listening and heat-seeking devices, drones, and scouts on the ground were caught napping.

That the media has largely ignored the lapse should not lull us into thinking that all is well. In fact, complacency could prove very costly. We are, after all, talking of national security.

Nor is it enough to focus on such lapses as a superficial blame game. We must explore root causes, and try to mend things.

Little boxes

One problem is that too many of those who make a career of intelligence and security-related work think in plain black-and-white terms, their minds boxed in by us-versus-them binaries. That police officer in the area where Burhan was killed evidently could not see beyond the fact that a terrorist had been eliminated. Ergo, reason for the forces and their friends to party. That that elimination could trigger something much bigger evidently didn’t cross his mind.

Limited bandwidths are not restricted to field officers. Some of them carry their limitations up as they get promoted. An officer who headed a force in the valley that year thought he could puncture the uprising with a recruitment drive. While there is no doubt that tens of thousands would turn up for recruitment in a place where just about everyone wants a government job, a recruitment drive and an uprising are not a zero-sum equation. Not by a long shot.

I realised how high blinkered black-and-white perceptions could go when I interviewed a former governor of the erstwhile state while researching my first book on Kashmir. The gentleman had previously held charge of the country’s foremost security force.

During the interview, I kept racking my brain to figure out the meaning of a word he used repeatedly, not wanting to reveal to him that I didn’t know it. Finally, the coin dropped: it wasn’t a word; he was pronouncing the acronym “ANEs” like “Ayeneez” to describe all militants and anti-state political leaders and activists.

To him, members of the JKLF, Hizbul Mujahideen, Al Jihad, the Mirwaiz’s party, and radical members of the Jamaat-e-Islami were all undifferentiated Anti-National Elements. He would have put those who later met prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the one who welcomed prime minister Narendra Modi home, calling him an elder brother, in the same bracket as the radical militant Zakir Musa, who threatened to kill all those others.

The fact is, one needs multiple strategies, including complex and subtle ones, if one is to deal effectively with different kinds of opponents. Otherwise, not only might one fail, one could end up generating fresh waves of opponents – as has happened with militancy in South Kashmir, even over the past couple of years.

Clueless police chiefs

One might expect the police, which must constantly deal with the public, to be better attuned to complexity. But while it is difficult to make out behind a glaze of khaki and sparkling brass while they are in uniform, some of those who have headed the state police expose how clueless they are at conferences they address after retiring.

One routinely bores his audiences with a visual presentation on militancy in the 1990s – the patterns of which were different to the current militancy, which mushroomed while he headed the police. Not only did he prove unfit to handle the new militancy as the police chief, he has evidently failed to learn through post-retirement reflection.

Another former police chief said in the course of a seminar that there had been Shia groups such as Hizbullah in Kashmir’s militancy. Sitting at that seminar table, I had to restrain myself from jerking an eye-popped head-swivel. For, in fact, the Kashmiri militant group of that name was not only Sunni-dominated, it was the most pan-Islamist of all the Kashmiri groups. Its founder, Mushtaq Ahmed Bhat, was partly shaped by the Salafi Maulvi Mutheruddin, who preached at Srinagar’s Iqra mosque during the 1980s – when that speaker became a police officer.

Of course, if one typed the words “Shia terrorist group”, Google would promptly throw up the name of Hezbollah, the Lebanese outfit.

The presentations of these retired officers underline something I have shown in The Story of Kashmir: that policing in Kashmir was at times a clown show around 1990. Happily, many of the officers selected since the beginning of this century are far better. Yet, it is painfully obvious that India’s police training doesn’t teach lateral thinking, connecting the dots, or prognosis.

Those lacunae could prove costly for a country that faces threats from east and west, rising militancy in Kashmir, infiltration from Pakistan, and the rampaging spread of the coronavirus pandemic. At this juncture at least, we urgently need on-the-ball strategists who can think out of the box and respond effectively on the run, not run-of-the-mill, scratch-each-others’-back careerists.

David Devadas, author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage, is a political and geopolitical analyst.


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