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Sadbhavana and the Paradox of 'Winning Hearts and Minds'

An Institutionalist Perspective

Counter-insurgency in theory separates itself from conventional war by rendering the insurgent movement and its goals irrelevant. Concurrently, government is reinvigorated and welfare schemes implemented under the rubric of "winning hearts and minds" assuming that improved governance ameliorates ethnic grievances. The results of better government delivery are nullified when combined with practices such as collective punishment diminishing the little chance that institutions have of changing political beliefs as the examples provided from the Kashmir conflict show.

This commentary is based on an ongoing project on state response to insurgency in India.

Army officers who served in Kashmir both before and after the   onset of the separatist insurgency share a common anecdote. Prior to the armed rebellion which began in 1989, curious onlookers would wave at soldiers as their convoys sped past the countryside towards the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border that divides Kashmir between territories administered by India and Pakistan. At best, the children cheered at the passing green and camouflaged vehicles; at worst, the movement elicited bored indifference. The arrival of rebels, celebrated as freedom fighters by most Kashmiri Muslims,1 and the military response against them turned jaded indifference to extreme hostility. Troops were met with cold stares, or alternatively, obedience forced out of fear; but at no public space—tea stalls, cafes, traditional bakeries, or the Valley’s famous gardens and lakes—were they made to feel at home.

This widely shared experience, by no means unique to Kashmir, is disturbing for the counter-insurgency doctrine. counter-insurgency seeks to provide incentives for civilian actors to share information about insurgents so they can be targeted selectively (in military talk, “surgically”). When efficiently executed, counter-insurgency avoids indiscriminate violence for its antagonising effect, and supplements military operations with public services and dissemination of a credible mass ideology (Kalyvas 2008). Schools, hospitals, job fairs and sloganeering are as enduring as patrols, arrests and ambushes.2 The salience of such non-security instruments has likened counterinsurgency to the art of “winning hearts and minds,” a competition for government (Fall 1965), even armed nation building (Kilcullen 2010).

Such normative aims notwithstanding, the grain of public opinion runs against counter-insurgency. Popularity comes at a premium, had the incumbent state been popular, there would have been no need for counter-insurgency in the first place. This is especially true in long-standing ethnic disputes over disputed sovereignty where identity and political beliefs have been hardwired over decades. Kashmir fits this description. The former princely state was claimed by both India and Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947. A war ensued. Threatened by Pakistani tribal marauders who had breached the state’s defences, the ruler Hari Singh signed the Treaty of Accession with India. A United Nations (UN)-mediated ceasefire led to Kashmir’s de facto division. India reneged on its pledge to ratify the legal accession through plebiscite. Since then, New Delhi’s practice of manipulating local politics to suppress the issue of plebiscite and condoning graft and misgovernment by pro-Indian political elites has fed into popular discontent (Bose 2003; Behera 2006; Varshney 1991; Ganguly 1996). It follows that the insurgency received widespread support, and conversely, the state response struggled to find willing collaborators. Like elsewhere, counter-insurgency increased local alienation; rather than quell dissent, its abrasive nature increased rebel support.

Despite the population's fear and loathing towards the incumbent state and its armed forces, consumption levels of non-security services generally remain high. Social services under Operation Sadbhavana (harmony), a hearts and minds programme run by the army in Kashmir, are popular ostensibly because of their superior quality as compared to facilities run by successive state governments. Over 14 years, the army has spent Rs 400 crore in a variety of civic services: two residential schools, 66 Goodwill Schools, institutes for special children, employment schemes, health and veterinary care, access to water in remote villages, even a full-blown Kashmir Premier League cricket competition. Villagers often turn to army officers before they present their complaints to local administrators despite sharing ethnicity and language with the latter. They seem to accept that for all its ills, the army is better organised and “results oriented.”

And yet, the same army continues to be unpopular, if not hated, and is seen as an occupying force. This raises an important question—why do non-security aspects of counter-insurgency fail to alter people’s attitudes towards counter-insurgents?

Several arguments are made. First, discontent against counter-insurgency troops is neither sudden and dramatic, nor isolated from wider politics and past history. Schools and health centres are no substitute for political rights of ethnic groups; their failure should not surprise anyone (Cederman et al 2010). Second, consumption of services may be reflective of political beliefs when consumers have the option to choose among competing political competitors. Counter-insurgency welfare programmes are most often run in far-flung places where the civilian administration is absent. In such conditions, making use of army hospitals is as suggestive of helplessness as it is of endorsement of the government. Third, conflicts collectivise memory of shoot-outs, fake encounters, and torture that mark the first phases of counter-insurgency when information is hard to come by (Wood 2003). Trauma, grievance, and feeling of injustice no longer remains confined to neighbourhoods and villages, it becomes shared among the community and assumes a cultural meaning (Alexander 2012). Adroit operators cannot expect to simply turn up and override the actions of their more abrasive predecessors (Greenhill and Staniland 2007). Any subsequent measure to win hearts is an effort too little and too late. Fourth, the very occurrence of conflict sharpens in-group/out-group cleavages, especially when counter-insurgents draw their membership from ethnic groups rival to the population whose consent is sought (Sambanis et al 2012). The presence of predominantly non-Kashmiri and non-Muslim army soldiers solidifies a pan-Kashmiri identity and attenuates class, caste, sectarian and kinship differences.

Shadow of Indian Stratagems

It would seem that the long shadow of India’s dubious stratagems and human rights abuse in Kashmir obviates any measure to “win hearts” and “restore normalcy,” its purported end-state. At the face of history, structure, and the cultural salience of ethnicity, institutions stand little chance in shaping people’s behaviour. Before discarding them, it is worth examining counter-insurgency institutions in detail.

Counter-insurgency falls into two paradigms—the population-centric and enemy-centric schools of thought. Both agree that individuals respond to incentives; above all else, they seek to minimise damage and increase well-being (Leites and Wolf 1970). Population-centric counter-insurgency predicts that demonstrating resolve and capacity to limit civilian damage and offer opportunities to increase their well-being yields compliance. The doctrine is threefold. First, counter-insurgency operators should not force civilian cooperation through coercion. Second, civilians should feel protected from insurgent reprisals so they can exercise agency. And third, counter-insurgency should include social welfare measures to encourage civilian cooperation. Flowing from this logic, force is applied in moderation, troops placed alongside habitation centres to credibly demonstrate security, and a host of public and private goods offered through the rubric of government and development. The enemy-centric school is the mirror image; if physical safety is paramount, the threat of endangering it through brute force should compel civilians to denounce insurgents, despite sympathising with them.Non-compliance is met with collective punishment.

This view of counter-insurgency is essentially institutionalist; states and rebels possess resources, including the ability to provide security, while civilians have information about local collaborators (mukhbirs) which is needed to kill surgically. In an incomplete information space marked with asymmetry of resources, states generate signals to elicit participation and deter defection—“stay with us and raise your stock, or fight us, and face the consequences.”

In reality, practitioners mix the two strategies. The practice of giving operational freedom to small-unit commanders to leverage local idiosyncrasies results in non-uniform application of counter-insurgency principles. Restraint is encouraged, but when insurgents remain elusive and continue to kill soldiers in ones and twos, counter-insurgency reverts to violence, fear and torture to obtain information and “pacify the restive” population even as it continues to provide social welfare concurrently. Cordon and search operations, the bedrock of counter-insurgency in Kashmir, where male members of towns and villages were forced to assemble in community centres while their houses were searched for weapons, were more abusive in the aftermath of troop casualties. Houses used by insurgents to hide were destroyed even when their owners were in no position to decline rebel request for a safe haven. While popular protests elsewhere in India are met with police violence, in Kashmir, such violence continues to be demonstratively more lethal and routinely causes civilian deaths. Trails of enemy-centric counter-insurgency are writ large; collective punishment is no aberration, it is institutionalised to generate compliance. The population is “protected from foreign terrorists” and at the same time, persecuted to extract “obedience.”

Mixing strategies, no doubt driven by practical military necessity, inadvertently creates noisy signals that inhibit cooperation. When one military agency promises security and gains, and another threatens physical harm and censure, ordinary civilians have little reason to understand, let alone trust, counter-insurgency signals. The wartime order that results from mixed strategies has little predictability. When civilians are no longer sure whether their action will be met with bouquets or brickbats, their decision to not participate in such orders is hardly surprising.

The micro dynamics of mixing strategies does not leave macro politics untouched. Schools will produce successful students, hospitals will raise health standards. But when combined with ill-treatment at check posts, destruction of property, and arbitrary abuse, much of the population will discount the good and emphasise the bad. Development and welfare are worthy goals in and by themselves, but their intended outcome is to change the population’s true preference, which mixed strategies fail to deliver. This cedes political ground to opposition parties and undermines the legitimacy of elected leaders.

The implication might appear paradoxical; counter-insurgency requires greater emphasis on respect for rules and norms, not for ethical reasons, but to facilitate the very practical military expediency that often causes its compromise in the first place. Any order-making enterprise should generate unambiguous signals to engender civilian participation. One cannot protect and punish at the same time; practitioners should stick with a unified paradigm throughout the conflict and across time.

Whether counter-insurgency is better situated as a nation-building enterprise or an imperialist stratagem is debatable. History is replete with its generous application in both contexts. That being the case, just because an exercise is rooted in contentious or even unjust motives does not imply that its execution is doomed to be marked by repression and illiberal practices. Changing the true preferences of civilians is a tall order, even politically astute counter-insurgency may not succeed is creating liberal democratic culture when stacked against unresolved historical disputes, a culture of shared trauma, and sharpened ethnic polarity. Counter-insurgency based on contradictory institutions certainly will not.


1 Kashmiri non-Muslims, Buddhists and Shiite Muslims from Ladakh, and Hindus from Jammu do not share similar aspirations.

2 These include public goods like education and healthcare facilities, water supply and sewage, road construction, restoration of local markets, and employment schemes, among others. Private goods are offered as well—privileged access to government, lucrative government contracts at preferential terms, promise of political office in return of compliance, and sometime, the lure of graft. Such programs run under ideologies as varied as “saving democracy,” “secular ethos,” and “defence” of religion.


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