New Delhi: Periodically, voices are raised to induct the military into counter-Maoist operations, a domain currently restricted to local police and paramilitary forces. It is a very bad idea. A scaled-down version of the demand is to deploy the air force to give air cover to operations. This is equally a bad idea. The Indian armed forces have no interest to fight their own people, which is exactly what inserting the military in counter-Maoist operations would mean. The counter-Maoist operations are not going well; there any number of reasons for them. Bringing the military into the fray is not the solution; it would have disastrous consequences.

The military is the country’s last force of defence. It is the ultimate coercive power of the state. For that reason, its employment must be minimal, and only related to the defence of the realm from external aggression. An external enemy operates in Jammu and Kashmir, which is Pakistan. It has provoked four wars against India and has spearheaded a low-intensity terror war in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere for more than a quarter century. India has no option but to involve the military in internal security duties in J and K. Given the nature of duties, the military must be protected by laws such as AFSPA. But the military’s role in the state has been considerably whittled down from the late-1980s when this writer began covering Jammu and Kashmir as a reporter. Perhaps in absolute numbers, the military may not have substantially reduced; but it is certainly less visible, which is a good sign. Till Pakistani terrorism persists, India will keep a high military profile in Jammu and Kashmir; this is unexceptionable. But at the same time, the military is largely in barracks, and it does not really matter if the barracks are concentrated in Jammu and Kashmir than in some other state at peace.

In Assam at the height of ULFA terrorism, the army was increasingly drawn into operations. ULFA terrorism had a transnational and separatist character as the Jammu and Kashmir militancy. No state can tolerate separatism although it may employ more than military means to contain it, which is what India has done. It has always remained open to conversation with separatists within the Constitution; the election of friendly governments in Bangladesh and close ties with Burma have also considerably diminished the ULFA threat. Moreover, in successive general and state elections, the Assamese have lustily voted, and often returned stable governments in the state. Assam festers with communal violence where all sides look to the army for protection, which makes military deployment sensitive and absolutely need-based. The Centre has been well-advised so far to keep the military insulated from societal frictions and be selective and cautious in its deployment during civil strife.

This caution must be exercised equally and perhaps more vigorously on the issue of the military’s role in counter-Maoist operations. This writer has always held that the military must keep off this area and service chiefs have determined the same, including the former army chief who is a minister in the Narendra Modi government, General (retired) V. K. Singh. The Maoist insurgency is related to developmental mishaps and horrors, including the reckless and dehumanizing mining activities in the tribal homelands of Central India. Indian industry must squarely take blame for the rise of Maoist violence since the commencement of economic reforms in the early 1990s. No Central government has called to account the mining mafia whose predations lie at the heart of the Maoist insurgency. The tribals or adivasis are unfortunately caught in the crossfire between state forces and the insurgents in which they suffer the worst.

Certain actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi give this writer an impression that he is close to tribal distress and is keen to protect their homes, lands and their heritage. He must put a decisive stop to the idiocy of involving the military in counter-Maoist operations. If air rescue of police and paramilitary forces is necessary, this should be tasked to a non-military arm. The military can provide counterinsurgency training to paramilitary forces and may even establish training stations in the heart of insurgent territory as a salutary measure; but it must not involve in operations.

Militaries are trained for war. That must be the exclusive focus of the Indian armed forces. Prime Minister Modi, on the other hand, must try to demilitarize the Maoist insurgency and deal humanly with the tribal question. They are the meek that should inherit the Earth.