Celebrated Observer of India’s National Security Affairs Jaideep Saikia holds Lt Gen. R.P. Kalita, AVSM, SM, VSM Corps Commander of 3 Corps in an exclusive conversation
JS: You are a proud Sainik School, Goalpara product? How was your experience in the elite school?
RPK: Sainik School, Goalpara is a premier institute which has not only contributed some of the finest officers to the Indian Armed Forces, but has had a share in almost walks of life including culture and politics. As a cadet, I spent my most formative years in the school. It laid a strong foundation that has helped me as a soldier and as a human being.
JS: You are the first Indian army officer from Assam to command a Corps. How does that make you feel?
RPK: It is a privilege to serve the Indian army in any capacity. Assam has contributed many officers to the armed forces and there would be many who will rise to the highest of ranks in the times to come.
JS: You are presently commanding a very sensitive Corps. How do you plan to develop it?
RPK: The area of the Corps is indeed vast and has borders with several countries—each having their distinct dynamics. Our aims are well laid out and my job is to ensure that we are ready to fulfil our operational tasks, whatever it takes. One of the major areas of focus has been infrastructure development of the area.
JS: There is talk of conflict between India and China. Are there any indications in your Area of Responsibility?
RPK: As a nation we share a long border with China spanning the Western, Central and the Eastern Sectors. As a professional force, the armed forces are always ready to deal with any situation across the Sectors.
JS: Have you heard about my “Line of Amity”?
RPK: I have read many articles written by you including the one on the “Line of Amity”. Conceptually, I think there can be no argument against the semantics but the substantial issue for a resolution of the boundary dispute would require a lot of work. Incidentally, why don’t you expound the concept a bit here?
JS: Well if you say so! The 18th round of talks between the Special Representatives of India-China on the Boundary Question of 25 March 2015 had resulted in a status quo, albeit with the usual appendages about maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the frontiers. At any rate, a solution of sorts—with an eye to circuiting the status quo that prevails—was proposed by me during the course of an Indo-China “Track II Dialogue” in which I was a member of the Indian delegation. With the knowledge that neither sides would surrender ground (the instances which I quoted was that of Thagla Ridge held by the Chinese and the Namka Chu River that runs south of the Ridge held by the Indians) as well as the fact that the only solution lie in converting the “Line of Actual Control” into an International Boundary, I took recourse to semantics. Incidentally, this is very specific to the sub-sector that I am referring to, not the entire border. Therefore, if the phrase “Line of Actual Control”—if even a step is to be taken in the direction of later-day resolution (even by the generation that is to come!)—then it must be replaced (however interim!) by a classification that does not ring of belligerence. “Line of Amity” is the name that I proposed. The name “Line of Amity” also has the distinct possibility of bringing future leaders of both the countries to the table without the baggage of the past as well as the suspicion that has accompanied almost all Indo-China boundary dialogue and could well be the prerequisite for entente cordiale.
JS: How about insurgency? Is COVID-19 helping the state to bring them over ground?
RPK: Security Forces have worked tirelessly over the years to lower the threshold of violence and usher in an atmosphere where peace and development can flourish. Covid-19 has certainly affected all aspects of our lives and has had a definite impact on the activities of the insurgents. At the same time we have ensured that there is no let-up in essential operations on our part even as we operate within strict Covid protocols. This has certainly assisted in bringing in a much needed period of relative calm.
JS: Are you confident that you would be able to wean the wayward ULFA cadres away from the clutches of alien powers?
RPK: The ULFA (I) of the day is grappling with many issues. The chief reason for the travails of the group is that the people of the State have realised the hollowness of its ideology and aims. This has resulted in loss of public support and any moral justification for violence. ULFA has now started resorting to misguiding the unemployed youth to join their ranks. Many of these youths are getting disillusioned on witnessing the reality. I am confident that we will succeed in weaning away the youth.
JS: Have you received any feelers from insurgent groups such as ULFA (I)?
RPK: We have nothing against the youth who, having been misguided have made an erroneous decision at some point to join the insurgent ranks but are now willing to join the mainstream. There have been many cases where such cadres have contacted various security agencies and expressed their desire to shun violence and live as normal citizens of this country. Many are leading happy and prosperous life. This rehabilitation is done as per the policy promulgated by the Government and adequate safeguards are built in to ensure that this gesture of the Government is not misused.
JS: Do you see the NSCN (IM) dialogue progressing, especially after the recent showdown with Mr R N Ravi?
RPK: The peace process has come a long way. It is a complex problem spanning a long period of time. The “frame work agreement” of 2015 has laid the groundwork for the solution. Now the talks are in the final stages with few crucial issues to be resolved between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India. In the overall context, most Naga groups appear to be on board and I am hopeful that a consensus on the issue would be reached which would be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders. But tell me, what is the various ways that one must traverse for a peace process to succeed?
JS: A heightened sense of caution guides belligerent parties before they enter into a political reconciliation process. The primary concern of such groups is whether the stronger party—in the case of the NSCN (IM)—it is the Government of India would permit an honourable solution, which would be acceptable to the belligerent group and the constituency it seeks to represent. This aspect is particularly important as asymmetry characterises almost all cases of conflict between belligerents and constituted authority. Such groups also exercise caution as they sense that a coaxed entrance into a political process could be a ploy of the stronger party to “wear them out” by engaging them in protracted negotiations. But notwithstanding such predicaments compromises are often made when a belligerent party perceives a stalemate in the movement and when conflict fatigue begins to set in, as also when they realise that the populace among which they operate are building consensus to force the belligerents to enter into dialogue. In such scenarios belligerents try to shape the environment in an array of ways, which may range from escalating the level of violence, increasing the rhetoric (in the manner that the NSCN (IM) has been doing of late), pressuring for a change of Interlocutor/Governor who the NSCN (IM) feels has become capricious and bossy, as also to internationalise the movement.
The motivation is to force the stronger party to “open new channels”. However the movement from intention to actual institution of political process is usually long drawn: most belligerent groups put forward conditions that may not be acceptable to the stronger party. But non-acceptable conditions are usually made only by way of bargaining counters, with a comprehension that a climb-down to acceptable conditions would eventually take place, and ones which were actually intended by the belligerents. Sincerity of both parties to resolve conflict by adhering to the principle of mutual accommodation and by prolonging the peace dividend when fighting ends is crucial at this stage. This is primarily because of not only the possibility that subterfuges may be engineered by hardliners among belligerents who feel that they will not be given their due in a post settlement scenario, but also because of the presence of spoiling efforts by vested interests. Back channelling and secret parleys with sincere mandate are best suited to navigate the process at such junctures: publicity normally results in devious objectives coming into play, derailing the political process in its infancy.
JS: ULFA has, of late, been toeing the Chinese line, almost as if the organisation is a Public Relations front of the Chinese intelligence?
RPK: Yes, I agree with you, some of the propaganda videos uploaded by ULFA are evidently Pro-China.
RPK: The North East region is the fulcrum of India’s Act East Policy. How do you think enhanced linkages with our South Eastern neighbours impact this region including effect on the security situation?
JS: If the North East is to prosper—economically and by way of security—it must (by dint of its geo-location) look to dynamic South-East Asia. New Delhi wants this to happen. Unfortunately, “Act East”—in my opinion—would see the light of day only when it finally “Goes East”. The move from “Look” to “Act” and finally “Go” is not difficult as our Prime Minister once said from the ramparts of the Red Fort. His words registered in my mind even as I was listening to him on the TV on 15 August 2014. He had said Kadam Jab Milegi, Tab Man Milega, Kadam Jab Milegi, Tab Man Milega, Tab Maksad Bhi Milega. I translate: When steps are in unison, the mind would be in accord, and then, the objective, too, would become one. That is the best manner in which I can address the objective to a General who would aid in unifying the steps.
JS: Do you have special plans for the youth of Assam who view you as a role model?
RPK: Well, I do have a message for them. Dare to dream big and then strive towards that dream. Like Prof Abdul Kalam said, dream is not something you see in sleep, it is something that does not let you sleep, so dream big and take the plunge. If your fail, do it again and again. No dream is too big to be achieved.
JS: Would you encourage the younger generation of Assam to join the Indian Army in the manner that your son has done?
RPK: Certainly. I believe that one joins the armed forces not only to make a career, but to live the experience as a way of life. Youth of Assam are hardy and ideally suited for soldierly pursuits. It will benefit both the army and the state.