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Goodwill Operations and the Indian Army: Lessons for Society

The role played by the Indian army in the context of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism (CI/CT) is indeed extremely challenging and complex.   Important elements of CI/CT operations, in recent times, are the initiatives that focus on building goodwill in the local community. The present article attempts to draw attention to some of the questions that are fundamental to such initiatives.

 It can be said with assurance that for every society, the fulfillment of its basic requirements and needs is of utmost importance. For an outside entity – whether individual or institution –earning the trust and confidence of the community or group this knowledge can be of great use. This basic premise has been adopted and implemented well in the case of the Indian army’s operations like Sadbhavana and Samaritan. These operations go a step further by working towards the developmental goals of that area. Thus, the operations provide a useful lesson for all other institutions.

A Brief Description of Initiatives for Goodwill

The army is involved in goodwill and confidence building activities in those parts of India where it is involved in CI/CT activities. There are large-scale operations, encompassing a number of projects, like Operation Sadbhavana in Kashmir and Operation Samaritan in northeast India. In January 1992, when army operations were temporarily suspended, Operation Sahyog was initiated in Assam. Similar operations named Good Samaritan started in June 1995 in Nagaland and Manipur. Operation Sadbhavana was launched in 1998 in remote areas of Jammu and Kashmir.

All of these operations have several activities and initiatives which cater to a wide range of issues such as health, education, women’s education and empowerment, building infrastructure and community development. In other northeastern states, such as Meghalaya, medical camps were held and local youth were trained to be recruited in the army. Thus, the thrust has been both on welfare of the local people and development of the local area. In both these respects, a goodwill operation is a path-breaking initiative.

The army contributes both funds and efforts in these operations. These operations are commendable for several reasons, chief of which are the following two. Firstly, when the army is directly involved in such activities, it helps to dispel any negative image of the army that the public may hold as a result of its long-term presence in the area. This is in fact the main purpose of planning and executing such operations. Secondly, the fact that army participates in these initiatives despite its workload exemplifies the discipline and dedication of its personnel. This can be proved by the fact that many projects under these operations are completed well within schedule. In development terminology, this is a ‘best practice’ well worth replicating by other institutions.

The army’s efforts are of great value in areas where regular development work by government agencies suffers because of the violence perpetrated by militants. In this respect, the army has made a genuine and positive contribution.

A Critique of Goodwill Operations

The discussion until now has focused on what has been popularly expressed by media and researchers on this subject. It is widely accepted that the entire concept and execution of operations such as Sadbhavana is commendable. However, more in-depth analysis and understanding of these operations is required. This reflection becomes necessary because welfare and development are divorced from the central objectives and functions assigned to the army in any country. These operations are a unique instance of bringing together very diverse functions, each quite complex in itself. Firstly, on the surface, we need to critically study, the time and effort spent on the operations vis-à-vis output and outcome related to building goodwill. Secondly, the very fundamental premise of such projects can be questioned. Should the army be responsible to build goodwill for itself and by what means? Are we guilty of romanticising the success of the army in these goodwill operations? Is it because the nice, humane stories add colour to an otherwise straitjacketed institution?

As stated, there have been studies on such operations by the army. The critique is largely limited to some of the following points.

  • The initiatives were not focused on the actual needs of the local people
  • Overlap and duplication of efforts
  • Difficulty in sustaining and monitoring these initiatives

These critiques are not quite justified for because through such operations the army is foraying into a territory that is completely new to it. Considering this fact, they are actually doing an admirable job.

The more serious concern is should the energies and efforts of the army be diverted in this direction. For those who have even passing familiarity with development work, it is a known fact that it can be quite challenging and leads to failure more often than success. When CI/CT operations already present a great challenge, should these goodwill initiatives be the focus for the soldiers? Even in cases where agencies  are already involved in developmental work, army often spends time in planning and coordinating these efforts with them.

The army can earn goodwill through responsible and disciplined conduct in its operational areas. The activities under Sabhavana or Samaritan require time, expertise, knowledge and resources that may not fall under army’s core objective. Besides this, much effort goes into sustaining these initiatives where the contrary would lead to frustration and dissatisfaction amongst the locals.

Is the Government Abdicating from its Role?   

It remains to be analysed whether the Government is abdicating from its role and responsibilities in the areas of insurgency or terrorist activities. There may be other means of regaining the confidence of the local people without further imposing on the army the monumental responsibility of socio-economic development of the local area. Given the sensitive nature of ongoing terrorism or insurgency, the government has a greater responsibility towards the local people than in normal circumstances. Even if entrusting the army with these responsibilities is accepted in exceptional circumstances, the role of the State in development remains ambiguous in many regions. The lack of commitment by the government machinery to find more effective solutions for ending insurgency and terrorist activities has led to no tangible political or governance related solutions. There is also lack of consistent effort to address the issue of terrorism with neighbouring countries and in global scenario that can lead to permanent solutions.

The Indian government’s lackluster attitude in this matter is further brought home by the fact that it has played no role in effectively exploiting the media to share the army’s contribution to welfare and development in these areas. So much so that,  only a few people outside the realm of the armed forces know of these operations. On the contrary, the human rights violations by the army are discussed often in the media and remain in the public memory.

In the light of these arguments, the glorification of goodwill operations does not sound convincing. It draws compelling attention towards the need for greater commitment by the Indian government to engage in finding solutions to terrorism and insurgency and ensure that the army is not overburdened by initiatives to earn goodwill in the local community. Thus, the army would be able to better focus on its primary goals and objectives of safeguarding India and its citizens.

Dr. Savithri Subramanian is a sociologist and works on gender and human rights in the context of development


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Savithri Subramanian
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