The article stresses upon the need for a Soldier to have knowledge of aspects related to cultural relativity so that he understands beliefs, values, and practices of the people he must deal with, including the enemy, rather than judge them against his own criteria. This will provide a definite edge in dealing with people related issues, which are of great consequence, especially in situations like the one being faced in J&K
I am writing this column from Girinagar where I am at the Military Institute of Technology, speaking on two subjects to the Technical Staff Officers Course - Political Islam & The Future Strategy for J&K. After completing the first talk I got a fine query in the interactive session. An officer asked me why the Indian Army was not exposing its officers to formal training in knowledge enhancement on culture and faith since it was so necessary to understand the culture of our adversaries, whether in the conventional domain or in hybrid conflict. He was of the view that had he been better educated about the faith, culture and sensitivities of the Kashmiri people, he could have contributed much more positively towards dealing with people related issues and even read the minds of OGWs and the environment in general in a more professional way. In the absence of deep knowledge on issues outside the normal military domain one feels stymied with stereotyped thinking. In fact, at most times we like to apply our own culture and mindsets on the adversary to assess his response. One can go completely wrong in that.
One of my favourite statements in the series of Kashmir based lectures goes like this - " a military professional is adept at knowledge of physical terrain; jungles, roads, tracks, water bodies and mountain tops, all come naturally to him because his mind is shaped to absorb this. What he is unfamiliar with and therefore also uncomfortable to look at is Cultural Terrain which explains him history, faith, belief, value system, tradition, language and sensitivities". I have repeated this ad nauseum at every talk even with the corporate world where I speak on the power of knowledge in leadership enhancement. It was General Petraeus of the US Army who repeatedly emphasised on cultural terrain and its importance in hybrid conflict where irregular warfare is a domain of focus. It took the US Armed Forces ten years before they introduced 'culture cards' which the officers and troops were required to carry at all times and absorb them to make the contents second nature.
Surprisingly, 35 years ago someone thought of this and implemented it in Northern Command, even when there was no major turbulence that we were encountering. It was none other than Lt Gen Chibber, the then Army Commander and a man well ahead of his times. He did it in a novel way, not pursuing the conventional way of formal education or training in the Corps Battle Schools. In those schools the trainers were trained who went back to units to impart this knowledge enhancement to all ranks. I remember being a trainer and conducting these classes with help of thick, well researched précis made available to us. We examined the history of J&K, its different faiths and cultures, food habits, agriculture and much more. The bane of it all was the lack of continuity and it died a natural death like all good initiatives. We did not care to reintroduce it when the storm came upon us in 1989.
In 2011 we tried a small experiment on a few company operating bases (COBs) asking their company commanders to gather a few members of the local clergy and request them to take a few lectures on their faith and culture for the knowledge of the officers and troops, over a cup of tea and the traditional samosas. The clergy was surprised but happy and the officers and troops slightly flummoxed. After three to four such lectures when the clergymen were getting a little restive, they demanded from the troops some lectures on their faith and culture. It created much enthusiasm and bonhomie with troops getting to know the clergymen and very enthusiastic to exchange information. It left the troops with the perception that all bearded men were not anti-national; similarly, the clergymen learnt that soldiers with weapons were no fiends, just ordinary human beings.
The Army is hardly aware of its Institute of National Integration (INI) at Pune. It is one of the most forgotten training institutions with immense potential to be a game changer, if correctly used. In fact, more regional institutions of its kind should be set up to undertake culture awareness training. Nowhere would this be more applicable than in the North East states where fascinating diversity exists, all awaiting curious officers and soldiers. An Indian Army officer at the end of his service should be able teach the rest of the country the true meaning of Unity in Diversity.
It's about time someone considered introduction of culture training initially for officers and later for all ranks anywhere in the CT zone, even on an experimental basis. The results will become evident sooner than we can realise. Perhaps initiating this at the HQ Command level may be more fruitful for the environment until we have more feedback.