Operation Sadbhavana has been a military strategy of the Indian Army to win the hearts and minds of the remote Ladakhi people on the militarized borders of northern India. A recent article in the journal Military Medicine explains, and carefully justifies, the outreach services, particularly the medical interventions, in the high, Himalayan valleys.

The three officers who wrote the piece explain that the word “Sadbhavana” literally means “goodwill among people,” the army’s term for its attempts to convince the residents of the border areas with China and Pakistan to remain loyal and supportive of its objectives. The authors argue that, since civilian government administrators of the state of Jammu and Kashmir have often not been responsive to the needs of the rural Ladakhis, the people could easily become alienated.

The goal of their operation, therefore, “is to enhance the legitimacy of the local and national government in the eyes of the people.” In order to do that, the government needs to respond to crises effectively, to provide essential services, and to ensure security. The army wanted to win the confidence of the people, as a counterweight to the potential growth of terrorism in the region. One of the best ways they could see to do that was to augment the health services provided by the civil sector. Army officials perceived that the civilian government of the state and of the Ladakh district could not support the medical needs of the people. The army has excess medical capacity.

It also has the ability, and the willingness, to provide assistance for development projects, particularly small-scale efforts initiated with local political leaders. Projects have been founded to foster adult literacy, enhance agricultural production, improve primary education, empower women, electrify villages, and generate employment. Army officers plan their projects with community leaders in order to establish priorities, maintain transparency, and emphasize works that the people really want.

Perhaps the army’s greatest success has been the provision of primary health care for the residents of the really remote valleys of Ladakh. The civilian government apparently lacks the capacity to provide proper health services, so the military, with an excess of medical people on its staff, felt it was appropriate to help fill the need.

Roving military medical groups visit villages and go door to door, on a regular schedule, to teach public health measures, provide neonatal, infant and child care assistance, and monitor nutritional practices. They visit schools to conduct health surveys among the children. They visit women’s empowerment centers to teach about contraception, safety in pregnancy, and disease prevention.

They also conduct health camps in the villages in order to screen people for illnesses and chronic diseases. The medical personnel help Ladakhis who need follow-up care from specialists. The military medical people “adopt” individuals who need the specialized health care and they follow up afterwards with them to make sure they have received the services they need. These identification and follow up procedures have generated a lot of good will for the military. The army also allows medical personnel to treat civilians in their stationary medical centers which have surgical facilities in them. Common problems that are handled in those facilities include injuries from accidents on highways and in the mines.

The authors assert that Operation Sadbhavana has been a success. They write that the primary target of the operation has been the Bakarwal community, the marginalized shepherds of the most remote valleys. The three authors, who appear to have been closely involved with the operation, argue that the perspectives of the local populace have changed due to the army’s efforts. “There is willing participation in all of the community-oriented activities sponsored by the Army, with the women especially coming forward and virtually demanding more education and training facilities to empower them,” they write.

A clincher, for the military view of things, is their statement that, recently, local shepherds have been reporting to army officials transgressions across the border by foreign people. These instances of effective intelligence have allowed the army to protect the local region more effectively from potential terrorists and other outsiders. Local hostility to those invaders onto Indian territory have helped defend the region from militancy, the authors believe.

Another aspect of the army’s success has been the fact that local government officials have recognized the benefits of the army’s way of doing things, and have initiated development projects themselves as a result. The army’s medical interventions and health camps have helped develop confidence in the Indian Army, and by extension, in the civilian government, according to the authors. The most important benefit to the army has been the increased intelligence gathering by the local people.

The authors rhapsodize about the success of Operation Sadbhavana. “The military medical units have played a stellar role in the task laid down by their commanders to win over an entire populace, despite the major operational constraints imposed by an inhospitable terrain.” The medical and paramedical personnel involved have been devoted and dedicated to the needs of the people to an unparalleled degree, we are told.

The article does not make clear the exact relationship of the three authors to Operation Sadbhavana, though the context of their writing suggests that one or more of them have been closely involved. They do not suggest any possible negative effects for either the military or for the local people from the interventions of the army in rural Ladakhi civilian life.

Cariappa, Mudera P., Eugene V. Bonventre and Bikash K. Mohanti. 2008. “Operation Sadbhavana: Winning Hearts and Minds in the Ladakh Himalayan Region.” Military Medicine 173(8): 749-753