March 29, 2020
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The Rambonama

Does the glow of ‘hot pursuit’ against Naga rebels inside Myanmar presage a saner future?

The Rambonama
Tribhuvan Tiwari
The Rambonama

It was an NDA regime that had capitulated at Kandahar to terrorist hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane, but jargon like ‘muscular military response’, ‘surgical strike’ and ‘hot pur­s­uit’ have an inherent appeal for BJP lea­ders. Even a seasoned political leader like Sushma Swaraj in 2013 had rhetoricised that if Pakistan failed to return the head of Indian martyr Hemchand, the UPA government should ensure that 10 heads were brought back from India’s western neighbour in retaliation. 

On June 9 this year, the BJP-led government and its choristers had plenty to wax about. The Indian army had app­arently carried out an operation “deep inside Myanmar” and avenged the June 4 ambush by Naga insurgents in Man­ipur’s Chandel district. A chu­f­fed security establishment used the opportunity to warn other countries who would dare to attack India or Indians.

Now in the past, details of covert and overt military operations have rarely been shared in public. But this time around, the Indian army freely leaked gra­phic details of the operation. The ide­ntity of the unit involved (21 Para), the equipment used (rocket launchers, dro­nes, thermal imagery, night vision etc), how the commandos were air-dro­pped inside Myanmar and how they then split into two, how the 70 comm­andos “finis­hed the task in 40 minutes” and killed 38 insurgents, it was all shared on TV cha­n­nels, news agencies and on soc­ial media.  Even a photograph of the com­mandos showing the V-sign and posing in front of a helicopter, dated to remove any doubts and with their faces visible, made its way into the media, forcing an army spokesman to tweet that they had not released any memento of the operation.

“Talks with the Khaplang group never graduated to the formal interlocutor was engaged like with NSCN(I-M).”
Ved Marwah, IPS Ex-governor of Mizoram, Manipur

The disclaimer came 48 hours after the government fielded ex-army and Oly­m­pic shooter Rajyavardhan Rat­hore, now MoS in the I&B ministry, to strike a stern warning to errant neighbours. “It is und­ou­btedly a message to all nations that harb­our ill intenti­ons—be it the west or the specific country we went into now—we’ll choose the time and place to hit them,” he declared as people exulted.

Should the operation be described as hot pursuit or punitive action? Hot pursuit implies chasing perpetrators and neutralising them. Since the strike was undertaken five days after soldiers of the 6 Dogra regiment were ambushed on the Moreh-Imphal road, there are some disagreements on this.

Former chief of army staff General (retd) Shankar Roy Chowdhury is certain it was a clear case of hot pursuit. Strategic expert Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak, however, disagrees and des­cribes it as a politico-military operation in which the army had the support of the political leadership. “It was a strategic signal to Myanmar to revisit their plan of allowing these groups to work against India. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and Bhutan understood this and went after insurgents based in those countries,” says the air vice-marshal.

Agrees Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, who commanded the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. “The Indian army always had the capability and the strategy was also in place. What was lacking was political will.... That said, we will always keep the situation under wraps. This is the practice the world over. We still don’t know how the Americans went after Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad,” he says.

“It was a minor, tactical strike. Such ops are always kept covert to spare embarrassment to the host country, avoid litigation.”
Ajai Sahni Counter-terrorism expert

But notwithstanding the euphoria and jingoistic cries, the army’s officially iss­ued statement was restrained, and maintained that the strike was “along the Indo-Myanmar border” and that the Myanmar government had been kept in the loop. But it was Rathore who left little to the imagination. The ‘chest-thu­mping’ by Rathore on TV was followed by his tweets with the hashtag ‘#Mani­purRevenge’ and ‘#56inchRocks’. Sho­uld a serving minister be using words like ‘revenge’? The jury is still out.

Reactions from neighbouring countries were swift and on expected lines. Myan­mar summoned the Indian ambassador to Nay Pyi Daw, the new capital 380 km from Yangon where the embassy is, to exp­ress its unhappiness at the “presentation” of the military strike as “deep inside Myanmar”. Pakistan’s interior minister and army chief warned India against mak­ing the mistake of believing it to be like Myanmar. And the Chinese official spokesman reacted with indignation to “Indian media reports” that suggested that India had handed over telephonic intercepts between Chinese army offici­als and Naga insurgents in Myanmar.

In between, the talk had already shifted to whether a hot pursuit would be feasible on the western border. “One has to deliberate carefully if we are to carry out operations in Pakistan. We have to weigh the consequences because they can take it to another level,” says air vice-marshal Kak. If the national mood is favourable and the political establishment is ready to bear the cost and consequences, such actions can be undertaken anywhere, believes Maj Gen (retd) Y.K. Gera. “If it is Pakistan, it has to be either a covert operation or an open war,” he says.

“The whole thing should have been handled discreetly, but we went overboard. The display of public enthusiasm was unwarranted.”
Gen (retd) Shankar Roy Chowdhury Former army chief

Former RAW chief Vikram Sood, how­ever, struck a cautionary note. Counter-insurgency was as much a battle of the mind, he wrote in an article, wond­ering  when surgical operations had cea­sed to be discreet affairs. Adding that not all operations are successful, he lamented, “We have not learnt...the government is yet to master the media and flow of information.” Sood is also unsure if the operation successfully targeted those responsible for the Chandel attack.

Meanwhile, strategic observers worry over the ambush itself. There was no reason, they believe, for the 6 Dogra battalion to have been caught by surprise. The rebel group of NSCN (Kha­plang) had unilaterally withdrawn the ceasefire in March this year. Since April, they have killed as many as 31 army and paramilitary personnel in str­ikes across Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. What is more, Assam Rifles had carried out an operation in the area on May 31, resulting in the death of a civilian. All this should have made them extra careful, they felt.

They also noted that the commanding officer, a colonel, was away on leave and the second-in-command had also moved to Chandigarh as part of the adv­ance rel­ocation party (the battalion was moving to the Western Command after two years in the Northeast). Indeed, there was not a single commissioned officer on duty at the time (all being away, giving exams). The JCOs and the soldiers, it seems, were left to fend for themselves.

Whatever may have been Khaplang’s motivation in calling off the ceasefire,  ex-Manipur and Mizoram governor Ved Marwah feels he might be guided by compulsions of dominating the Imphal-Moreh drug route. Prof Sanjib Baruah of Bard College, New York, says the “temporary peace cannot go on forever. The peace process has to show results”. R.S. Pandey, a former interlocutor for the NSCN(I-M) peace talks, agrees. “The dial­o­gue has to show logical conclusion, esp­ecially when the parties involved are showing a favourable response,” he feels. 

Fired up The convoy that was attacked in Chandel district, Manipur, on Jun 4 (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 22 June 2015)

India has been warming up to the military junta ruling Myanmar for the past many years. As far back as in 2007, the two countries had signed an agreement for joint security operations and Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to the country in 2012 was the second by an Indian PM. Indeed, Narendra Modi has already visited Myanmar twice. The 160-km Kaladan project and the upgrading of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road seeks to connect Calcutta port with Sittwe port in Myanmar. India is also helping Myanmar set up high-speed data links in 32 cities. Indian companies like Essar, GAIL and ONGC Videsh Ltd have invested in Myanmar’s energy sector while Tata Motors has set up a heavy turbo truck assembly plant with financial assistance from the Indian government.

“Raids against militants based in other countries can’t be repeated blindly elsewhere, especially on the western border.”
Lt Gen (retd) Ata Hasnain Former commander, 15 Corps Srinagar

Military cooperation between the two countries, therefore, is a natural corollary. Even as Myanmar grapples with its own insurgents, there are signs that it finds the overbearing Chinese presence stifling. But while these are factors that might nudge it to lean tow­ards India and cooperate with the Indian government in neutralising Northeast rebels, a reality check is also needed: Myanmar reac­hed a ‘formal agreement’ with NSCN(K) in ’12. 

The shadow of China looms large over Myanmar. New Delhi believes Mya­­nmar is unable to give India a free hand in dealing with rebels because of  this. And sources confirm that if the rebels do manage to form a governm­ent-in-exile by the year-end (see interview with Paresh Barua), it would be largely because of Chinese support.

Anonymous Indian officials claimed to the media this week that photogra­p­hic evidence of insurgents engaged in opium cultivation and the drug trade have been handed over to authorities in Myanmar. Chinese phone intercepts as well as the existence of a Chinese arms manufacturing unit at Pangwa have also been talked about, they said.

Khaplang holds a grudge as he believes the Indian agencies were playing footsie with his cadre, to divide the group.

Soon after abrogating the ceasefire agreement, Khaplang in April stitched together a joint front with other promin­ent N-E rebel groups. The United Nat­i­onal Liberation Front of Wes­tern South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) comprises ULFA, the Kamtapur Liberat­ion Organisation of north Bengal, the Songbijit faction of the National Dem­ocratic Front of Bod­o­land and others. MHA sou­rces believe Bar­ua was told by China that it could not back a stand-alone outfit, saying the grouping must have at least 30,000 cadre, prompting the joint front formation.

The septuagenarian Burmese Hemi Naga, S.S. Khaplang, head of the NSCN(K) which claims to have jointly carried out the Chandel attack with the Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup and the Kangleipak Communist Party of Mani­pur, has been under the RAW radar for some time, the MHA source told Outlook. Khaplang har­bours a grudge against the Indian gover­n­ment because he believes intel agencies have been playing footsie with some of his cadre in a bid to divide the group. The Indian side have a technical problem in holding talks with him as he is a foreign national. This was another reason why Khaplang is not keen to hold talks.

The bottomline is that Myan­mar is still not keen on taking military action against the insurgents, especially the Nagas of Burma. Nor can it allow the Indian army to brazenly carry out ops ins­ide its territory. Finally, covert operations run the risk of going wrong as well as getting exposed. A political solution has to be a necessary, if difficult, component in the road forward. Question is, does the pre­sent government have a range of flexibility beyond muscular approaches?

By Bula Devi in Imphal and New Delhi

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