After the offensive, it’s time to look ahead

Laid to rest 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed by insurgents in an ambush in Chandel district of Manipur on 4 June photo: reuters
Laid to rest 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed by insurgents in an ambush in Chandel district of Manipur on 4 June. Photo: Reuters

Commenting on a strategic military event a week after its occurrence is relatively simpler because almost all the water has flown under the bridge and the factors for analysis are better visible. The UK’s famous Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) follows a unique system of dynamic seminars wherein it sets these up to discuss and assess a strategic event (of the actual breaking news variety) in a time frame when there are almost no inputs or commentaries available from the media. That is why after the first tweet about the Indian Army’s successful operation was received, I followed the UK model and quickly got involved with a mental exercise to challenge myself to carry out an assessment.

Common military knowledge revealed that the operation could be classified as strategic for various reasons but its effect on the tactical environment had also been profound. It also had a cascading effect on national honour, confidence and psyche. My first commentary, within four hours of the operation, carried out the deduction that, in spite of the spectacular operation and the nuanced inputs which went into the decision making, operational planning and execution, there would be further need to handle the post-event-dynamics as these would be shrouded in grey.

The military advantage was secured by the greyness of the post-operation brief. Many more such operations will be conducted in the course of the future and inadvertent advantage can be handed over to the adversaries by being too transparent. The army’s mature post-event handling was indeed praiseworthy. However, to believe that there should be no political advantage sought by the government of the day, would be unrealistic and unfair. After long, in fact almost after Kargil 1999, a strategic military success was occurring under its watch. In the interim, there had been a string of events in which caution had been the watchword in response.

Syed Ata Hasnain Lt general (retd) and Former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar
Syed Ata Hasnain Lt general (retd) and Former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar

The nation and its leadership deserved the right to redeem some of the perceived lost honour of the past. Perhaps it went a tad out of hand only because of the mention of the ‘P’ word. I knew that the response from Pakistan would be gleefully thrown up by the media and it was; such things last 48 hours. Perhaps we came out of it the wiser for the future because this is not the last time that the armed forces will be employed for such an operation. There are far more important issues to examine in the wake of this event. Firstly, the effect on the Northeast itself, the state of turbulence there, and more generically on the future of counterinsurgency (CI)/ counter-terrorist (CT) operations across affected areas elsewhere in India.

To the public at large, much less is known about the Northeast because there has been calm; a suspended form of stability because of ceasefire with a few groups and a seizure of operations with some others. The communication in progress for over 15 years has produced this artificial calm. The Central Government has had its hands full with the red corridor and the proxy war efforts of Pakistan have prevented serious efforts towards interlocution in the Northeast.

Any political scientist or sociologist will tell you that in order to bring calm in areas of turbulence it is the socio-economic route which has to be followed. The government of India’s efforts towards this have perhaps not dwelt on the appropriate areas of focus. The number of criminal militant groups in Manipur itself has multiplied to unacceptable proportions. Even as China embarks on its policy of ‘one belt one road’, India’s ambitious project of linking its Northeast to Southeast Asia through road infrastructure, has remained mired in local politics with extortion by militant groups and disallowance of the development of infrastructure.

The well-known fact that bureaucrats pay taxes to local militants in Manipur, reveals all about the state of control that the central government exercises over the Northeast. That the NSCN-K could muster the courage to morph other groups from other areas of the Northeast into the so called United National Liberation Front of West Southeast Asia (UNLWSEA)  is an unfortunate commentary on the lack of seriousness that the nation has accorded to the problem of Northeast insurgency.

The ambush of the 6 Dogra Regiment on 4 June and the operation by the army on 9 June have resulted in a jolt. It is clear that India has sent a strong message regarding its will to stem the violence in the Northeast. An equally strong message needs to be sent regarding the will to execute its political and socio-economic agenda. Unfortunately, this time the quest will have to be followed even as the army and Assam Rifles re-energise the counterinsurgency grid and engage those groups which wish to continue challenging the integrity of India and its commitment towards the Northeast. The previous efforts of the security forces, which gave 15 years of relative calm, would now appear wasted. We cannot wait to arrive at the same stability before making efforts to empower the people and get the militant groups to give up the path of violence.

The recent Army operation may yet be insufficient to spell the intent of the government. However, at least the decisive path it has chosen and the professionalism that the Army has displayed is a reasonable message. Hopefully its effect will linger even though supplementary operations may mean that this cannot remain a one-off effort. Secondly, elsewhere and that essentially means the red corridor, the situation will need similar messaging. Proactive kinetic operations are a demonstration of will. That unfortunately has been missing in the areas once thought of as India’s largest security threats. The Army has resisted its deployment and tasking in the Red Corridor. Perhaps the extremely professional Army Special Forces may have to be ready to demonstrate similar national will, although employment of Army resources isn’t the smartest way of dealing with hinterland militancy.

Thirdly, to draw parallels of this operation with relation to the loc is possibly the worst kind of messaging. The Indian Army is quite capable of undertaking covert operations wherever required. But, unfortunately, specifics in this context are discussed only by those who do not have a professional understanding of such issues. It is surprising how the Indian mainstream media fell into the trap of the Pakistani propaganda machine. The latter has been extremely vigorous in propounding India’s interference in its internal affairs and was awaiting such a trigger. Discretion in such cases and the unspoken is sufficient to send the message.

The issue which needs to be discussed in greater detail is the structure of command and control of operations in the Northeast and the question of direct responsibility. Besides the Army, one cannot even contemplate another force undertaking this responsibility. The Assam Rifles is an efficient organisation but that is also because of its army like culture, being largely led by the army’s officer cadre. This is not a negative narrative on India’s other forces but surely it also isn’t the time for experimentation.

The writer has extensively handled counterinsurgency operations in the past and is currently associated with the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group.

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