On 10 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprung a surprise on an unsuspecting nation by announcing his government’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft in a fly-away condition from France in a government-to-government agreement (as opposed to signing a contract directly with Dassault a la Bofors of Sweden circa 1986). The announcement was a departure from the past, in that governments found it difficult to overcome what had come to be known as the Bofors syndrome and delayed Defence acquisitions fearing even the faintest whiff of a scam.
Two months later, on 9 June, the government crossed another Rubicon when it emerged that the Indian armed forces had successfully executed pre-emptive strikes, at least one of which was understood to have been carried out inside the territory of Myanmar, to take out insurgents following an ambush five days earlier in Manipur’s Chandel district in which 18 Indian soldiers perished. An army statement said: “Based on intelligence… the Indian Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders. Significant casualties have been inflicted on them.”
The two developments are dissimilar but they convey the same message: A new found decisiveness on the part of the government to fashion a new national security paradigm. The seeds of this new “mindset”, which Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar alluded to, can trace its roots to National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval, whose imprimatur on the surgical strike inside Myanmar is unmistakable. Doval, who cut his teeth as a mid-level Intelligence Bureau officer in the Northeast in the 1980s, has been a consistent and unabashed advocate of combining Defensive-Offence and intelligence-based smart operations to outwit, out manoeuvre and neutralise elements inimical to Indian interests.
Doval, in his previous avatar as the founder-director of New Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, had maintained that the insurgents’ foreign bases in Bangladesh and Myanmar are the main sustaining factor of insurgencies in the Northeast. China is another worry. “Northeast security discourse, of late, has been marked by good news of peace engagement with the rebels [but] external factor in a region that has 5,215 km contiguous international border with other countries and only about over one percent with the Indian mainland, though pivotal, is often glossed over. External factor has and will continue to remain a vital factor in our management of Northeastern security,” he wrote in a 2011 paper for the Foundation in which he explored the China factor in the Northeast insurgency. Incidentally, New Delhi is keenly tracking Chinese involvement in encouraging the formation of United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia, an amalgam of insurgent groups, including, but not limited to, the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent headed by Paresh Baruah and the SS Khaplang led National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), which was announced in April from Sagaing region of Myanmar. The umbrella outfit was announced after the NSCN-K abrogated a 14-year-old ceasefire with India while entering into a ceasefire with Myanmar.
To understand the import of what happened on 9 June, one needs to look in the rear view mirror at two dates in the past:
• 2003, when, during Operation All Clear, the Bhutanese army captured or killed ULFA and Bodo insurgents operating on its territory. Although the operation was conducted in cooperation with the Indian Army, its role was limited to securing the international border with Bhutan. Indian troops did not enter Bhutan’s territory; and
• 1995, when Operation Golden Bird was launched jointly by the armies of India and Myanmar to stop ULFA insurgents from seeking to move weapons across the border from Mizoram to Manipur.
On both occasions, sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries were upheld. However, this is the first time that India has overtly claimed to have sent in its troops into Myanmar to take out insurgents. (The Indian Army has conducted similar operations in the past but they were neither confirmed nor denied.)
The latest cross-border strike follows an India-Myanmar memorandum of understanding (MoU) on border cooperation, signed on 8 May 2014 by Major General Kyaw Nyunt, Deputy Minister of Defence of Myanmar, and Gautam Mukhopadhaya, ambassador of India to Myanmar. Article 5 of the MOU reads: “Security: The territories of either country, including maritime and airspace, would not be allowed to be used for activities inimical to the other, including for training, sanctuary, illegal border crossing and other operations by terrorist and insurgent organisations/ inimical organisations/inimical forces and their operatives.”
Article 4 of the MoU, which deals with conduct of coordinated patrols, says: “1. Conduct of coordinated patrols on respective sides of the international border and the maritime boundary between the respective armed forces; 2. Share information pertaining to conduct of anti-insurgency operations in the border areas, apprehension of arms smugglers and drug traffickers, and seizures of wildlife and wildlife articles.”