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Manipur ambush: Why Army saw the worst attack in 20 years

The primary cause of strife in India's Northeastern states is an unstable internal security environment that has been compounded by political and economic neglect.

 |  5-minute read |   08-06-2015
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India's Northeastern states, which have still not been fully integrated with the national mainstream but have been relatively peaceful for a few years, have suddenly witnessed renewed violence.

In the worst attack on the Army in more than two decades, 18 soldiers were killed and 11 injured in an ambush in Manipur on June 4, 2015. Militants belonging to SS Khaplang's Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN (K) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), a Meitei outfit formed in 1994, have claimed responsibility for the ambush. Apparently, they came from a camp in Myanmar.

Three days later, Naga militants attacked an Assam Rifles camp in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, but were repulsed. Furthermore, 11 Army and Assam Rifles soldiers were killed in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland on April 2 and May 3, respectively. On March 21, a Gorkha Rifles convoy was ambushed in Tamenglong district of Manipur.

Just over a month ago, Paresh Baruah's United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent and NSCN (K) had joined hands with seven other militant organisations to form the United National Liberation Front of Western South-east Asia. The meeting, held in the Sagaing region of Myanmar, was reportedly facilitated by Chinese intelligence personnel.

Decades of turmoil

The primary cause of strife in India's Northeastern states is an unstable internal security environment that has been compounded by political and economic neglect. While the militant movements are mostly home-grown, some of these have developed links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and international terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam (HuJI).

In the past, owing to porous borders, the militants often took shelter in Bangladesh and Bhutan. After the governments of these two countries joined hands with India to fight the extremists, various Indian insurgent groups have been operating from bases in Myanmar, but the government of Myanmar does not encourage or support them.

In fact, the Myanmar Army has been cooperating. In April-May 1995, "Operation Golden Bird" was launched as a joint operation. Approximately 40 insurgents were killed and a huge cache of arms was recovered. In November 2001, the Myanmar Army raided several bases of Manipuri militants and rounded up almost 200 rebels and recovered 1,500 weapons.

The intensity of the instability varies from state-to-state. In Nagaland, a tenuous peace had prevailed till recently owing to the ceasefire that had held for 14 years. However, various Naga and Manipuri factions remained engaged in a fierce internecine struggle for power in both these states. Political negotiations with the Naga leaders were continuing when, in early-April 2015, the NSCN (K) unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire.

In Tripura, where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has been denotified, violent incidents tend to break out at regular intervals and invariably lead to demands for the deployment of the Army. In Mizoram, which has seen many years of relative calm, subterranean tensions have been simmering for sometime, but have not been addressed satisfactorily.

In Assam, the fightback against ULFA terrorists has achieved success over the last five years, after the government of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh security forces extended the cooperation that was necessary for the launch of joint operations.

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) extremists have lost several senior cadres in recent encounters with the Army. This extremist organisation appears to have reached a discernible level of strategic fatigue. The NDFB may soon opt for negotiations with the government so as to buy time for resuscitation.

Political solution

Over a period of more than half-a-century, the Indian Army has successfully conducted a difficult counter-insurgency campaign in the north-eastern states, despite adverse terrain and weather conditions, logistics difficulties and political flip-flops. Military operations against the terrorists who are still active must continue unfettered.

The mistakes made in the early 1990s must not be repeated. When the situation had deteriorated, "Operation Bajrang" was launched but was soon called off as it became inconvenient for the newly-elected government to have the Army deployed in Assam. Six months later, "Operation Rhino" had to be launched.

Unless a political solution is found to the underlying socio-economic problems, and to ameliorate the "hearts and minds" challenge of alienation from the national mainstream, full blown militancy could again bounce back without warning in one or more states. The funds earmarked by the central government for development must trickle down to the people in a transparent and accountable manner and not disappear without a trace.

The tendency of successive state governments to scale down army operations for political reasons as soon as the situation appears to improve, results in major setbacks for the conduct of sustained counter-insurgency operations. The security forces need time to become effective and establish a counter-insurgency grid, including human intelligence (Humint) networks to gain actionable intelligence.

Policymakers and those who are responsible for governance must introspect and try to understand why the Indian state has repeatedly failed to successfully counter the long-festering militancy in the north-eastern states. The root causes, which are mainly socio-political and socio-economic in nature, must be addressed. A concerted, three-pronged approach is necessary for counter-insurgency operations to succeed: the simultaneous orchestration of good governance, economic development and the assurance of a security environment conducive for the first two.

The nation cannot sustain a high growth rate over a long period if a major region is not part of the success story. High opportunity costs are imposed on the national economy owing to unrealised revenues and taxes. India's quest to "Act East" and enhance its trade with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries through the land route will also remain a non-starter unless durable peace returns to the north-eastern region.

Finally, the re-emergence of Chinese support for militant movements inimical to India's interests after almost 30 years of apparent non-interference is an ominous development. In case the Chinese succeed in getting the new front that they have forged to share intelligence and coordinate operations, it will pose a fresh challenge to India's counter-insurgency campaign.

Writer

Gurmeet Kanwal Gurmeet Kanwal @gurmeetkanwal

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.

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