Just three weeks ago, June 4 was a ‘Black Day’ for the Indian Army, when possibly, it suffered its >highest-ever casualties in peace time; around 20 of its soldiers from the 6 Dogra Regiment were ambushed and killed and many more injured. The convoy was attacked in Chandel district of Manipur, in a well-planned and executed move by elements of the recently formed United National Liberation Front of WESEA (Western South East Asia) using improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. Thirty-three years ago, in 1982, another Army contingent had suffered a similar deadly attack in the Northeast, claiming the lives of over 15 jawans.
This attack marks a temporary setback to India’s counter insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts in the Northeast. Therefore, it was not unexpected that it provoked the strongest reaction from the government and the armed forces. Instructions were given to launch an all-out search and destroy operation against militant hideouts in jungles along the India-Myanmar border and the hinterland. All this was in keeping with existing Standard Operating Procedures, except, perhaps, for the scale of the operation and the decision to use para commandos.
So far, nothing has been mentioned about the massive failure of military intelligence in this instance. The Northeast region still remains plagued by multiple insurgencies with the possible exception of Mizoram. Manipur itself has as many as 33 militant outfits engaged in violent activities.
Consequently, the Indian Army’s failure to anticipate an attack — which would have been well-rehearsed — and take adequate precautions reflect poorly on its intelligence capability. This is also to say that civilian intelligence agencies have hardly covered themselves with glory.
Two specific developments in recent months in the region should have alerted the agencies to the fact that something was brewing. The first was the decision of the NSCN(K) to unilaterally abrogate its ceasefire with the Indian government, thus signalling a return to the path of violence. The second was the formation of the “rainbow” coalition of several Northeastern militant outfits, including groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland NSCN(K), the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland NDFB(S), led by Songbijit, and several Meitei outfits such as the KCP, the KYKL and the PULF. Each of these outfits has an outreach to countries not too well disposed towards India — including Pakistan and China — though actual links have been rather tenuous. There could not have been a stronger signal than this that a new phase in militancy in the Northeast was about to commence.
Behind ‘hot pursuit’>The surgical strikes, on June 9 , against two militant camps (mainly occupied by NSCN(K) elements) across the border in Myanmar, by para commandos of the 21 Para Regiment — Special Forces were thus very timely as official figures of the militants who were killed vary from 20 to 50 people. The action was conducted under the principle of ‘hot pursuit’ though there could be some ambiguity about employing this phrase, since the action had taken place after a gap of almost five days.
‘Hot pursuit’ is not unknown to India’s armed forces. It may not have international sanctity or legal justification, but several countries have resorted to it when confronted with similar situations. India’s armed forces, the Special Frontier Force and the border guarding forces have, at one time or other, carried out similar special operations citing “hot pursuit” — much of this is in the public domain by now. Admittedly, many of them may not have been on this scale, nor were they possibly acknowledged. Countries which have their sovereignty “violated” this way either protest against the action or “wink at it”. In Myanmar’s case, the authorities seem to have resorted to subterfuge to cover up a disinclination to raise a hue and cry. There are also reports of Myanmar not agreeing to any more such operations.
The theory underlying “special operations” is to retain a degree of “plausible deniability”, to obviate any international opprobrium. Those attacked would realise in any case where the attack emanated from. In the present instance, the wide publicity violates this tenet which is central to any “Special Operation”. It removes the veneer of “plausible deniability”, needed to stave off any unnecessary or uncalled for international attention and criticism of violation of another country’s sovereignty.
No doubt, the government would have valid answers to possible criticism levelled against it regarding the nature and scale of the operation, including that of intruding into a neighbouring country’s territory. Therefore, this is not the moot point for concern. What is disconcerting are the outpourings of “triumphalism” with even official spokesmen — ministers not excluded — indulging in verbal excesses. Whether all this signals a change in India’s counter terrorism strategy or not, it certainly creates the impression that a new and aggressive phase in the battle against terrorism has begun. More serious are the implications of certain statements made by those in authority, that the strikes launched inside Myanmar's territory were a precursor to what could well happen on India’s western border in case of any fresh provocation. An official Army declaration that “while ensuring peace and tranquility along the border any threat to our security, safety and national integrity will meet with firm response” is being interpreted as being “indicative” of this new attitude and approach. If such statements were only intended to convey a new “machismo image” of India, then those who make these statements need to understand that this could prove to be counterproductive.
If indeed an attempt is on by some circles to modify the existing Counter Terrorism doctrine and introduce in it an element of “pre-emption”, then India must weigh the pros and cons before adopting such a strategy. The “doctrine of pre-emption” is openly avowed only by countries like the United States and Israel. It is a principle that both countries invoke to disregard constraints of national borders to carry out pre-emptive attacks outside their borders to deal with notional threats to their security and sovereignty.
The western border
If India now seeks to “sail close to the wind” as far as this doctrine is concerned, it must understand the inherent dangers in following a U.S.-Israel analogy. Pakistan would seem to be the obvious target given its spate of provocations. Even though there has been no mention of Pakistan by Indian interlocutors on the present occasion, Pakistan has already reacted strongly. The imputation that “Pakistan is not Myanmar” suggests that it could resort to any incursion with its “disproportionate response” strategy. “Disproportionate response” is already a part of Pakistan’s official Army doctrine.
The intrinsic danger in all this is that while Pakistan may appear dysfunctional, it is, by no means, a failed state. It remains essentially unpredictable, though, even at the best of times, rational decision-making has not been Pakistan’s strong point. Decision-making in Pakistan has generally tended to be bereft of cognitive thinking. Therefore, it cannot be expected to adhere to the definition of rationality viz. , “behaviour that is appropriate to specified goals in the context of a given situation”. With the Army dominating the commanding heights of policy in Pakistan, it is they who will determine the manner of retaliation. It may not be an “olive branch”, but more probably a “nuclear one”.
This is not implausible, for Pakistan has been steadily increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities, mainly targeting India. Hence, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Pakistan would see in this so-called new “doctrine of pre-emption”, an opportunity to deploy its nuclear and missile capabilities against India. As it is, Pakistan has constantly harped on India’s non-existent “Cold Start Doctrine”, and its response has been to build and deploy battlefield and tactical nuclear weapons to deal with any incursion by India’s armed forces. Pakistan’s nuclear capability is today buttressed by its Shaheen “missile family” — the Shaheen-I, the Shaheen-II and the Shaheen-III category missiles, which are capable of hitting most parts of India.
Those who preach the virtue of adopting a new “muscular response strategy” vis-à-vis our neighbours — Pakistan included — need to be careful not to overstate their case. India’s current policy incorporates a degree of strategic restraint, and it is a well-thought out one. It has served India’s purpose well. Realistically speaking, there is no substitute for a well-calibrated policy.
(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)