12 June 2015

The enemy is not the insurgent

Sandeep Dikshit
Jun 12 2015 

Once the euphoria over `Operation Myanmar’ subsides, hard questions will still remain to be answered: has India turned the clock back on its longest running insurgency after army commandoes hot-pursued Naga underground fighters belonging to the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K)? Can a raid of this quantum be replicated when militants transgress the Line of Control to attack civilians and army personnel in Jammu & Kashmir? 

These are difficult and complex questions and need a sober and studied response. But regrettably the hotheads are already running away with the rhetorical ball. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Minister of State in the Modi Government, for example, answers both the questions in the affirmative. 

The army strike against the NSCN (Khaplang) and other militant organisations that had lost their lease in Bangladesh after Dhaka accepted New Delhi's overtures, did demonstrate India's maturing capacity to conduct counter-insurgency operations. But the Myanmar operation was not exactly out-of-ordinary. Such operations have taken place for the past 20 years along the border with Myanmar and similar choices have been made by all previous governments.

Four types of insurgency plague South Asia - ethnic discrimination, institutional legacy of colonisation, redistribution of resources and superpower initiated wars. India has its share of all four. 

Over the years democratic India has finessed ways and means of dealing with insurgencies. Once a measure of domination has been established, India has employed a three-stage process. First, dialogue and, second, suspension of ``operations' by both sides. The third phase - maintenance of the ceasefire agreement -- has been problematic. Any disgruntled faction can disrupt the peace process. 

Armed wings of militant groups such as those headed by Paresh Barua in case of ULFA and I S Songbijit of the NDFB have been disruptive because peace means loss of income with the withering away of the conflict economy of extortion, siphoning off development funds and trade in contraband. These economic realities hamper the third stage of enforcing the ceasefire agreement, especially in the North-East.

It was New Delhi's compulsion to strike hard at the NSCN (Khaplang) as it was acting as a spoiler in the stabilising of the second-stage peace process with the dominant faction of the Nagas headed by Isac Swu and T Muivah (NSCN - IM). After walking out of the peace process earlier this year, Khaplang had started rallying around smaller Naga tribes and armed factions elsewhere in the North-East which had reasons to disassociate from conflict resolution.

In recent months, the Khaplang faction was testing New Delhi's patience. The killing of Dogra Regiment soldiers this month had many commonalities with two previous attacks. All three took place in three different states - Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh in April, Mon in Nagaland in May and, finally the last straw, the Tamenglong ambush in Manipur -- with a dry run two months earlier. Tellingly, each location was within a fleeing distance from Myanmar. These were aimed at appropriating the legacy of the NSCN (IM) which had gone back on the struggle for Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) beyond the borders of the present Nagaland. 

Our security forces had all the advantages. Apart from the modern accoutrements such as UAVs and latest hand-held weapons, they also had available to them certain amount of political capital garnered during New Delhi's two decades long outreach to the NSCN (IM). This outreach, patient and painstaking, yielded handsome dividends. The demand for independence was dropped as was their insistence for Nagalim by merging Naga majority areas of Manipur, Arunachal and Mizoram into Nagaland. How toxic this demand could get was evident over a decade ago when non-Nagas gutted the Manipur Assembly after the then Home Minister, L K Advani, proposed an extension of the ceasefire in Nagaland to the Naga-dominated areas of other states. 

The concessions negotiated with the NSCN (IM) appeared to be leading to a Mizoram type solution under which Chief Minister P Lalthanhawla vacated his chair for insurgent leader Pu Laldenga after the Mizoram Peace Accord in 1986. The possibility of NSCN (IM) leader Isak Chu replacing the current Nagaland Chief Minister generated an apprehension among the smaller Naga clans leading to Khaplang's annulment of the ceasefire with the army. 

On a tactical level, the ambush of Dogra Regiment was ill-chosen. Kuki militias have dominated the area till Khaplang aligned with another militant group to displace them. With loyalties fractured by ethnic divisions, there was a superior flow of intelligence enabling the operation. Also, the NSCN (IM), the larger Naga group, was unwilling to stand by Khaplang as it feared he might occupy the radical space. 

But Naga insurgency has seen this phenomenon earlier. Angami Phizo, the political mentor of all three Naga militant leaders — Isak Swu, T. Muivah and Khaplang — had taken control of the Naga movement after eliminating the moderates inclined for a political settlement with India. 

History was repeated after the Shillong Accord of 1975, when moderates were clubbed to death in market places leading to the emergence of the NSCN (IM). To avoid the re-emergence of a more vicious hydra, the Centre must work to change the political economy of conflict in the North-East. The states must be enlisted as whole-hearted partners who discourage its youth from dabbling in the shadow business of extortions, kidnappings, siphoning off funds and smuggling. 

This is admittedly more difficult and a long haul. Rathore's patchwork solution of the Indian Army sallying forth on cross-border commando raids in Myanmar and Pakistan has understandably set the cat among the pigeons.

While Myanmar's protestations have been mild due to India's handholding during the years of its isolation from the West, Pakistan had no reasons to be restrained. With the most well trained army to the west of India, Pakistan's ministers have already warned New Delhi against drawing parallels. Ministers in the Modi Government seem incapable of learning that discretion has its own use. 

Despite the attempts at machismo after the successful raid, India's political leadership must exert just enough coercion to force rebels into becoming active participants in greater stability and above-board economic life. 

The Myanmar raid was not the first cross-border operation. The earlier ones in Bhutan and Myanmar helped accomplish larger political goals; the grievance about redistribution of resources or representation in institutions of political power was credibly addressed.

Many areas have resisted a full integration with India since 1947. The challenge is to convince people about the advantages of integrating with India’s democratic political processes, though through less coercion and more accommodation. Our enemy is not the insurgent but insurgency.

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