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How Indian media spread outright misinformation about a ‘massive surgical strike’ against ‘Rohingya insurgents’

Last week, as India Today reported “a mega operation (by the Indian army) to eliminate threats posed by insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border”, a section of the Indian media went on a misinformation tizzy.

According to the report by India Today correspondent Abhishek Bhalla, published on 15 March, the Indian and Myanmar armies carried out a “joint operation” between 17 February and 2 March to destroy bases of the Arakan Army (AA), a Myanmar-based insurgent group. Citing a “senior officer in the security establishment”, the report said that most of these bases were set up in “areas adjoining the Lawngtala district of Mizoram”. It further stated that the AA posed a threat to “the mega Kaladan Project”.

Simultaneously, several other media outlets carried the news about the so-called “surgical strike 3.0” in various forms and under different headlines. However, most of these were rife with either outright misinformation or unverified facts that not only jumped the gun on the military operation, but also ended up slandering the stateless Rohingya Muslim community.

Non-existent Rohingya group

For instance, WION carried the news under the headline “Joint India, Myanmar operation targets Rohingya insurgents and Naga terror groups”, stating that “in a two-week-long joint operation by India and Myanmar against the Rohingya insurgent groups Arakan Army and Naga terror group NSCN(K), the countries launched a massive crackdown destroying several camps of the terror organisations.”

A similar report was carried by India News. Certain right-wing portals too picked up the news and gave it a Rohingya spin.

 How Indian media spread outright misinformation about a ‘massive surgical strike’ against ‘Rohingya insurgents’

Representational image. Reuters

Contrary to what the above reports claim, the Arakan Army is not a “Rohingya insurgent” group. It is an ethnic Rakhine armed group that is fighting for the self-determination of Rakhine state. The outfit, proscribed by the Myanmar government as a “terrorist organisation” after an attack on border police outposts on 4 January, claims to represent the Rakhine Buddhist majority in Rakhine state. In fact, the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhists share a tense relationship.

In the same vein, a report in NewsX first rightly identifies the Arakan Army as a “Rakhine insurgent group”, but then goes on to discuss the motives of the “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)”. The ARSA is a Rohingya insurgent group and is not associated with the Arakan Army in any way.

While news media routinely tends to peddle misinformation on critical military matters, what is perhaps most startling is similar misreporting by former army generals. In a 17 March commentary on The Times of India, former Commander of Indian Army’s Western Command, Lt Gen KJ Singh, wrote:

“AA and Rohingya Army camps had sprung all along Indo-Myanmar border, threatening flagship Kaladan, multi-mode project.”

The author appears to have confused, like the rest, the Rohingya-led Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) with the ethnic Rakhine-led Arakan Army. So far, there is no credible evidence to suggest that ARSA has set up camps “all along the Indo-Myanmar border” or threatened the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP).

While the error is understandable, it is not excusable, since it puts the Rohingya Muslim community in bad light in front of the Indian audience. Rohingya refugees in India have already faced much slandering and stereotyping from right-wing quarters who routinely label them as “terrorists”, “security threats” and “infiltrators” without any supporting evidence. Such mis-reportage only validates the communal, xenophobic diatribes.

What ‘surgical strike’?

As far as the operation and the reason behind it are concerned, most of the reportage glossed over nuances and facts, instead relying on attention-grabbing tropes like “surgical strike” and “massive operation”. None of the mainstream media reports actually bothered to go beyond their “sources” or the first exclusive report by India Today to find out what the Arakan Army really seeks and what the recent developments mean in the local context.

First, the recent operations can hardly be classified as “mega strikes” or “surgical strikes” as several Indian news media outlets announced. According to Guwahati-based senior journalist-author, Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who is also a close watcher of the India-Myanmar border region:

“There was no surgical strike by the Indian army in Myanmar. There was deployment of a few companies by the army along the border in south Mizoram to check the entry of rebels and refugees into the state, which has happened earlier. The deployment was done since the presence of Assam Rifles is thin in Mizoram as compared to the other states in India's North East.”

Further, in a recent report in The Diplomat, Bhattacharyya quoted the superintendent of police of Lawngtlai district in Mizoram (where most of the operations allegedly happened), Amit Goel, as saying that no Arakan Army cadres were arrested or convicted in the recent operations. According to Goel, ten of them were held last year.

It is clear that the deployment’s primary strategic objective was to prevent Arakan Army rebels from fleeing across the border into Mizoram, and in the process, inflict some damage to its remote positions along the border. More importantly, the Indian Army did not cross the border, as also stated by some of the better-informed reports in the Indian media.

Further, according to the India Today report (and reiterated by others), the Indian Army operation was undertaken to neutralise the threat that the Arakan Army posed to the KMMTTP — an India-led connectivity project that aims to connect Kolkata port with Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state via India’s North East.

While the Arakan Army, by its very presence in and around Chin state’s Paletwa Township (which has a KMMTTP-linked inland river terminal), might pose a security threat to the Indian project’s infrastructure in the long term, there is little indication of the outfit posing any immediate and imminent threat to Indian interests in Myanmar.

“It is difficult to say at the moment if the Arakan Army would target the Kaladan project. Arakan Army has been demanding greater autonomy like the other outfits in Myanmar and it opposes the exploitation of the region's resources by the government. Therefore, it is quite natural that this group would expect benefits from the Kaladan project to trickle down to the local populace,” Bhattacharyya told this author.

Clearly, the threat from Arakan Army to KMMTTP is a long-term potentiality, and not impending. What then was the actual reason behind the Indian army operations?

Returning a favour

According to senior journalists reporting from the region, India was simply returning a favour to Myanmar. Bhattacharyya in his recent report quoted an official as saying:

“The Myanmar army has initiated action against the Indian insurgent groups from Assam and Manipur, two other states of India’s North East, operating from Taga. As a quid pro quo, the Indian army has committed that all efforts would be made to check the entry of Arakan Army rebels into Mizoram.”

Further, one senior Indian army officer was quoted in a Northeast Now report by senior journalist, Subir Bhaumik, as saying that the operation was "reciprocal" to Myanmar’s earlier takeover of Naga camps in its territory.

This makes more sense than the KMMTTP theory. Earlier this year, the Myanmar army peacefully took over the main camps of the Myanmar-based Naga insurgent outfit, National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), close to the India-Myanmar border in Sagaing Division’s Taga.

The Indian government had been long requesting its Myanmar counterpart to act against the NSCN-K, which was behind an attack on an Indian army convoy in 2015 in Manipur. So, when the Myanmar army successfully took over the outfit’s camps, New Delhi’s diplomatic efforts were vindicated. What’s more, the takeover was preceded by a split in the NSCN-K, allegedly engineered by the Myanmar government, which saw the Indian Nagas in the outfit return to India and join the New Delhi-led peace process.

Further, the Arakan Army’s primary strategic target is the Myanmar military, and not the Indian Army. So, it is understandable why the former would want India to deny safe havens or exit points to the rebels. Clearly, the Mizoram operations benefited Myanmar more than India. None of the other Indian media outlets highlighted these crucial bits.

Strangely, even the first India Today report quotes a “security officer” as saying that India and Myanmar governments have signed a give-and-take deal, but states that the NSCN-K takeover happened after the Indian army operations against Arakan Army in Mizoram. This cannot be true as the latter commenced only on 17 February (according to the same report), and the Naga takeover happened in late January.

Moreover, according to Bhattacharyya, the Indian army operation “has offended not only the (Mizoram) state government but a large section of civil society organisations in the border state.” Some human rights violations were also reported during the deployment, which involved forcibly displacing the locals. These details found no mention in the Indian mainstream media, which remains fervently obsessed with hyperboles and falsities.

With general elections approaching in India, the sound of another “surgical strike” to “wipe out” terror helps boost Prime Minister Narendra’s Modi image as a strong leader. But, between the overreaching lines and the exaggerated headlines, hide the finer details that tell a much more sober story.

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2019 22:21:25 IST

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