Manipur ambush: How Dragon’s shadow over Northeast changes rules of engagement and turns insurgency more ominous
Belligerent insurgent groups are coming together in the Northeast to carry out anti-India operations with Chinese characters
The persistence with which insurgent groups billeted in Myanmar has been attacking security forces in Manipur has become almost a textbook portrayal. Therefore, if it was the 6 Dogras that were ambushed in Chandel on 4 June 2015, it is the 46 Assam Rifles in Churachandpur this time around. The only barefaced difference was that the militants did not spare non-combatants including the wife and minor son of Col Viplav Tripathi. The act is uncanny because non-state action has never quite targeted civilians in the past. This is so despite the fact that the two outfits that perpetrated the assault have feigned ignorance about the presence of Col Tripathi’s family when the ambush took place.
The analysis, therefore, points to a style of action that approximates terrorism. After all, when ULFA’s “Programmable Time Delay Device” killed children on 15 August 2004 in Dhemaji, Paresh Baruah apologised for the mistake. The NSCN, too, reportedly never targeted non-combatants and it has been said that it observed Sundays as a day of non-action. But for all the ethical conduct of the past, the face of North East insurgency — hijacked by the Chinese — are jettisoning their earlier “Rules of Engagement.”
Incidentally, one of the reasons for the attack on Col Tripathi was because he had become rather harsh on the “drug cartels” in the area, and the PLA and the MNPF — insurgents that make up the “southern cluster” in Myanmar’s Chin Hills — were reportedly “paid” to “teach him a lesson”. In any event, the key indicator that should be drawn is that belligerent groups are coming together in order to carry out anti-India operations with Chinese characters. Furthermore, with the entry of the Chinese, the North East is all set to witness more such activities in the future, perhaps with the objective of pinning down troops to CI (counter-insurgency) duties and away from their primary border management posture in the India-China boundary.
But the most important question that needs to be asked is how should the Indian state react? A “surgical strike” is no longer an option, especially as the Tatmadaw would not countenance it. Even when Aung San Suu Kyi was the State Counsellor, she had warned India that she would not accept a violation of her country’s territory.
Today, when democracy has paved the way to a stratocracy and New Delhi is still toying around with should constitute a “Neighbourhood First” policy and consequently have not been able to cultivate the Tatmadaw in the manner it was able to before the 1 February 2021 military takeover when the Myanmar Army conducted Op Sunrise I and II against the insurgents, the possibility of a hot pursuit policy seems next to impossible. In any event, even if there were to be a “surgical strike” the only interest it would serve the dispensation would be to inform a bewildered constituency that “justice has been meted out”.
The interest of the “enchanted frontier” would be served only if the security planners of India were to first comprehend that the region would continue to suffer unless a comprehensive security policy for the region is unveiled. The manner in which the Valley Based Insurgent Groups were “permitted” to come into an agreement with the Myanmar Army after the military takeover and the now almost definite collusion between the Chinese Ministry of State Security and insurgent groups such as the PLA point to not only failure of human intelligence, but the inability of New Delhi to grasp the realities of non-state action in the North East which in some ways is far more serious than the ongoing that prevails in Kashmir.
For one, there are quite a few rabidly anti-India, pro-Chinese representatives inside the Indian Insurgent Groups. One of the foremost “Chinese” agents is Manohar Mayum, the commander-in-chief of the PLA, and it was he who planned the Churachandpur attack alongside his Chinese minders in a place called Ruili in China’s Yunnan province.
New Delhi’s inability to match short-term goals with long-term imperatives is conspicuous by bouts of short-sightedness. Counter-insurgency operations by its very definition play black — a disadvantage that determines its response. But as any sound chess player will surmise, advantages can easily be engineered after opening gambits have been traded.
Unfortunately, for the North East, this has not been perceived as a possibility. Non-sensitive solutions that do not look beyond the immediately conceivable, non-comprehension of the dynamics that govern the Northeastern mind and the failure to set into action methodologies that prevail over mere stimulus-response are responsible for the ailments that continue to beleaguer the region.
But what should be the way ahead? The author has always felt that there should be a separate policymaking body for the region. Polemics apart, brass tacks demand that such an arrangement needs to be formed without any delay. New Delhi has not applied sufficient cerebration for the construction of a comprehensive structure that would resolutely attend to the essentials of the region’s security.
The need of the hour is, therefore, the constitution of a North East Security Council under the PMO, which in its ambit would address traditional security issues like border management, illegal migration, drug-gun running, insurgency and Islamist terror. The formation of such a council would also decisively inform the Northeast that New Delhi is serious about the region’s health.
Indeed, the author had taken up the issue of the constitution of a North East Security Council at a time when the BJP was not yet in power. A robust blueprint had been drawn up and presented to the leaders of the dispensation in-waiting. But it fell on deaf ears because of the emergence of a turf war. The attack in Manipur should present itself as an opportunity for serious introspection and even consideration of what is being recommended by way of a North East Security Council.
The writer is a conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books on Northeast India’s security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.
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