TRIUMPHALISM OVER MYANMAR RAID
PUBLIC | THURSDAY, JUNE 25, 2015
PERILS OF COVERT OPERATIONS
Praful Bidwai, 1949-2015, RIP
By Praful Bidwai
The debate over the June 9 raids by the Indian Army’s Special Forces
unit against two Northeastern insurgent groups on Myanmarese territory
has produced two main reactions. The first reaction, from Prime
Minister Narendra Modi’s diehard supporters, is triumphalist and holds
that the retaliatory operation’s “great” success against National
Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) rebels must be trumpeted. The
second reaction defends the present covert operation, but believes
that publicising such operations is unwise, even self-defeating.
The proponents of the first view defend bellicose rhetoric and
hashtags like #ManipurRevenge and #56inRocks by junior information
minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, who wanted to tell all countries,
including Pakistan, that India can and will strike “at a place and at
a time of our choosing”.
They hold that it was necessary to make the operation’s details
public—against strict military rules—because India needed to send out
a signal not just to the NSCN(K) but to all the “hostile elements in
the neighbourhood”, that its national security approach has undergone
a sea-change under its new “56-inch-chest” leader, who wants to end “a
thousand years of servility masquerading as civility”.
This argument is puerile. It comprehensively misunderstands both
history—India as we know it was not one nation for a thousand
years—and contemporary geopolitics. Confident and prudent
nation-states don’t casually violate their neighbouring states’
sovereign borders; they know that healthy relations with their
neighbours are key to their own security. Crude military machismo and
cross-border “hot pursuit” adventures express not strategic
confidence, but immaturity.
The “hot pursuit” doctrine has little validity in international law.
It originated in efforts to control pirates/smugglers. If they commit
a crime in your territorial waters, you can chase them into the high
seas, which are normally free to all vessels. Its extension to land
has been generally rejected.
“Self-defence” is a more plausible argument, but it too has been
carried to an absurd extreme by the United States in declaring war on
Afghanistan after the September 2001 attacks. After 18 of India’s
Dogra Regiment troops were killed on June 4 by a coalition of
Khaplang-led separatists in Manipur, India could have conducted a
joint operation against such guerrillas with the Myanmar army, with
which it had good relations even during the long years of Aung Sang
Suu Kyi’s detention.
India entered into ceasefire agreements with both the Isak
Swu-Thuingaleng Muivah (IM) and Khaplang factions of the NSCN
respectively in 1997 and 2001. It had ample opportunity to renew the
ceasefire with Myanmar-based Khaplang when it ended in March.
Alternatively, it could have roped in Naga civil society groups to
persuade Khaplang to explore peace with India. Nagaland Chief Minister
TR Zeliang has said such groups have the requisite credibility. Indian
intelligence agencies did neither. They failed to keep the Manipur and
Nagaland governments in the loop, and ignored the new emerging
coalition between Khaplang, ULFA’s Paresh Barua and tiny Meitei and
Bodo factions, which launched the June 4 attack.
India’s retaliation was hastily conceived. It chose to attack rebel
bases close to the border for “political” reasons—and not because they
harboured a large number of insurgents. Contradictory claims were made
about the number killed: 20, 50, even 100; but only seven bodies were
recovered, according to The Indian Express.
India says it informed the Myanmar government, which is in hot denial
that it allowed its territory to be used by Indian troops, as any
government would. Even assuming that the Myanmar government has
recently reached conciliation with the NSCN(K), it wasn’t impossible
for India to negotiate a joint operation with the Myanmarese army to
flush out the militants, as it has done with the Bhutanese and
The main reason why India didn’t even try to do so derives from the
Modi government’s jingoism and its domination by super-hawks like
National Security Adviser AK Doval and defence minister Manohar
Parrikar, who believe in devious means and cloak-and-dagger
methods—e.g. “neutralising” one terrorist with another terrorist.
Mr Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau director, is a firm believer in
coercion, not diplomacy, to resolve external security problems and
domestic ethnic conflicts. He’s on record as saying that peaceful
co-existence between India and Pakistan is virtually impossible.
Imagine the implications of this, considering that both states are
nuclear-armed, with such close geographical proximity between them
that a nuclear exchange would lead to large-scale devastation and
irreversible climatic change in the region. As South Asia’s
post-Pokharan-II history suggests, escalation of conventional war
rhetoric has a real potential to lead to nuclear sabre-rattling, with
consequences too horrifying to contemplate.
The second, seemingly more sober, reaction argues against
chest-thumping jingoism. It recommends discretion: let covert
operations remain covert and speak for themselves; don’t talk about
them and reveal your hand to your adversaries.
Yet it fails to understand that protracted conflicts aren’t decided by
covert operations, but need strategic foresight and sustained, astute
diplomacy. So it holds that a modern state must practise deception,
skullduggery and lawless conduct in exceptional circumstances.
Implicit here are three assumptions: first, covert operations are
usually successful in neutralising asymmetrical threats like those
from insurgents or terrorists; second, it’s legitimate for states to
use extreme and inhuman methods like summary execution in special
circumstances; and third, democratic states know where to draw the
line; once the moment of crisis has passed, they can return to normal
political and social negotiation processes.
All three assumptions are open to question. Take India’s own
experience. In the 1950s, India collaborated with the CIA in training
and arming Tibetan guerrillas to instigate the so-called Khampa
Rebellion against China. The CIA abandoned the operation after
sacrificing thousands of Tibetans. India earned China’s hostility,
with dire consequences, which were revealed in 1962.
An even more dangerous CIA-sponsored covert operation was launched in
1965 to place espionage equipment energised by a plutonium power-pack
on the Nanda Devi peak to monitor Chinese nuclear activities. An
avalanche prevented its placement. It has remained untraceable,
raising fears of radioactive contamination of glaciers, and
eventually, the Ganga.
In 1987, India in another covert operation air-dropped “humanitarian”
aid (food and medicines) in northern Sri Lanka, and imposed the
India-Sri Lanka accord on Colombo, and later on the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam. This drew India into a terrible “peace-keeping”
misadventure, in which it lost 1,200 soldiers—more than in all other
wars cumulatively—and invited the LTTE’s revenge through Rajeev
There are countless instances of highly sophisticated Western covert
operations having gone sour or become ineffective, including
drone-bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Secondly, it is extremely difficult to draw the dividing line between
military attacks calculated to kill, and methods like torture,
hostage-taking and arbitrary executions/fake encounters. They are
always rationalised in the name of “compulsion”, necessity to “deter”
further attacks, choosing “the lesser evil”—all as one-time
exceptions. They together form a slippery ethical slope, which permits
increasingly brutal acts; ultimately, all limits collapse.
If torturing one person saves a hundred lives, wouldn’t that be
justified? This argument may seem attractive, but it’s dangerously
wrong. Not only does it permit the violation of a person’s fundamental
right to life; it often produces unreliable or false results. People
lie only to escape torture; that might lead to yet more gratuitous
violence by security agencies.
If a democratic state indulges in gross human rights violations, it
undermines its own claim to following legality or a higher principle;
it loses popular legitimacy. That’s why “fake” encounters end up
causing more resentment and adding to the cesspool of discontent and
grievances that fuel militancy and extremism. That has happened for
decades in the Kashmir Valley and the Northeast.
In Mizoram, the Indian state created Malaya-Vietnam-style “strategic
hamlets” by grouping villages under the threat of the gun. In
Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, it waged war on its own people. This bred
more resentment and fuelled militancy. The more ruthlessly the
militancy was repressed, the greater were the civilian casualties.
Hundreds of civilians were dehumanised through torture, forced labour
and arbitrary arrest in “Operation Loktak” in 1999 in Manipur,
Finally, the state doesn’t know when to stop. The Armed Forces Special
Powers Act was introduced in 1958 as a “temporary” measure. It gives
impunity to officers who kill anyone suspected of the intention to
break the law. It continues to operate in Kashmir and most
Northeastern states barring Tripura, including Assam (except
Guwahati). The Indian police is responsible for an annual average of
1,400 custodial deaths, but still wants more powers through laws like
TADA, POTA and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—despite a conviction
rate of one percent under TADA.
The Myanmar raid forms part of the same vile pattern. This must end.
For real long-term peace, India must talk to its alienated citizens in
good faith and without coercion. (IPA Service)