India’s Myanmar operation sends unpleasant message to neighbors
The Indian army’s raid on another country’s territory to destroy rebel camps and the consequent chest-thumping by its ministers and a section of the media have further strained the country’s relations with Pakistan
Ever since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in May 2014, relations between India and Pakistan, never too good, have further strained. Though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended Narendra Modi’s inauguration, it is no secret that the present New Delhi regime has a sharply-felt hostility towards Pakistan, a sentiment which is perhaps fully reciprocated.
Recently, the Indian army claimed a rather successful punitive expedition into Myanmar territory against the militants led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Khaplang group (NSCN-K) which had ambushed a military convoy in the tiny border state of Manipur on June 4, 2015 killing 18 soldiers and injuring 11 others. The news was followed by self-congratulatory chest-thumping by a section of the media and some ruling party politicians including the cabinet ministers for defense, information and broadcasting (a former army officer) and environment. They all forgot that the victims of the army action were the alienated Indian citizens, not enemy aliens. The belligerent politicians threatened India’s neighbors (mainly Pakistan) of similar action against their country if warranted. Their Pakistani counterparts of course were not to be silenced and made equally belligerent noises. The Indian TV anchors soon joined the hullabaloo, which was ridiculous. The embarrassed and angry Myanmar authorities then clarified, to the discomfiture of Indians that the Indian punitive action had been taken within Indian and not Myanmar territory!
The hawkish national security advisor of India, known to be an operations man, was perhaps the brain behind the controversial ‘hot pursuit’ idea. However, if indeed the Indian army had entered Myanmar territory permit-free as might have happened, it then sent a not too pleasant message to the other countries in South Asia. Sabre-rattling by nuclear-armed India against nuclear-armed Pakistan could lead to a potentially horrible outcome.
India’s management of its relations with its biggest neighbors Pakistan and China has been ham-handed at best. The dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir persists without signs of reconciliation. The easily resolvable, long pending dispute with China over Aksai Chin and McMahon Line could have been settled years ago. The insurgencies in Northeast, the Central Tribal Belt and the Kashmir Valley have been mishandled by military action. Massive deployment of central armed police forces and the army in these regions does not address the real problems on the ground.
A policy crisis compounded by an information crisis and a managerial crisis dominates the political and governmental system. Positioning of favourites in key posts is not the answer. Informed observers note the absence of significant achievements in any of these fields since the assumption of office by the Narendra Modi government last year. The prime minister has also disturbingly displayed an uncanny ability to remain silent when key issues flare up affecting Indo-Pak relations. The frequent tendency at the top to deliver provocative remarks against Pakistan increases the tensions in Indo-Pak relations. More importantly, the tendency to invade foreign territory in ‘hot pursuit’ and then get belligerent over it must have generated deep reflection in the Pakistani diplomatic and strategic community.
The Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which carried out the daring June 4 ambush of the Indian army, stands for the creation of an independent state for the Naga tribes in adjoining Indian and Myanmar areas. Khaplang has recently set up a new political entity named National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (NLFTW) consisting of several militant tribal groups in the largely un-administered territories of Myanmar’s upper Sagaing Division. The new entity could potentially become a significant security challenge for India in its Northeastern region.
Historically, the Khaplang faction of the Nagas was a breakaway section of the earlier NSCN group or (NSCN IM), led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. The NSCN (IM) had emerged in protest against the Shillong Peace Accord of 1975 between the government of India and the then Naga National Council (NNC) led by Angami Zapu Phizo. In 1997, Swu and Muivah entered into discussions for peace with India. Khaplang, a Naga from Myanmar (Swu and Muivah are Indians), left the NSCN (IM) in 2001 and formed his own unit to continue the fight for an independent tribal state. The new formation set up by Khaplang in April 2015, named the United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFW), consists of several groups from different parts of the Northeast including the major Assamese group named the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) led by Paresh Barua. The June 4 operation appears to have been based on a collective decision of the UNLFW led by Khaplang, respectfully called ‘Baba’.
The Indian response to insurgency in the Northeast has largely been militaristic with reliance on an extraordinary central legislation known as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) 1958. Under the Indian Constitution, law and order is a state subject. Several new state governments came in the wake of the administrative reorganization of the Northeast in 1972. Civil and armed police forces in the Northeast have increased in strength from about 50,000 in 1978 to about 200,000 in 2012. However, in a strange twist, the battle against insurgency is waged not by state police units in the region but by the historically outdated central paramilitary police force, Assam Rifles (AR) relying on the AFSPA. AR is funded by the central home ministry but its operational control is with the central defense ministry. This arrangement is contradictory and counter-productive. The unresolved border dispute with China over the McMahon Line has led to huge military deployment. Human rights and social justice concerns remain neglected especially in the context of the ‘Look East’ (now ‘Act East’) policy of the government of India. In order for peace to exist in the region, the central concern remains on these issues.
KS Subramanian was Director General of Police in the strategic Northeastern region of India. He is an author and writer and was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. His book ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ is being published by Routledge.
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