India upgrades its Naga war, Modi his image

M.K. Bhadrakumar June 10, 2015 6:58 AM (UTC+8)
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The insurgent attack on an Indian army convoy in the northeastern state of Manipur bordering Myanmar on June 4, filling 20 army personnel and injuring 12 was bound to produce strong reaction from New Delhi. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is sworn to be resolute in crushing the dozens of insurgencies bleeding India.

Modi has cultivated for himself the image of an “Iron Man”. The attack on June 4 came as a political embarrassment for the one-year old Modi government, being the deadliest insurgent attack on the Indian Army in the past 33 years since a similar attack in 1982 had killed exactly 20 years signaling an escalation of militancy.

Sure enough, the retaliation has come with the Indian Army commandos crossing the border and striking “deep inside Myanmar” at the sanctuaries of the insurgents. The Army claims it was a “surgical strike” that took the insurgents by complete surprise. The Indian commandos suffered no casualties.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of grandstanding is going on and it is not easy to glean the facts. The government gas proclaimed that the “hot pursuit” was ordered by Modi himself. But a government minister said on television, “This is a message to neighbors who harbor terrorists.”

Which would probably corroborate the media reports that Delhi had informed Myanmar government only “hours after the commandos in battle fatigues had mostly completed surgical strikes.”

There is some ambivalence here insofar as India and Myanmar have been cooperating on anti-insurgent operations and it is possible that the Indian commando operation was conceived within the ambit of some tacit understanding, in principle, existing between the two countries.

Myanmar is normally very touchy about its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the reaction from Naypyidaw is not yet available.

For the moment, Modi government is basking in the glory of graduating to a league of very select nations that subscribe to the doctrine of “hot pursuit” operations across international borders on grounds of national security. At least, this is the first time India has not only admitted but is claiming credit for conducting a “hot pursuit” operation.

Prime facie, Modi’s motives are largely political, as such a power play in a blaze of media publicity – and the accompanying jingoism – has the potential to strike chords in the national mood in India today.

Modi is a shrewd politician and he is smarting under the rising tide of criticism that the past one year as prime minister has been much ado about nothing. Equally, Modi is running into strong headwinds in the upcoming provincial election in the northern state of Bihar, which is a key state in Indian politics, where a defeat for the ruling party is tantamount to a rejection of Modi and a huge signal that he could be vulnerable.

In reality, “hot pursuits” seldom produce the desired effect. Israel and Lebanon are a classic case. In the case of Myanmar, this is more so the case, since the government in Naypyidaw has no real control over the country’s far-flung borders. Besides, unlike the Hezbollah, which is a well-defined entity, the Indian insurgent groups are split into dozens of factions not easily identifiable.

Arguably, what the Indian Army did was to take out, Rambo-style, its frustrations on a readily available punch bag and then proceed to claim complete success. What impact this would have on the future trajectory of the secessionist movements in the northeastern region is impossible to fathom at this point.

Meanwhile, what India has done will resonate in regional politics. First and foremost, in the wake of the attack of June 4, some high-level government source in Delhi revived a moribund theme, namely, that the insurgent groups in India’s northeast region have an external sponsor – China.

According to the Indian official, taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Mayanmar, China is lately instigating the insurgent groups to step up their operations in India’s northeastern regions by giving sanctuaries to the insurgent leaderships and clandestinely supplying sophisticated weapons to them. (The insurgents staged the June 4 attack using sophisticated weapons such as RPGs.)

How this allegation gets played out will be interesting to watch, as it is unmistakably a barometer of the actual temperature in the Sino-Indian relationship. The impression one gets in Delhi is that a top security czar, who has Modi’s ear, may have only made this allegation through the media.

If there is merit in the Indian allegation (of China getting involved in the insurgency in northeast), the downstream issue is why China should be acting in such a hostile manner. Is it motiveless malignity on China’s part, or is it that China could be conveying a complicated message to Delhi that needs meticulous deciphering, or, is it plain retaliation – “tit-for-tat” – by China? There are no easy answers here.

At any rate, the fact that the government has rushed to disseminate such a serious allegation publicly against China only goes to show that the recent bonhomie between the two leaderships that is pleasing to the eye is not truly reflecting the strong undercurrents in the relations.

Secondly, the “hot pursuit” strategy has serious implications for Pakistan. Interestingly, while campaigning for the 2014 general election, Modi had approvingly spoken of pursuing a “hot pursuit” strategy against Pakistan if only he came to power. The birds have come to roost, in a manner of speaking.

The “hot pursuit” operation undertaken by the Indian Army yesterday underscores in unambiguous terms to Pakistan that Modi gives the “hot pursuit” an integral role in India’s counter-terrorist strategies vis-à-vis neighboring countries. The “hot pursuit” doctrine dovetails with a recent comment by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that India won’t be averse to using terrorist groups to strike at countries that try to destabilize India.

To be sure, against this backdrop, the GHQ in Rawalpindi will be closely studying the details of India’s “hot pursuit” operation in Myanmar. But more fundamentally, Pakistani military will be alert to the emergent reality that the “hot pursuit” strategy is becoming an established tool in India’s repertoire to counter cross-border terrorism.

Now, India has consistently alleged that Pakistan has been harboring some Indian nationals involved in terrorist activities and seeking their extradition.

Of course, Pakistan is not Myanmar. And an Indian “hot pursuit” operation on Pakistani soil will no doubt invite retaliation. Pakistan too has Special Forces trained for commando operations.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, yesterday’s “hot pursuit” would have some collateral damage insofar as it may create an element of distrust about Modi among India’s small neighbors – especially so if it transpires that Delhi acted without bothering to consult or take the prior approval of the Myanmar government.

For the moment, the “Iron Man” may look good alright in the nationalistic Indian opinion, but Modi risks his reputation in the smaller countries of India’s neighborhood. Modi took real pains so far to appear in Kathmandu, Thimpu, Colombo and Dhaka (and Ulan Bator) as a pious and genial uncle – a Santa Claus bearing gifts. That image needs some upgrade in the last twenty-four hours.

Modi just reminded India’s neighbors of the wrath of God – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36). The point is, Modi ordered the Indian Army to kill India’s citizens.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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