Twenty dead and 17 injured. The soldiers of 6 Dogra, a regiment of the Indian army was moving in a convoy on Thursday when they were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades followed by heavy firing. Some reports say they were on a patrol.  They were coming from Motul, an area along the Indo-Myanmar the road that is meant to drive India’s Act East Policy.

This is easily one of the biggest ambushes in recent years in Manipur.

I was there in February as part of a high-level committee of the government of India to assess the ground security situation in the state. Chandel district, where this attack took place, appeared to us to be free of militant movement. We were of the opinion that Chandel could be de-notified as a disturbed area, thus allowing the government to lift Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The Act has faced the most intense civil society opposition in Manipur due to allegations of unprecedented human right abuses and many see it as counter-productive to containing insurgency.

Chief Minister ShriIbobi Singh  also suggested that Chandel and Churachandpur could easily be de-notified. Almost all his officers, including the chief secretary, agreed that was  time for a phased withdrawal of AFSPA. The army and the Assam Rifles, however, vehemently defended the legislation, saying removal of AFSPA would create havoc. They even recommended that AFSPA be reinstated in Imphal Municipal Area. Currently seven assembly segments of Imphal have been de-notified but there is growing pressure of extending this into other areas. Thursday’s attack will now ensure that AFSPA stays in place, setting back a process of withdrawal that was being seriously considered by the government of India.

New realities

Over the last two months some things have changed. Apparently there has been some build up of the United National Liberation Front across the border. In addition, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)  walked out of a ceasefire with the government after getting hints the truce agreement may not be renewed. India accused Khaplang of providing shelter to the other Indian groups based in Myanmar. Since then, they have been targeting the army in Nagaland and Manipur.

On May 3, they ambushed and killed eight army personnel in the Mon district of Nagaland. Meanwhile nine North-Eastern insurgent groups, including the NSCN(K), have formed United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia operating out of Myanmar. At the same time, there is renewed violence in northern Myanmar between the Tatmadaw (as the government armed forces are known) and Kachin and Kokang rebels.

For some time now, ageing separatist leaders have been planning a united front.

UNLF chief RK Meghan was spearheading this initiative but his arrest in 2010 dented the efforts. It is believed that United Liberation Front of Assam chief Paresh Barua has been continuing the effort but Khaplang’s ceasefire with India was the stumbling block. The breakdown of the ceasefire agreement helped in the merger. The latest attack could well be from this new front, though the police in Manipur suspect valley- based groups behind the attack.

Prolonged insurgency

Manipur has been living through protracted insurgency. While there are several opinions, two of the most significant reasons for its never-ending war are a) the state’s defunct police force and b) the failure of the Indian state to formulate a counter-insurgency policy after engaging in internal strife for over 50 years. There are several other reasons for this.

Police administration in Manipur has virtually collapsed and the North Block is seized of the situation. It is deeply corrupt; the officer in charge of vigilance that comes directly under the chief secretary is reportedly sitting on over 700 cases: the disposal rate is abysmal.

There are 7,000 vacancies in the police department but the process of recruitment and posting have always been questionable.

Huge backlog

It is moribund in almost every aspect: infrastructure, housing, weapons, police outposts and even investigations and prosecution. The total number of cases registered since 2005 was 41,000 but the conviction rate is not even 3%, making it one of the worst-performing states in the country.  There are over 2,000 pending cases involving ballistics experts’ opinion. Seven hundred cases are pending under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in the want of a gazetted officer. The criminal justice system virtually does not exist.

As far as policy is concerned, India has utterly failed to recognise its absence. The Indian government has countered insurgencies more as a tactical response.  “Insurgency management” has merely consisted of controlling the levels of violence and restoring a semblance of law and order. The State’s response to armed conflicts has primarily been through force because it probably views conflict only from the premise of national security.

However, if policy means a well laid-out course of action by the government, then India is yet to formulate a coherent national counter-insurgency policy. Given that its counter- insurgency experience is so rich and varied, it is surprising India does not have a policy. India’s insurgency campaigns have frequently been long-drawn and expensive.

With a spurt in insurgent activity and reports of a united front, it is crucial for security managers to first put the house in order and then start studying violence from a fresh perspective. Half a century of jungle warfare is a long battle. It is time to introspect.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist. His book Blood on My Hands: Eyewitness Accounts of Staged Encounters is forthcoming by HarperCollins Publishers India in August.