When the Indian government announces the launch of a military operation in response to an insurgent attack, it is an ominous piece of news in Manipur. Thursday's attack was one of the most deadly peacetime assaults on the army in almost three decades. A convoy of four vehicles carrying troops proceeding on leave was ambushed  in a well-planned operation that employed rocket-propelled grenades. At least eight bodies were charred beyond recognition.

Given the severity of the attack on Thursday that killed 20 soldiers of the 6th Battalion Dogra Regiment, the counter attack promises to be just as vicious. If recent history is anything to go by, the military operation could end up targeting civilians while achieving little. It is absurd to think that the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack would be sitting for the army to apprehend them. By now they must have crossed over to Myanmar, given that is where they operate.

Military operations in the past have often been retributive in nature. Operation Bluebird is a case in point. Launched on July 11, 1987, it is known in the North East as the infamous “Oinam Massacre”, considered to be one of the worst examples of human-right abuses in India.

Civilians are tortured

According to an Amnesty International report, civilians were maimed, tortured and raped after the military launched an operation following an attack by National Socialist Council of Nagaland militants on Assam Rifles’ Oinam outpost, 95 kilometres north of Imphal . Nine soldiers were killed and the militants escaped with large amount of guns and ammunition.

Operation Bluebird was launched to nab the militants and recover the firearms. Instead, they carried out unprecedented excesses in Oinam and neighbouring villages for three months.

The villagers were forced to make food for the soldiers till they exhausted their supplies. Reminiscent of Mizoram and Nagaland operations of the '60s and '70s, villagers were grouped into virtual jails and harassed. Pregnant women were allegedly kicked and abused and forced to deliver still-born babies as the soldiers watched. Men were hung upside down and women buried to their necks.

The village headmen were blindfolded and executed with their hands tied behind their backs. Nobody knows how many people were killed because Oinam was put out of bounds for local authorities too. Even the chief minister couldn’t stop the excesses. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act had never been used with such brutality as never before. The Act truly granted the army immunity from any prosecution.

Operation Summer Storm

As recently as 2009, when the 57 Mountain Division of the Indian Army launched the ambitious Operation Summer Storm, the army called it a “huge success”. I had covered the operation. It was dramatic in the manner it was carried out but in no way a dramatic success. Only Twelve militants were killed and five camps were busted.  In terms of number and weapons recovered, it perhaps did not justify the cost involved.

Almost a decade ago, another such operation was launched in Lakhipathar in Assam, where the ULFA had killed some army soldiers. The operation they claimed was deep inside the jungle but they could not show any results. I was covering the operation and the military detained us illegally snatching our equipment.

We were paraded in front of some villagers and were accused of being militant informers. It is a long story but underlines how serious army operations are sometimes so callously driven. Such operations have rarely achieved any objective except for renewing the cycle of violence.

The army has hardly ever admitted to the excesses they are accused of. But if it recognises the futility of retribution this time, it should refrain from taking out its anger on civilians.

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.