At approximately 2.45 am on June 9, two teams from the 21 Para (Special Forces) quietly slipped into Myanmar on foot ‒ one team entering from Manipur and the other from Nagaland ‒ heading towards insurgent training camps of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) group.

Code named Operation Peace 1 in the Manipur sector and Operation Peace 2 in Nagaland, this was a carefully deliberated act of retaliation for the insurgent attack in Manipur that killed 18 soldiers of a Dogra battalion on June 4. The Indian army had not seen such high casualties in over a decade and the Indian government was clearly looking for options to retaliate quickly.

The National Security Adviser, AK Doval, a former director of the Intelligence Bureau with years of experience in the North East, was clear that a surgical strike against the insurgents was the only option left for India. A few days before the operation took off, Doval went into a huddle with the Union home and defence ministers and the two intelligence chiefs – Dineshwar Sharma of the IB and Rajinder Khanna of the Research and Analysis Wing – to finalise the retaliatory strike.

Among the options that were examined was a surgical strike by the Indian Air Force, using precision guided missiles launched from the Indian side into Myanmar. However, the option was quickly dismissed since it could easily be construed as an act of war and could lead to heavy civilian casualties. The six key people involved in the planning agreed that the retaliation had to be manageable but deadly enough to establish New Delhi’s intent to hit back at the insurgents with precision on their turf.

Mutual co-operation

Khanna, who took over as the R&AW Chief in December, had led the agency’s counter-terrorism operations for over a decade and served for several years in Myanmar. As the senior Indian intelligence official posted in Myanmar, he helped build key relationships for cooperation on counter-terrorism between the two nations. The Myanmar military junta was keen to seek India’s cooperation to deal with the Rohingyas and the Kachins who would frequently slip into India after inflicting casualties on the Myanmar army. In return, India sought help to deal with the Naga, Meitei and Assamese insurgents that frequently used Myanmar to hit India targets in the North East. In the days preceding the June 9 raid, Doval would frequently consult Khanna, looking for options to conduct a retaliatory raid.

After much deliberation, the five decision-makers sat down with army chief, Dalbir Singh Suhag, to finalise a plan to use the Indian military to conduct the retaliatory strike. Doval also contended that since the Indian Army had suffered casualties, it was their prerogative to strike back at the militants. Khanna agreed and deployed his intelligence assets to identify the NSCN (K) camps that would be targeted.

The decision on who would hit the camps was a forgone conclusion. The only troops capable of carrying out such a delicate operation was secretive unit known as 21 Para (Special Forces).

Forging a new legacy

The success of the June 9 operation has demonstrated the need for India’s military to re-examine the use of its Special Forces. As the top security leadership grappled with options to retaliate against the insurgents, it fell on 21 Para (Special Forces) as the only unit to carry out such a delicate operation. A failure would mean international embarrassment, a major diplomatic fallout and embolden the insurgents to hit targets in India with impunity. At the very least, this could prove disastrous for the men who had been inserted covertly into Myanmar to carry out the operation.

In the early hours of June 9, a team from 21 Para (Special Forces) led by a veteran Manipuri officer entered Myanmar on foot from Manipur. Another team was launched simultaneously into Myanmar from Nagaland, to target a NSCN (K) camp in Aungzeya. The team led by the Manipuri officer headed for a PLA camp in the south, closer to the town of Kalaymyo. This was not the first time India’s Special Forces had slipped across an international border to hit strategic targets. In 1995, a team from 1 Para (Special Forces) was sent into Bangladesh to hit insurgent camps operating out of Sylhet district. Since 2000, retaliatory strikes have been regularly conducted across the Line of Control by Indian Special Forces to dissuade the Pakistani military from sending in militants into the Kashmir Valley.

But what distinguished the Myanmar operation was a deliberate strategy to leak out key details to signal intent. Deterrence is a key strategy that has driven military doctrines throughout history. It is not clear how and why the two insurgent camps were chosen for the assault. The NSCN (K) camp was deserted as the first team arrived, and found that the cadres had disappeared into the jungles fearing a strike.

A signal of intent

The other team found a sleepy but populated insurgent PLA camp that had been sending insurgents into Manipur for years. “The PLA was not behind the earlier attack on the Dogra battalion, but the intention was to ensure that a message goes out to all the insurgent groups,” according to a senior intelligence official familiar with the raid. By morning, as dawn broke, the Special Forces team had set out for the Indian border when several Dhruv helicopters from the Indian army’s aviation regiment took off to bring the troops back home.

For the first time, an Indian government took a strategic decision to deliberately leak the information about the operation to the world. Through carefully worded briefings and press releases, it made it clear in no uncertain terms that insurgent camps had been hit by Indian Special Forces. The decision to leak the news was preceded by intense discussions between the principal decision-makers. Finally, Doval’s argument convinced Prime Minister Narendra Modi that there was merit in leaking out the news informally. Doval argued, said officials familiar with the decision, that unless the intent and the reach was not publicised, India would never be able to establish deterrence. The US had released the transcript of a detailed briefing within hours of the Abbottabad raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 for precisely the same reasons articulated by Doval. It wanted to signal its reach and intent to go after its enemies in faraway lands as a measure of deterrence.

Behind the scenes, Indian diplomats and intelligence officials posted in Yangon had already discussed the new strategy with their Myanmar counterparts. On June 9, Zaw Htay, director of the officer of President Thein Sein confirmed that an India military operation had been carried out in “close cooperation” with the Mynmar army. Clearly, the Bharatiya Janta Party government has signalled a new doctrine that it will take risks in pursuit of its new security strategy. For India’s Special Forces, this, in many ways, is a new legacy in the making.

Saikat Datta is the author of India’s Special Forces and a veteran journalist.