Following the cross-border raid in Myanmar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's recent flying visit to NayPyiDaw was to invoke the 2014 Memorandum of  Understanding on border cooperation so that sanctuaries provided to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the perpetrators of the June 4, 2015 ambush, are denied and mechanisms devised to coordinate border security better.

Mother of all insurgencies

My counterinsurgency spurs were won in Nagaland in 1959 soon after the Naga rebels sought secession from India. Their shooting down of an Indian Air Force Dakota heralded the start of the longest insurgency – the mother of all other insurgencies in the North East.

It was not till 1997 that the biggest insurgent group –  NSCN (Isak Swu-Thuingaling Muivah) – entered into a cease fire with the government, one which has turned out to be the longest anywhere.  In 2001, the Khaplang Myanmarese Nagas – the NSCN(K) – also pledged to a separate cease fire which it unilaterally broke in March this year, as New Delhi had excluded them from the dialogue process.

In 1990, as General Officer Commanding of the only counterinsurgency division in the country located in the North East I had watched the insurgencies rise and wane. The government had simply put the lid on them hoping to tire out insurgents, playing one group against the other, keeping their leaders happy and engaging just the NSCN (I-M) in apparently 80 rounds of outcome-bereft dialogue. Although housed in monitored camps, both armed groups had a free run to collect taxes and sometimes act as a shadow government while occasionally clashing with each other. Civil society groups were not unhappy with this arrangement of cold peace till the Khaplang group disturbed it.

Not the first time

The Army raid across the Myanmarese border to punish the Khaplang group was an impressive tactical operation mindlessly hyped by a jingoistic media and a government dying to prove its muscularity. I can recall several similar and more elaborate operations with or without the consent and cooperation of the Myanmarese government and Army. Those were classic hot pursuit – interception of rebel leaders and surgical strikes all inside Myanmarese territory. The covert operations were kept under wraps and little was known about them outside army circles except when Myanmarese wanted them exposed like the coordinated Operation Blue Bird (1987) and Golden Bird (1997).

No country would want its territorial sovereignty infringed by another under any circumstances. Even the King of Bhutan took 10 years of friendly persuasion to prepare to flush out Bodo and Assamese militants camped inside Bhutan. The Indian Army carried out a coordinated operation on its territory acting as the anvil for the Royal Bhutan Army's successful hammer strikes against rebel camps in the famous 2003 Operation All Clear. Bangladesh did one better. They extradited captured ULFA leaders.

Over the top

The Myanmarese however have been coy in expressing their inability – sometimes, unwillingness – to act against insurgents especially the Myanmarese Nagas operating against India. At the time of their independence the British left behind thousands of weapons and war-making materials in the hands of different ethnic Burmese who had helped them to fight the Japanese during World War II. These became the nucleus of at least 32 insurgencies waged against the country's military rulers which they have managed to muzzle – taking a leaf out of the Indian book – through separate cease fire agreements.

Historically involved in governance, the military's writ does not extend to its undelineated 1643 km border with India. The space west of Chindwin River up to the Indian border is quite ungoverned and has long been regarded as a necessary buffer by New Delhi, especially after China began spreading its wings across the country. Presumably, NaypyiDaw must have been informed only at the last minute about New Delhi's cross border operation. The unnecessary and ill-advised crowing about the bold strike certainly embarrassed the Myanmarese which their President's Office flatly contradicted, saying Indian troops never crossed the border. NSCN (K) too contradicted the reports declaring there had been no attack. Instead it praised the joint assault team for vanquishing "enemy forces" at Chandel district in Manipur on June 4.

The Indian media went over the top, even coining the term "Doval Doctrine", presumably, of deterrence. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's convoluted declaration – a simple action against insurgents has changed the "mindset of the full security scenario of the country" – reflects the naivete of the leadership and its absurd trumpeting of a simple operation that certainly has raised the morale of the armed forces and gladdened the heart of the man on the street. Mercifully, he has decided to keep quiet for six months.

The operation had the combined stamp of Mr Doval and Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Suhag who knows the terrain and insurgent tactic in the Eastern theatre like the palm of his hand. Reacting to reports, China was quick to dismiss it had a role in supplying militants with weapons. Beijing was actually involved in stoking insurgencies in the North East prior to 1988, the year after the Sumdorong Chu impasse in Tawang when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing helped in ending that covert support.

A bad habit

Politicising national security has become a bad habit among the political class. It all started with Kargil when even as battle waged on snowy heights, the Congress, much like now, and this time justifiably, attacked the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance for alleged tactical and strategic lapses.

This is a repeat of what happened during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu to Kandahar and the terrorist attacks on Parliament and Mumbai. There is nothing more demoralising for troops than the absence of a national political consensus during military operations.

This time around, government ministers violated all norms of maturity and sobriety by careless boasts of their government's muscularity and needlessly needled Pakistan which reacted furiously with the taunt “Pakistan is not Myanmar”. Our politicians who are not security-savvy, need to be educated on basic tactical and strategic operational lexicon at the National Defence College.

Back to basics

What has India achieved by the retaliatory raid and what would Mr Doval have brought back from Myanmar?

A swift, sharp and piercing response to the fourth NSCN(K) operation against security forces in three months – a deadly ambush – resulted in the elimination of two of their camps inside Myanmar. The strategic message is clear: "We will get you wherever".

The additional signalling is to the neighbourhood, not to provide safe havens to insurgents. In the North East, India is contending with insurgents employing counter-insurgency tactics unlike in Jammu and Kashmir where it is combating cross border terrorism.

Mr Doval knows that NayPyiDaw has signed a much-celebrated cease fire with NSCN(K) in 2012 after allowing it to establish sanctuaries for which they pay the Myanmarese Army. Mr Khaplang is revered by the establishment and is being treated in a military hospital in Yangon. Mr Doval would, at best, have urged NayPyiDaw to expel the rebels or extradite the leaders. Alternatively, he would have liked Mr Khaplang to be persuaded by his hosts to return to India, restore the cease fire and join the talks.

As military operations – independent or coordinated with India – in the year of elections are the least attractive option for Myanmar, it would rather agree on the second option. If Mr Khaplang agrees, it would appear that his strategy to provoke India has worked and that ignoring him is not a good idea.

The lesson from the Manipur episode is that the "keeping the lid on" strategy is not working and must be replaced with an outcome-oriented dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to find a political solution for the North East within 18 months of his government coming to power.

The political impasse in J&K is due to third party intervention, which is not the case in the North East. In both places, the security forces have created an environment conducive towards a political settlement. By allowing the stalemate to continue the government is placing the soldiers in a pincer – onslaught on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act by civil society groups and attacks by insurgents and cross border terrorists.


Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta  is founder member of the Defence Planning Staff – now the Integrated Defence Staff – of the Ministry of Defence.