The Manipur Ambush – and Beyond
Involvement of China and Pakistan in insurgencies and terrorism pan-India is not new. It has been enhanced and has become more proactive with strategic aim to destabilise India.
WHEN FOUR VEHICLES OF an army convoy were ambushed at 0830 hours on June 4 in Chandel district of Manipur, it was the worst terrorist ambush suffered by the army in past 33 years. 18 personnel of 6 Dogra were martyred when the forward two vehicles were blasted by IEDs and fired upon by RPG rockets and automatic fire. That the radical dynamics of the North East have undergone rapid change in recent years is established but the ambush certainly came as a surprise. The government asked the army to adopt proactive measures as there was volley of comments as to what had gone wrong and what corrective actions were needed to be adopted. While the NSCN (K) and KYKL owned responsibility, there was much more in the backdrop, to include the China-Pakistan nexus in fanning the North East insurgency and ISI sponsored jihadi outfits.
Involvement of China and Pakistan in insurgencies and terrorism pan-India is not new. It has been enhanced and has become more proactive with strategic aim to destabilise India and in the case of China somehow get to the Indian Ocean through the land route via India and Myanmar to establish a second oceanic front. Hence, Chinese illegal claims to Arunachal Pradesh as late as year 2005. China was arming, financing and training Naga rebels as early as 1960s albeit her focus on the North East increased with the progression of years. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s ISI continued to recruit illegal Bangladeshi Muslims in the North East, even as the ISI’s India nexus enacted the infamous Illegal Migrants (Determination of Tribunal) Act 1983 in Assam, making that state Muslim predominant. When the ULFA camps were routed from Bhutan, China gave ULFA shelter on Chinese soil. Some three years back four Chinese nationals were apprehended with fake Indian documents, on mission to reach the NSCN. There is every reason to believe that abrogation of the 14-year-old ceasefire by the NSCN (K) this year was on behest of China.
According to recent media reports quoting intelligence sources, nine militant groups including the NSCN (K) and the ULFA faction led by Paresh Baruah, came together to form the United National Liberation Front of WSEA (West South East Asia) in a meeting held at Taga in Sagaing (Myanmar) in April 2015 under active tutelage of Chinese intelligence. Chinese intelligence operatives are active in the Sagaing region and weapons are often shipped to the North-eastern groups through the China-Myanmar border. Khaplang, Chairman NSCN is to head the new grouping with ULFA’s Paresh Baruah playing a major role as well. Other groups that participated in the meeting were the Kangleipak Communist Party, Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, People’s Liberation Army, United National Liberation Front and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction). China has been supplying arms to PLA of Manipur and Indian Maoists, as also coordinating their joint training. Significantly, China has created her deadliest proxy in the United Wa State Army (UWSA), more lethal than the LTTE, headquartered in Shan State of Myanmar even arming them with missile fitted helicopters, in addition to assault rifles, machine guns, shoulder-fired air defence missiles and armoured vehicles.
The timing of the declaration of the United National Liberation Front of WSEA post the March 2015 abrogation of the 14-year-old ceasefire by NSCN (K) preceding Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China in May was perhaps a signal of unconventional belligerency. The Chinese have reportedly promised to provide weapons and logistics to the new grouping as they want to keep things boiling in the North East in view of their claim on the state of Arunachal Pradesh. If the NSCN (K) and KYKL (read Chinese sponsored United Liberation Front of WSEA) were behind the Manipur ambush against the army convoy, involvement of the ISI-LeT sponsored Islamic groups particularly the PULF (Peoples United Liberation Front) is also obvious since the ambush was planned timing it with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. In addition to the PULF, other Islamic radical groups active in Manipur are the Islamic Revolutionary Front (IRF), Islamic National Front (INF), United Islamic Revolutionary Army (UIRA) and United Islamic Liberation Army (UILA). At the same time, involvement of the western arms mafia too can hardly be ruled out taking into consideration the Purulia arms drop.
What Went Wrong
The easiest part is to put all blame on the unit that got hit. However a deeper analysis is required and must have already been done threadbare by the Army. As per media reports, the unit had completed its twoyear tenure and while the Second-in-Command had proceeded to the new location with the advance party, the CO too was on leave. Both CO and Second-in-Command being away together in counter-insurgency area is unusual but since the CO’s leave is sanctioned by the Brigade Commander, there must have been valid reasons. The ambushed vehicles, as per media, were supposedly carrying personnel proceeding on leave. Yes, the ROP should have been effective but the operations in these areas as compared to in J&K need to be viewed in the following context: quantum of troops available for ROP in order to sanitise areas both sides of the road, who was responsible for the ROP; what time did the ROP come into place considering the ambush was sprung at 0830 hours; are mine protected vehicles (MPVs) moving with the ROP and convoys – appears not; are hand-held metal detectors and IED detection equipment available to road opening parties; what is the surveillance and communication interception capability available to the units deployed in the North East, and the like. The weapons used by the terrorists, according to some reports, had US markings. So in all probability these were supplied by the China-Pakistan conduit. It is to the credit of the ambushed party that despite the ferocity of fire from multiple directions, they terrorists left at least one dead body behind albeit the injured managed to escape.
The most significant failure was that of intelligence, which always happens in such instances. Despite clear indication of increasingly active involvement of Chinese intelligence and Pakistan’s ISI in the North East, were we adequately prepared and troops forewarned beyond routine RAW and IB warnings? Similar was the case in the Kargil intrusions too. At the higher level, lack of technical cross border intelligence was also deliberately stymied by the previous Central Government, ostensibly under pressure from the arms and narcotics mafia, and even perhaps under pressure from the ISI through blackmail to some political biggies having used hawala to siphon out money, as indicated by some veteran RAW officials. It is for this reason that the Technical Support Division (TSD) of the Army which was giving excellent cross border intelligence was disbanded when the Manmohan Singh Government prematurely retired Army Chief General V.K. Singh under a mischievously contrived date of birth controversy, even as the Supreme Court judgement only left the decision to the Government of India (GoI) and never blamed the General to be in the wrong. In the aftermath of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, another TSD was to be raised with covert capabilities for counterstrike and effective deterrence, the first TSD having been highly successful; terror attacks, rioting in the Kashmir valley, ambushes in northeast, arms and narcotics through Myanmar were severely curtailed. TSD suddenly became a pain for ISI and western arms dealers. Therefore the enemy within (poiltico-bureaucratic mafia) swung into action supported by the media presstitutes. The TSD was shut down and plans for raising the second TSD scrapped; actions that actually amount to treason against the country. Ironically, the witch-hunt against the TSD officers is still on. Many articles have emerged asking for re-raising of the TSD but the government is yet to act. There is also speculation that it was the fear of loss of business of the narcotics and arms mafia that General V.K. Singh was made to handover the independent charge of North East on some other pretext that may have been conveyed to an unsuspecting Prime Minister.
India’s riposte through swift surgical strike at two camps inside Myanmar made international news. The raid was conducted by Special Forces supported by the IAF pursuant to credible and specific intelligence about further attacks that were being planned on Indian soil by the same groups that had undertaken the ambush in Manipur on June 4. The army statement reads that significant casualties have been inflicted on the terrorists. While no specifics were given in the army statement, media reports quoting official sources talked of terrorists killed numbering ranging from 20 to 50. The army also confirmed they had been in communication with the Myanmar authorities in this regard, there is history of close cooperation between the two militaries, and Indian Army looks forward to working with Myanmar Military for combating terrorism.
The raid on the terrorist camps across the border indicates the Modi Government’s resolve to deal with cross border terrorism effectively. It is the first time GoI has shown willingness to conduct pre-emptive strikes to curtail operational capabilities of insurgent groups. Some 1,000 of 1,500 NSCN (K) cadres are reportedly based in Myanmar. The existing insurgent camps in Myanmar reportedly number 61 as per latest TV news. The borders are also used for smuggling of arms and contraband by the militants.
Unconventional warfare and proxy wars having proved their strategic importance over other forms of conflict past decade, we must recognise that China and Pakistan have joined hands and resolved to destabilize India through terrorism and fanning insurgencies as proactively as possible. The China-ISI-Taliban-LeT nexus is targeting Afghanistan, Maldives, North India and South India, latter sitting on a dormant tinder box. North East India is a strategic objective for China to annex Arunachal Pradesh and reach out to the Indian Ocean, in conjunction Myanmar. Our Special Forces raids on terrorist camps in Myanmar no doubt have sent out salutary message on all fronts. But then within Myanmar there are 61 such camps and next time, the terrorists organisations will be on better lookout. Chinese and Pakistani intelligence may even supply these outfits with shoulder fired air defence missiles. To that extent, our tactics for raid would have to be adjusted.
While the surveillance, communication interception and IED/mine detection and countermeasure capabilities of units in the area must be enhanced, the government would do well to immediately raise minimum two TSDs covering our land borders. One has to actually walk along the India-Myanmar to realise how rugged, thickly forested and difficult the terrain is, and more importantly the gaps between the posts along the border too have dense undergrowth that facilitates easy infiltration and smuggling especially in hours of darkness and inclement weather. The previous government was planning to replace the AR with BSF along the Indo-Myanmar border which mercifully the present NSA has ruled out. But what GoI should consider is to deploy BSF units to beef up the border defence but they should be placed under command the army like the AR, not repeating the mess created in Depsang and Chumar where the ITBP is not under command the army.
It is vital for the Modi Government to understand that while the recent Special Forces raids conducted against the two terrorist camps in Mynamar are a good beginning at the tactical level, we have to go all out at the strategic level to establish credible deterrence against unconventional and proxy wars unleashed by China and Pakistan. Threat from across the Myanmar border is just one part of the diabolical plan of our enemies. The call of sub-conventional has already been trumpeted by these countries loud and clear. It will be a folly not to ignore the war drums.