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Opinion

June 19, 2015

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Perils of covert operations

The debate over the June 9 raids by the Indian Army’s Special Forces against two northeastern insurgent groups on Myanmarese territory has produced two main reactions. The first, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diehard supporters, is triumphalist; it trumpets the operation’s “great” success. The second reaction defends covert operations in principle, but believes that publicising them is unwise, even self-defeating.
The first view’s proponents defend bellicose rhetoric and hashtags like #ManipurRevenge and #56inRocks used by junior information minister Rajyavardhan Rathore. They hold it was necessary to publicise the operation’s details – against military rules – because India must send out a signal not just to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), but to all the “hostile elements in the neighbourhood” that its national security approach has undergone a sea-change under its “56-inch-chest” leader, who wants to end “a thousand years of servility masquerading as civility”.
This argument is puerile. It comprehensively misunderstands both history– India as we know it was not one nation for a thousand years – and contemporary geopolitics. Military machismo and cross-border adventures aren’t the chosen means through which nation-states express strategic confidence. And it’s not by violating their neighbouring states’ sovereign borders that they build healthy relations with them, which are key to their own security.
After the Khaplang faction killed 18 of India’s Dogra Regiment troops on June 4 in Manipur, India could have conducted a joint operation against the Naga guerrillas with the Myanmar army, with which it has had good relations even during the long years of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s detention.
India entered into ceasefire agreements with both the Isak-Swu-Thuingaleng-Muivah (IM) and Khaplang factions of the NSCN in 1997 and 2001. It had ample opportunity to renew the ceasefire with

Myanmar-based Khaplang which ended in March.
Alternatively, it could have roped in Naga civil society groups to persuade Khaplang to explore peace with India. Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang has said such groups have the requisite credibility. Indian intelligence agencies did neither. They failed to keep the Manipur and Nagaland governments in the loop, and ignored the new emerging coalition between Khaplang, ULFA and tiny Meitei and Bodo factions, which launched the June 4 attack.
India’s retaliation was hastily conceived. It attacked rebel bases close to the border for ‘political’ reasons – and not because they harboured large numbers of insurgents. Contradictory claims were made about the number killed: 20, 50, even 100; but only seven bodies were recovered, according to The Indian Express.
India says it informed the Myanmar government, which is in hot denial that it allowed its territory to be used by Indian troops, as any government would. It wasn’t impossible for India to negotiate a joint operation with the Myanmarese army to flush out the militants, as it has done in Bhutan and Bangladesh.
The main reason why India didn’t even try is the Modi government’s jingoism and its domination by super-hawks like National Security Adviser AK Doval, and defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who believe in cloak-and-dagger methods – eg ‘neutralising’ one terrorist with another terrorist.
Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau director, is a firm believer in coercion rather than diplomacy to resolve external security problems and domestic ethnic conflicts. He’s on record as saying that peaceful co-existence between India and Pakistan is virtually impossible.
Imagine the implications: both countries are nuclear-armed, with such close geographical proximity between them that a nuclear exchange would lead to large-scale devastation and irreversible climatic change in the region. As South Asia’s post-Pokharan-II history suggests, escalation of conventional war rhetoric can potentially lead to nuclear sabre-rattling, with consequences too horrifying to contemplate.
The second, more sober, reaction argues against chest-thumping jingoism. It recommends discretion: let covert operations speak for themselves; don’t talk about them and reveal your hand to your adversaries. But it says a modern state cannot do without deception, skulduggery and lawless conduct in exceptional circumstances.
Implicit here are three assumptions: first, covert operations are usually successful in neutralising asymmetrical threats from insurgents or terrorists; second, it’s legitimate for states to use extreme/inhuman methods like summary execution in special circumstances; and third, democratic states know where to draw the line; once the moment of crisis has passed, they can return to normal political-social negotiation processes.
All three assumptions are open to question. Take India’s own experience. In the 1950s, India collaborated with the CIA in training and arming Tibetan guerrillas to instigate the so-called Khampa Rebellion against China. The CIA abandoned the operation in 1969 after sacrificing thousands of Tibetans. India earned China’s hostility, with dire consequences, revealed in 1962.
An even more dangerous CIA-sponsored covert operation was launched in 1965 to place espionage equipment energised by a plutonium power-pack on the Nanda Devi peak to monitor Chinese nuclear activities. An avalanche prevented its placement. It has remained untraceable, raising fears of radioactive contamination of glaciers, and eventually, the Ganga.
In 1987, India in another covert operation air-dropped “humanitarian” aid in northern Sri Lanka, imposing the India-Sri Lanka accord on that government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. India’s ‘peace-keeping’ operation lost it 1,200 soldiers – more than in all other wars – and invited the LTTE’s revenge through Rajeev Gandhi’s assassination.
There are countless stories of sophisticated western covert operations having gone sour, including drone-bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Major protracted conflicts aren’t decided by small-scale operations, but by strategic foresight and astute diplomacy.
Secondly, it’s difficult to draw the line between military attacks calculated to kill, and methods like torture, hostage-taking and fake encounters. They are all rationalised in the name of ‘compulsion’, necessity to deter further attacks, or choosing ‘the lesser evil’ in a one-time exception. They form a slippery ethical slope, which permits increasingly brutal acts; ultimately, all limits collapse.
If torturing one person saves a hundred lives, wouldn’t that be justified? This argument may seem attractive, but it’s dangerously wrong. Not only does it violate the right to life; it often produces unreliable or false results which might lead to yet more gratuitous violence by security agencies.
By indulging in gross human rights violations, the state undermines its own claim to following a higher principle or legality and loses popular legitimacy. That’s why ‘fake’ encounters cause more resentment and add to the pool of discontent and grievances that feed extremism.
In Mizoram, the Indian state created Malaya-Vietnam-style ‘strategic hamlets’ by grouping villages under the threat of the gun. In Nagaland, Manipur and Assam too, it waged war on its own people. This bred more resentment and fuelled militancy. The more ruthlessly the militancy was repressed, the greater were the civilian casualties. For instance, hundreds of civilians were dehumanised through torture, forced labour and arbitrary arrest in ‘Operation Loktak’ in 1999 in Manipur.
Finally, the state doesn’t know where to draw the line. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act was introduced in 1958 as a ‘temporary’ measure. It gives impunity to officers who kill anyone suspected of the intention to break the law. AFSPA continues to operate in Kashmir and most northeastern states barring Tripura.
The Myanmar raid forms part of the same vile pattern. This must end. For real long-term peace, India must talk to its own alienated citizens in good faith and without coercion.
The writer, a former newspapereditor, is a researcher and rightsactivist based in Delhi.
Email: [email protected]

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