China fuelling insurgency in northeast: Lt General P.C. Nair, director-general, Assam Rifles

Exclusive Interview/ Lieutenant General P.C. Nair, director general, Assam Rifles

44-Lieutenant-General-Nair Lieutenant General P.C. Nair

Lieutenant General Pradeep Chandran Nair was the key person behind Operation Sunrise conducted across the Myanmar border in 2019, which targeted insurgent groups in the northeast. Back then, he was inspector general of Assam Rifles. He was made director general of the paramilitary force in June 2021. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, General Nair shared details about the unfolding crisis in Myanmar after the coup, and the threat India faces from the China-backed insurgency and drug trafficking in the northeast. Excerpts:
Q/ What is the situation on the Indo-Myanmar border?

 A/ The Indo-Myanmar Border (IMB) is 1,643km long, encompassing four states. We have a total of 46 battalions in Assam Rifles. In the northeast, connectivity is a major issue where all battalions cannot be employed only on a border-guarding role since we have a counter-insurgency role to play as well. The situation on the IMB is and has always been challenging given the terrain, weather and cross-border linkages that exist. 
Q/ How do you respond to the criticism that the Assam Rifles is not doing enough?

A/ Yes, at times, there is an opinion among certain sections that the Assam Rifles is not doing enough. But then these people hardly know about the challenges that exist on the IMB. It is forested, interspersed by mountains and a large part of it is riverine.

People say the border is porous. I say it is open. There is no border fence; all that exists are border pillars which are just two or three feet high. It is difficult to explain where India ends and Myanmar begins. Then, there are ethnic linkages between people on either side of the border. It is a legacy of our colonial past and people feel that they are connected like brothers and sisters. There are Nagas and Kukis on both sides, although they are known differently.

Under such difficult circumstances we are doing our duty to the best of our abilities, day and night.

Q/ Of 46 battalions, how many are engaged in guarding the border?
A/ Currently, 19 battalions are engaged in the border-guarding roles, and they cover 26,000 sq km of a total of 46,000 sq km being taken care of by the 46 battalions. Counter insurgency role for us is in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Tirap, Changlang and Longding (TCL) areas of Arunachal.    So, please understand the enormity of the task at hand.

Q/ But the Army is also deployed there for counter-insurgency operations alongwith Assam Rifles.
A/ Army is limited to a certain part in upper Assam. Rest of the Army, which was earlier deployed in counter-insurgency, is now rightfully deployed on the northern borders with China. So, we have taken up their areas in the northeast. In each battalion, one company has to be undergoing training all the time. This is a major challenge for us now, given the wider areas we have deployed now.

Q/ You have spoken about raising more battalions for the Assam Rifles.

A/ Ideally, we would have wanted 10 more battalions.  However, we understand that it may not be financially viable. The government is aware of the Chinese threat in the northeast in the form of conventional war and also in its capability to fuel insurgency. We have a legacy of fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Army in every war, besides performing the counter-insurgency role not only in the northeast, but also in Jammu and Kashmir and Sri Lanka. Clearly, the current and future challenges in the northeast make a case for us to have additional battalions.

Q/ Have you taken up the issue with the Union home minister or defence minister?

A/ Yes, since I took over, I have once again taken up the issue for more battalions for Assam Rifles. This is because the Army is unlikely to come back into the counter-insurgency role soon, given the situation at the Indo-China LAC. And the current situation in Myanmar clearly tells us that the border-guarding role for us will only increase in the coming days.

Q/ How has the coup in Myanmar affected India? What is the situation in Myanmar now?

A/ After the change of dispensation on February 21, large sections of people are huddling in the border areas to cross over to India. Around 12,000 have come in so far. Of that, about 10,000 are in Mizoram alone. Many have been sent back.

A national emergency was declared in September in Myanmar. People are protesting against the army there. They have formed groups. After September 7, when aerial bombardment took place close to our border, refugees became desperate and have since been trying to enter India. In the last one month, around 4,000 of them have arrived in Mizoram. However, more than half have been sent back by us.

Q/ Those who have come might have mixed with local people and could have moved to other parts of India by now.

A/ We are taking biometrics of all those people and are focusing on where they are entering India. In Guwahati, too, people were caught some time ago. Orders have been communicated to our men that these people are not supposed to enter India. We are not pushing them back, but we are convincing them to go back voluntarily.

Q/ Are you in touch with the Myanmar army?

A/ Our communication is institutionalised, starting from company level onwards. Physical interaction is not happening this year because of the pandemic. But telephonic conversations are happening. So, interaction has not stopped.

Q/ Is the Myanmar army supportive of India's cause?

A/ If you see from their perspective, their most peaceful border is with India. All others are disturbed borders, be it with Bangladesh, China, Thailand or Laos. They would not like their border with India also to be disturbed. It helps their cause also to be on good terms with us. During Operation Sunrise, a large number of Indian insurgents had to flee their camps in Myanmar after the Myanmar army undertook operations against them.

Q/ Are Indian insurgent groups taking advantage of the volatile situation in Myanmar?

A/ The only Naga group which is in confrontation now is the Yung Aung faction (NSCN (Khaplang-Yung Aung)). They too are now weakened after Niki Sumi surrendered with his people

Q/ You say Yung Aung targets Indian security groups. But his faction is said to have entered into an agreement with the Myanmar army, and he is not demanding inclusion of Nagaland into a greater Naga country (Nagalim) as Khaplang dreamt of.

A/ Yung Aung is an opportunist. He was a Manipuri and was picked up by Khaplang as a trusted confidant. The whole idea of NSCN (K) is having a Nagalim. So, he cannot be detached from that idea. But his major interests are in the business of gems and gold mining in Myanmar and pushing contrabands into India. He is, supposedly, also involved in supplying drugs into India. It is believed that NSCN (Khaplang-Yung Aung) gets 20 per cent of the share of profit from the contraband and narcotics traded illegally across the IMB.

Q/ What do you think of China’s interference in the northeast?

A/ The Chinese role has surely been there in funding and fuelling insurgency in the northeast. In China, the Communist Party acted strongly against drug addicts. The Chinese understood the significance of the money involved in illegal drug trade. So, they shifted it to the Golden Triangle (the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet). This is strategically more important for China [to hurt] Myanmar and India.

This is the place where the two rivers, Mekong and Ruak, meet, providing fertile land and ideal weather for poppy cultivation. Chinese men and intelligence officials are posted there. Back in the 1980s itself, China realised that apart from insurgents, they could make use of young drug addicts as well, just like the British made use of Chinese drug addicts.

Q/ What’s the epicentre of contraband and drug movement? Why is it yet to be brought down?

A/ Eighty-seven per cent of it takes place at Moreh in Manipur and the rest in Mizoram. On average, there is one police station for every 75km along the border. State governments say their focus is on insurgency. Besides, connectivity is a big hindrance to having adequate police stations. They cannot have a police station in isolated locations. So, as a result, smugglers on the other sides of the border are able to cross over or get the contraband across. We are the only hope for the people of the northeast. In 2019, the home minister said he would want additional 60 police stations in the northeast border states. Only three in Manipur have come up so far, and not one has come up in Nagaland and Mizoram. Assam Rifles need assistance from the local police as they have the power besides local intelligence.

All previous DGs have sought police power. Insurgents are entering through the open border. I am certain that if we get police powers, our achievements in arresting cross-border activities shall be much better. But I must tell you that on December 8, 2021, GoI has issued a gazette notification giving Assam Rifles the powers under sections 42 and 67 of NDPS Act to search the premises, seize drugs, detain persons who have committed the offences, and record their statements.

Q/ What is the role of the police here?

A/ Police can do a lot. They need to be physically present at the borders to help us. We are working with them to a lesser degree in Nagaland as far as counter-insurgency is concerned. But if I compare it with J&K, I think a lot can be done by the state police in the northeast. Most of the successes in Kashmir came because of extremely good understanding between Army and police.

Q/ Is Afghanistan involved in the China-Myanmar drug axis?

A/ No, not to our knowledge.

Q/ Trade in Myanmar is at its lowest because of the turbulence.

A/ Officially, there were exports worth Rs 390 crore and imports worth Rs 290 crore. But that is only four to five per cent of the actual illegal trade.  Ninety-five per cent of the illegal trade takes place through this border. There is illegal trade of at least Rs 9,000 crore happening across the Indo-Myanmar border. Contraband and narcotics constitute a large volume in terms of monetary value. One kilogramme of heroin costs about Rs 6 to 7 crore in the illegal market. Then there are wildlife products, areca-nuts, cigarettes and, at times, liquor.

Q/ With the pandemic hitting the economy and livelihood, how is your agency helping the people in distress in the border areas?

A/ The government is doing all it can and we as guardians of the northeast, act as facilitators. People in the remotest parts are not aware of the Army but know Assam Rifles. We ensure all central projects reach them wherever there is no local or state government’s presence.

We also help people by getting them recruited in our force and in the Army. Early this year, 900 women were recruited and a large number of them are from the northeast. All my three Inspector Generals pick up the brightest among the youth here. Training them and helping them get admission in Sainik schools, top colleges and universities across India is also a priority for us.

We have also been holding medical camps and have undertaken 23 projects worth Rs 27 lakh. Absence of adequate health centres is a major problem in the northeast. So, we build up on the health facilities of the civil administration that already exist. Instructions have also been given to take care of ex-servicemen of both Army and Assam Rifles.

Q/ Can you see light at the end of the tunnel as far as the ULFA is concerned?

A/ ULFA(I) has extended the ceasefire by another three months. The UG group is on the backfoot now and I do hope that the group comes over ground and joins the peace process. It will surely help ensure peace and prosperity in Assam and the northeast.

Q/ But ULFA(I) chief Paresh Barua is in Chinese shelter.

A/ Yes, the Chinese use him as a hedge. If that was not the case, there is no way he could have survived this long.

Q/ Naga talks are going on. Almost all groups have declared a ceasefire. But still there are several ceasefire violations. Why?

A/ Extortion by the Naga groups started in 1947. Then the NNC needed funding and thus voluntary contributions started. It became a matter of pride for every family to pay donations for the ‘Naga cause’. Over the years, the purpose of collection and utilisation of that money changed. It created millionaires from the unabated extortion, which is termed by the Naga groups as ‘Taxation’. Groups like ACAUT (Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation) created some hope. But, ACAUT seems to have lost its way. However, I think civil organisations like ACAUT is the way forward. Extortion is still happening and is streamlined. Today, it happens through bank transactions. If those being extorted or taxed don’t pay, the armed cadres will come with AKs. Almost every day, Assam Rifles is arresting such people. But the common man continues to pay and suffer.

State government and police have to be more visible. The same thing applies in Manipur. Maximum extortion takes places where AFSPA has been withdrawn (the 33 sq km in Imphal valley), which is also called the de-notified area. Realisation has to dawn on the common people. We cannot always protect them from intimidation. That is the job of the police.

As far as the ceasefire is concerned, it is something very challenging to enforce. All we can do is report ceasefire violations to the chairman of the ceasefire monitoring group. Can we book them if they violate rules? No, it has to be a police case, and police should book them for carrying a weapon.

Q/ Seven jawans, and an officer and family, were ambushed recently by the PLA and the newly formed MNPLF.

A/ At this stage, I think we should be, and are more, focused on catching the perpetrators of this heinous crime. Never have a lady and child been targeted like this and I can assure you that these perpetrators shall not go scot-free.

Q/ Colonel Tripathy was on duty. Could his wife and child accompany him to a secluded post?

A/ He was also visiting a village next to the post to meet the head of the village. It is part of our job. In this case, the head of the village is a woman. So, he would have taken his family with him in order to have better communication. Remember, we have a long history of carrying out people-centric civic action programmes.

Q/ What do you have to say about the unfortunate incidents that happened in Nagaland’s Mon district on December 4 and 5?

A/ Like you rightly said, those were very unfortunate incidents. I would term them as aberrations. The history of Assam Rifles is intertwined with the northeast. We have grown together. As regards the incident, it was a case of mistaken identity. A high-level inquiry headed by a major general is commencing soon.

The incident of December 5, when our post was attacked by a violent mob, was also unprecedented.  I do compliment my men on the post, the sector commander and the commandant of the battalion who maintained restraint of the highest order, resulting in minimal casualties to civilians, despite a great degree of provocation and damage suffered by our post. I cannot think of any such parallel in India’s long fight against insurgency either in the northeast or in Jammu and Kashmir.

Q/ The demand for doing away with the Armed Forces (Special Powers Act) has gained traction again.

A/ It is for the government to decide, but I do hope you understand the compulsions that we face in a counterinsurgency environment.