Intelligence agencies attribute these attacks to the involvement of Chinese agencies and their efforts to bring together the militant groups in the northeast under one umbrella.
Ceasefires are like tea breaks in the northeast. They give just enough time to reload and take aim. On June 4, a group of 15 men of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) aimed well at a convoy of the Indian Army at Moltung in Chandel district in Manipur, killing 18 soldiers and injuring 15. Though the militant group had broken the ceasefire agreement in March, the attack hurt the Army badly—it instantly launched a massive operation in Manipur and Nagaland. That, however, fell short as the terrorists had crossed the border into Myanmar.
India's counterattacks usually end there. This time, however, the government started negotiating with Myanmar on hunting the terrorists in the neighbour's territory. Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag flew down to Manipur to review the preparedness of the troops for operations across the border. Military Intelligence operatives got specific intelligence about terrorist camps in Myanmar. On June 9, the Army moved out its 21 Para Special Forces in armed helicopters outside its territory. An officer told THE WEEK that the four-hour operation culminated in the total destruction of terror camps the Army had targeted.
Making an official announcement about the cross-border operation, Major-General Ranbir Katoch of the military operations branch said the Army had information about more attacks planned on its troops by militants involved in the June 4 onslaught. “In view of the imminent threat, an immediate response was necessary,” he said. “Based on intelligence, we conducted operations to counter these planned assaults. The Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the India-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders.”
While the Army might have salvaged some of its pride with the cross-border raid, it has many reasons to remain worried. The ambush by the NSCN(K) was executed with brutal precision. According to a Military Intelligence officer who has served in Nagaland, the success rate of this group in ambushes is 100 per cent.
And, on June 4, some lapses from the security forces clearly made the militants' job easier. They identified a battalion, which was on its way out of the state, and struck so hard that many of the dead bodies were charred and difficult to be identified. “This was a grave violation of the standard operating procedure, as the Assam Rifles unit responsible for clearing the road for movement of the Army and other security forces could not detect an improvised explosive device planted on the road,” said a lieutenant general.
In areas where the Army is deployed for counter-insurgency operations, a road-opening party checks for presence of militants and explosives on the route prior to the movement of troops. The Assam Rifles troopers missed the presence of the militants who had taken positions on the either side of the road. Also, the attack was not without warning. A few days earlier, the Army and Assam Rifles had busted terrorist hideouts in Manipur and Nagaland, and recovered heavy ammunition and IED materials.
There has been an increase in the frequency of militant activities in the northeast. In fact, an Assam Rifles unit commanding officer was recently removed from his post for his inability to check it. Intelligence agencies attribute these attacks to the involvement of Chinese agencies and their efforts to bring together the militant groups in the northeast under one umbrella.
A police officer said the Chinese People's Liberation Army ran camps in Myanmar. He was privy to the disclosure by an arrested militant. “He said, while he was at a camp, a Chinese army man gave a demo on how to make a pressure bomb,” said the officer. The materials required to make a pressure bomb were seized from the militant.
The umbrella group is said to be under the leadership of S.S. Khaplang, chairman of the NSCN(K), and has presence in all states in the region. The recent attacks in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh bore the signatures of an inter-state organisation with external help. Troops on the ground are wary of the challenges such a unified group could pose. “There can be close coordination among all northeast insurgent groups and they can carry out joint operations. They have become more dangerous,” said an officer.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been advised by fellow ministers to tighten the noose on the Army, which has been seen taking sides in the factional fight of terrorist groups in the past few years. According to a Military Intelligence officer, the NSCN(K) was at the receiving end of the Army operations even before it broke the ceasefire with the government last March. Not long ago, however, it shared a better equation with the government than the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), the other prominent Naga group. The NSCN(IM) had the backing of the Chinese agencies, said a Military Intelligence officer.
Militancy is an industry in the northeast. “The groups are into extortion and that industry is thriving,” said Lieutenant General Rameshwar Roy, former chief of the Assam Rifles. He said it was high time the government started looking at finding political solutions for the insurgency, rather than just keeping the terror outfits engaged in talks and temporary ceasefires.
Ceasefires, in fact, are dreaded by the troops on the ground. “It is a difficult situation for us. We are generally made target during the period,” said a soldier of the IV Corps, which is headquartered in Tezpur, Assam. And, the militants do not abstain from extortions and other illegal activities during ceasefires, making it tough for the security forces to maintain law and order.
However, R.S. Panday, India’s former interlocutor for peace talks with the Nagas, does not agree with the security forces. “When the ambush took place in Manipur, the ceasefire was not in existence,” he said. “The talks broke down in March and then ceasefire could not be renewed. There are only two options for the government. Either engage with them and arrive at a solution through talks or fight them out. But, neither way the government has succeeded so far.”