Homeland Security

Counter-Insurgency Operations in Northeast - I
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Issue Book Excerpt: Lost Opportunities | Date : 05 Jun , 2011

Prior to 20th century guerrilla warfare was regarded as purely military form of conflict. It was the weapon of the weak against the strong. The guerrillas employed ‘hit and run’ tactics against their adversaries. This form of warfare was also applied to the role of irregular troops acting as partisans in support of conventional forces. Guerrilla warfare as a means to wage war came into prominence in the last century against colonial occupation.

In the middle of the last century, guerrilla war took a new characteristic when political factors were grafted on irregular military tactics.1 Dissident groups initially in minority and weaker than authorities, would seek power through a combination of subversion, propaganda and military action in the form of guerrilla warfare. The process came to be termed insurgency.2 After the World War II insurgencies became the major threat to governments all over the world.

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Contrary to experience, regular soldiers in most democratic armies believe that they exist primarily to fight conventional wars. Between 1960 and 63 John F Kennedy identified communist inspired insurgency as the predominant threat to American interests. Kennedy’s National Security Action Memorandum No 124 of January 18, 1962 saw insurgency as a major form of politico-military conflict equal in importance to conventional warfare.3 Modern British doctrine is heavily based on North-West Europe campaign of 1944-45. Yet, out of 94 separate operational commitments between 1945-1982, only 14 were not in some form of low intensity conflicts.

The army was called out in Nagaland to quell insurgency in 1956, and since then it has been involved in counter-insurgency operations not only there but in almost all of North-east in an ever widening area of operations.

Indeed, the British Army’ only significant recent conventional experience has been 35 months of participation in the Korean War (1950-1953) when only five infantry battalions were deployed at any one time, followed by 10 days at Suez in 1956 and 24 days of land campaign in the Falklands in 1982 and 100 hours of land operation in the Gulf (1990-1991).4 The second Gulf War in Iraq has already turned into an insurgent war.

The Indian experience has been mixed. Soon after Independence the army fought a bitter war against the newly created state of Pakistan over Kashmir (1947-1948), followed by a short war of 21 days in 1965, once again over Kashmir, and finally the war with Pakistan in December 1971, lasting not more than a fortnight, but with a decisive victory over Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of yet another state – Bangladesh. In 1962, the Indian Army fought a border war with China, which lasted for about a month in October-November, resulting in India’s humiliating defeat. But only a very small component of the Indian Army was involved in actual fighting. The air force was kept out of the war.

In the closing year of the 20th century, India once again fought a conventional border war with Pakistan on the line of control in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir, lasting six weeks. The war was confined to a geographical area and only two divisions of the army were involved in combat. As against the intermittent commitment in conventional wars, the Indian Army has been fighting insurgency almost continuously since Independence. The army was called out in Nagaland to quell insurgency in 1956, and since then it has been involved in counter-insurgency operations not only there but in almost all of North-east in an ever widening area of operations.

“¦the situation in the Punjab was brought under control in the early nineties, Kashmir was aflame with insurrection aided and abetted by Pakistan. The proxy war in Kashmir continues till today.

In 1984 the army was called out to restore order in the Punjab and launched the infamous Operation Bluestar, which led to virtual insurgency that was put down at great human and economic cost by the Punjab Police, assisted by the army and the para-military forces. By the time the situation in the Punjab was brought under control in the early nineties, Kashmir was aflame with insurrection aided and abetted by Pakistan. The proxy war in Kashmir continues till today.

In between nearly four divisions of the army were deployed in Sri Lanka to fight the insurgent LTTE in accordance with the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was finally pulled out in March 1990, but not before suffering about 1,100 dead and many more maimed for life in the fighting. The irony was that by the time the force was pulled out, it was detested not only by the LTTE but also by the Sri Lankan Government and the State Government of Tamil Nadu. The casualties suffered by the army in counter-insurgency operations far exceed the sum of figures in conventional wars.

Counter-insurgency operations have provided the staple operational fare for the Indian Army more than any other except, perhaps, the Israeli Army, and yet it has not received the attention it deserves. In most armies counter-insurgency operations are regarded unglamorous, where success cannot be easily measured in decisive battles won and results are not immediately visible. In the Indian Army this attitude is reflected in senior officers aspiring to command formations in areas where they have an opportunity to display their flair for large/small manoeuvres on maps and sand-models, which have lost much of their relevance in the changed world, or formations deployed for defence on the borders where there is little scope for experimentation or creativity.

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A few jockey to escape the daily rigours, hardships and uncertainties of a prolonged insurgent war. But the perspectives are changing and the role of the army is being re-defined. This is how General Shankar Roychowdhury, the former chief of the army and presently member of the Rajya Sabha, perceives the change: “ The proxy war sponsored by Pakistan in Kashmir and its linkages with insurgency and violence in the North-east and elsewhere in the country had involved us in direct and indirect battlefield contact with Pakistan for over a decade now. These externally supported low intensity conflicts had completely redefined the traditional perception of external and internal threats, as also the categorisation of primary and secondary roles of the army, which was the main force dealing with them.”5

Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Strategy

When Naga insurgency broke out in Nagaland in 1956, neither the Indian Army nor the political masters had any experience of dealing with such situations. There was no lack of goodwill for the hill tribes of the North-east amongst the policy-makers of Independent India, which was profoundly influenced by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Lal Nehru. Yet, when the unrest slowly spread to other parts and soon engulfed the whole of the North-east, the political leadership was slow to grasp the nature of insurgency and evolve a coherent policy, which took a tortuous path – from military solution to winning the hearts and minds of disaffected tribes.

“¦externally supported low intensity conflicts had completely redefined the traditional perception of external and internal threats, as also the categorisation of primary and secondary roles of the army”¦

Soon after Independence, Nehru enunciated what came to be called the ‘Tribal Panchsheel’: “People should develop along the lines of their own genius; Tribals rights in land and forest should be protected; train and build-up a team of their own people to administer and develop. Some technical help, from outside, will be needed. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal areas; we should not over administer the area and overwhelm them with too many schemes. Work through and not in rivalry to their (tribals) institutions. Judge results not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of human character that is involved.”7 The above broadly constituted the policy framework around which the development of the tribal areas was to be accomplished.

In a reversal of the British policy of keeping the hill tribes isolated from the mainstream of Indian life, Nehru was keen to develop national consciousness amongst the hill tribes of the North-east. There is a view that British deliberately kept the tribes isolated from the rest of the country to preserve them as ‘museum specimens.’ Verrier Elwin refutes this charge in his book ‘Nagaland’ and claims that this has no basis in fact. According to him, there was only one reason why the British did not bring the entire area under active administrative control: it was too much trouble.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig (Dr) SP Sinha

Brigadier (Dr) SP Sinha, VSM (Retd)

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