Homeland Security

Insurgency in The Northeast: Is there Light at the End of the Tunnel?
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Issue Vol. 31.4 Oct-Dec 2016 | Date : 17 Dec , 2016

Politico – Military Synergy – Necessary Steps

In any society, especially which is in turmoil, the ‘Centre of Gravity’ are the people. The focus, therefore, must be on them – their perceptions, aspirations, sense of isolation, deprivation, alienation or grievances that need to be addressed. Regrettably, while seeking solutions to these complex problems we tend to ignore them and only consider issues put forth by the insurgents. To be able to achieve resolution of the problem, the state has to function in a transparent, non-partisan and credible manner. To that extent, a rejuvenated, conscientious, dedicated and competent bureaucracy has to be in place to ensure effective administration, which is unfortunately lacking in most of the states in the region, due to a variety of reasons.

The manner in which events over the past decade have been handled by the Centre have only strengthened the perception of adversaries that India is ‘soft’ state.

The problem in the Northeast is complex and has various dimensions – ethnic, cultural socio-economic and security. It is thus axiomatic that the solution cannot be found by one particular ministry at the Centre. The Development of the North-Eastern Region (DONER) Ministry is constituted for and focused on development in the Northeast region, Development does address some of the aspects stated above, but does not deal with security issues. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) deals with security matters and forces deployed for Counter Insurgency (CI) operations in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur ALO and Tripura. There is thus a definite disconnect in perceptions and comprehension of the situation at the Centre between the ‘decision makers’ (MHA) and the executors (Army formations deployed in various states). The Army HQ functions through the MOD, however the latter is only on ‘listening watch’ as ‘internal security’ is the preserve of the MHA! The harsh truth is that there is hardly any ‘Politico-Military Synergy’ at the Centre.

Consequently, a similar lacuna exists at the state level where the Army is considered to be for “Aid to Civil Authority” and not a part of the ‘Decision Making Process’. If synergy is to be achieved, there has to be a change in the mindset of the ‘Politico Bureaucratic’ hierarchy, to allow the army to be a part of the organisation. This can only happen if the political leadership asserts itself and interacts with senior military officers directly sans the bureaucracy. To ensure implementation, this change must be effected at the Centre and only then will it percolate downwards. Till this systemic change is brought about, whatever synergy is being achieved at the Centre or the states is purely ‘personality oriented’ and contingent upon the ‘personal vibes’ between heads of various organisations – certainly not the best way to achieve synergy.

It is an accepted fact that there is no military solution to insurgency, but the military is an essential ingredient in the effort seeking a solution. Political consolidation must follow the success achieved by military operations against insurgents. It thus emerges that politico–military synergy is the sine quo non for a solution. Some aspects wherein synergy is mandatory to ensure that the CI efforts shall succeed are covered in succeeding paragraphs.

Establishment of Central Expert Security Group

India, like most other democracies is slow to react to developing internal threat. Weak resolve, political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles and the lack of inter-agency integration as well as cooperation, prevent the formulation of a clear aim, overall policy and plan. Besides, lack of in-depth knowledge at the Centre of the Northeast states afflicted with insurgency, has led to these problems being treated in a routine manner or merely as just another more issue. Mired in the routine, those dealing with it in the Ministry cannot visualise feasible solutions to the complex problems of the region; well-thought out measures or responses, are exceptions.

With reasonably large number of officers available from the Army, Police, Para Military Forces (PMF), bureaucracy and academia who have grassroots knowledge, a selected expert group needs to be set up by the Centre to evolve policy(s), so as to achieve conflict resolution. Retired personnel, if any, can be appointed on a contractual basis. This group must be empowered to take decisions and direct measures to be taken. It must not be an adjunct of the Northeast desk of MHA. It should be under a separate minister for the Northeast or perhaps be an adjunct of the DONER Ministry. Though this group would be a part of the Central Government, it should be located within the Northeast region.

In response to a possible argument that the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) already exists for the purpose, it needs to be stated that the NSAB has a vast canvas to cover and its members may not have requisite knowledge of the Northeast region. Besides, the NSAB is only an advisory body and has no executive powers, whereas the expert group being recommended will be able to address issues specific to the Northeast and facilitate resolution of problems.

Establishing “Unified Command”

After protracted efforts by the Army, the concept of ‘Unified Command’ has been accepted and set up to tackle insurgency in Assam and Manipur. The set-up in Assam called the ‘Strategic Group’, is headed by the Chief Secretary and functions under the state bureaucracy in violation of the concept. Bereft of political involvement and direction, the organisation suffers from bureaucratic hassles and inefficiency. The ‘Operational Group’ is headed by General Officer Commanding (GOC) 4 Corps.

In Manipur, the ‘Combined Headquarters’ has the Chief Minister as the Chairman whereas the ‘Strategic and Operational Group’ is headed by the Chief Secretary; the principle of operational control by the lead agency to synergise operations, has been ignored thus negating the intended benefits of the concept. Besides, functionally, the Chief Minister has delegated authority to the Chief Secretary with its concomitant fall-outs. Until and unless the state-level political leadership gets actively involved and oversees the functioning, ‘Unified Command’ will continue to remain a mere concept and not achieve its stated objectives.

Synergy Between Various Intelligence Organisations

The lack of synergy between the Army and various civil organisations in the conduct of CI operations is the most glaring weakness in the realm of intelligence. Lack of coordination and cooperation has come about, as each agency tends to pursue its own agenda by withholding information and indulging in ‘one-upmanship’, at times even at the cost of larger gains. Though the Unified Command has an ‘intelligence group’ as part of its organisation, the functioning is well below the desired standard. In the states without Unified Command, intelligence sharing is virtually non-existent.

Another major weakness in the process of acquiring, collating, analysing and disseminating intelligence information is the assessment, which is more generic than specific, to ensure a safe fall-back position for the authors of the intelligence. Total synergy amongst various intelligence agencies, be it civil or military, is the only way actionable intelligence can be provided to seriously impair operational capabilities of insurgent groups. Such a change can only come about if the political leadership allows these agencies to perform their primary tasks unhindered and instead provides positive directions for implementation of CI measures.

Information Warfare

In this age of ‘information explosion’, the insurgent groups are techno-savvy and use all available means to spread disinformation, propaganda, unleash psychological warfare to demoralise the state apparatus and create a feeling of despondency in the public. The Army has been making efforts to counter such propaganda to negate efforts of the insurgents. Regrettably, these are not being supported by the state apparatus viz., the publicity department or the Press Information Offices. These organisations can bridge gaps in language, dialects, cultural and social aspects.

Besides, a synergised public information and counter propaganda initiative aimed at the common man is necessary. In this effort, the state machinery has an important role to play. Unfortunately, this segment of the state government apparatus is only utilised for collecting data for publishing in the Annual Reports of achievements of the state government and may be some routine brochure/pamphlets and does not contribute to the CI effort. There is a requirement of setting up a Psychological Operations Cell by the state government in concert with the local Army formation. A synergised effort in this regard will be a force multiplier for the CI effort and pay handsome dividends, since the common man does not have access to information except that put out by the vernacular media, which is a mouthpiece of the insurgent groups.

Development Projects

As highlighted earlier, only an insignificant amount of financial largesse given by the Centre is actually utilised for development due to corruption. Besides, there is no audit or accountability of the expenditure by the state government of funds provided by the Centre for specific development projects. As no benefits of the development projects reach the masses, it leads to a feeling of neglect and further alienation. The states invariably misrepresent facts and blame the Centre for the lack of development. In some cases, the state administration may not be able to reach out to projects in far-flung areas to ensure smooth execution and monitor progress. Politico-military cooperation can certainly provide an avenue to ensure successful completion of such projects as Army units/sub-units are located almost everywhere and can certainly help in monitoring progress and providing accurate feedback. This is only feasible if details of all such projects are shared with the Army; a step which the state authorities are loath to take. A joint approach in this regard will not only accelerate development per se with its concomitant spin-offs but will also assuage the feelings of the masses to some extent.

Institutionalised Mechanism to Obtain Inputs

Over a period of time, it has been observed that whenever required, the MHA summons the Chief Secretary and the Director General Police of the concerned state to obtain inputs on various current issues or incidents. However, no direct inputs are taken from the Army in the state, even if the incident involves them. It must be appreciated that the Army is as much involved in tackling the problem and in fact has primacy in the conduct of operations. There is thus the necessity of evolving an institutionalised system of obtaining inputs from the Army as well. This would imply that if and when the Centre requires an update or inputs related to an ongoing issue or incident in an insurgency environment, the Army Officer at the helm of affairs in the State would also be part of team.

To those skeptical of this setting a wrong precedent, it merits mention that an arrangement already exists wherein IGAR (N), who is the Major General in-charge of all troops deployed in Nagaland, attends talks between the Government and the NSCN (IM) at Delhi, with the ADGMO (A), Army HQ also present. A similar system can thus be institutionalised wherever required. Besides giving definite impetus to politico-military synergy, it will enable inputs to the authorities at the Centre and facilitate decision making.

Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)

When under pressure due to operations by security forces, the insurgents and their sympathisers invariably raise the bogey of Human Rights (HR) violations and seek abrogation of the so called ‘draconian’ AFSPA. It merits mention that the AFSPA can only be imposed after the state government has promulgated the Disturbed Area Act (DAA) in whole or part of the state. This provision is reviewed every six months. In case the state or Central Government does not promulgate the DAA, the AFSPA becomes inoperative. Seven constituencies of Imphal town are outside the ambit of the DAA and consequently, the AFSPA since August 2004.

Notwithstanding the above, it is imperative to have legal provisions to provide protection to the troops conducting CI operations, be it in the form of AFSPA or Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, suitably amended or any other legal provision. Without such provisions, troops will not be able to undertake any operations against insurgents, but will only be on the defensive and reactive, which is operationally unacceptable. Needless to state that those found guilty of HR violations must be dealt with in a transparent manner and speedily.

Imposition of the AFSPA is a political decision. However, politicians of the concerned state continue to find the AFSPA a handy tool to beat the SF publicly. Paradoxically, in private, they state that it should not be revoked. With divergent views emerging from various organs of the state, insurgents exploit the AFSPA issue through the media; the security forces have to bear the flak, even in case of false allegation. No support is ever forthcoming to the Army from the state polity. Instead politicians of the ruling party also are known to exploit even false incidents to score brownie points. If there is politico-military synergy on this issue, unwarranted conflagrations can be averted and false propaganda by insurgents and their sympathisers negated.

Government’s Stance: Position of Strength

The manner in which events over the past decade have been handled by the Centre, be it the hijack of IC 814, the killing of BSF personnel by Bangladesh Rifles or response to the Chinese aggressive diplomatic posturing or others, have only strengthened the perception of adversaries that India is ‘soft’ state. The Government did not even take a well-considered stand on the issue of ‘Nagalim’ initially and have been vacillating thereafter, causing periodic turbulence in Manipur.

The impression that India is a ‘soft state’ needs to be dispelled by the Government by demonstrating its resolve, politically, diplomatically and militarily. The Government must deal with the insurgents from a position of strength. To this end, India must have a clear stance on sanctuary and support to the insurgent groups by neighbouring countries and must retain the option of an armed response besides coercive diplomacy. Setting up of an expert group as suggested, will also be an indication of the nation’s resolve to deal with the situation in the Northeast and positive indicators of achieving politico-military synergy.

Illegal Immigration

Immigration of large numbers illegally from Bangladesh into Assam, Tripura and West Bengal, has resulted in a demographic inversion in the border districts of these states. A fall-out of this has been sprouting of madrassas and illegal settlements in the vicinity of the border with their concomitant security implications. This potential security threat is regrettably being ignored for short-term political gains. If not tackled with urgency, this is a handy tool for elements inimical to India to exploit for destabilisation of the region and eventually for balkanisation of the country. Besides revamping the immigration set up at the border, there is a need to examine the issue of work permits and enabling legal provisions need to be promulgated to deal with this menace. Politico–military synergy on this issue is indispensible to eradicate insurgency in the Northeast.

Countering Foreign Elements

Support to insurgent groups including setting up of camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh, is an incontrovertible fact of involvement of foreign elements. Despite intensified diplomatic efforts, there has been no change in the situation on the ground. This is another area where politico-military synergy is vital. Governments in both these countries are being controlled by the Military. It would thus be prudent to allow the Indian Army to increase interaction with the military of Bangladesh, Myanmar and the PLA, in addition to the renewed diplomatic efforts. In case of persistent denials and in view of their aggressive behavior with BSF in the past, India must exhibit resolve by launching precision strikes by Special Forces on camps of IIGs in Bangladesh. .

There are a number of other issues such as revamping and rejuvenating the state bureaucracy and administration; strengthening, modernising and training of the state police force(s) to tackle insurgents, accountability of the state developmental institutions and others.


Mired in appalling under-development, with the rise of ‘underground’ economy comprising smuggling, extortion, fake currency, arms smuggling, drug trafficking, the Northeast finds itself trapped in its economic backwardness. Insurgent groups have also shed the veil of ideology and are indulging in criminal activities. It is high time the local politicians also accept responsibility and develop a stake in the development in their states, rather their own and resist from continuously pointing a finger for all their ‘ills’ at New Delhi.

The importance of Northeast must not be ignored because the region is highly susceptible to external influences and its destabilisation can lead to the balkanisation of the country. In order to achieve conflict resolution, political consensus across party lines is essential so as to formulate a cogent and implementable strategy. As on today, at the executive end, all organs of the respective states are engaged in pursuing their own agenda at the cost of the national aim. The main shortcomings are lack of cooperation, coordination and synergy amongst major organs of the state dealing with the problem.


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The underlying issue is absence of faith in the Army by the political leadership and the bureaucracy due to vested interests of the latter. Till the government does not share their perceptions related to security issues at the apex level with the hierarchy of the armed forces, signaling a change in their attitude towards them, the Army regrettably will not be able to deliver and not because of inability but because of the denial of opportunity to do so. It is therefore, my earnest appeal to the powers that be that if ‘Conflict Resolution’ in the Northeast is the desired end state, let the Army be a party to arriving at a solution and not use it merely as in ‘aid to civil authority’ mode of yesteryears.

It must be realised that the North Eastern Region is India’s near abroad – both in physical and mental aspects. India’s policy seems to be to internalise the issue and to seek political accommodation for it rather than to have a strategic construct. As a result, we have failed to realise the impact of peripheral states on politics, economics, demographics and security. Our ‘Look East’ policy needs to actually start from our Northeast.

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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

Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal, PhD

served in the Regiment of Artillery and was awarded a Doctorate for his research & thesis on "Sino-Indian Relations".

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