Homeland Security

C I Operations in the Northeast
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Issue Vol 21.2 Apr-Jun2006 | Date : 10 Jun , 2015

Patrolling of Indian Army soldiers in Insurgency Affected Area

Faced with Filipino insurgency after occupying the former Spanish colony, the American forces commanded by Arthur Macarthur, began to move the rural population into town in December 1900. In the province Batangas, Brigadier General Franklin Bell reconstructed 10,000 people in protective zones and destroyed all crops and livestock and buildings outside the protective zone.11

Drawing on the British experience in Malaya in the sixties, Indian Army tried the concept of grouping of villages as a means to isolate the rebels from the populace. It was tried out both in Nagaland and Mizoram. In Nagaland it was given up in the face of fierce opposition from moderate Nagas. In Mizoram the experiment produced mixed results. A study of the existing literature on the Indian experience leads one to conclude that such measures may have been acceptable means by colonial powers to quell insurgencies, but the fallout of adoption of such measures against own people is extremely contentious and repugnant particularly in times when human rights is a overriding concern.

The employment of Air Power

The use of air power against own people, even though they are hostiles, has always been a debatable choice. It also went against the established principle of minimum force. The Air Force was used in Nagaland for dropping supplies to beleaguered garrisons under threat from hostiles, but its use for strafing was quite another matter. In Nagaland and Mizoram air power was used defensively, even though for strafing rebel positions, in desperate situations as a last resort to save garrisons from being overrun by rebel forces.

Psy ops are powerful weapon in the hands of protagonists in any insurgent warfare. The Naga insurgents scored hands down over the administration and the Army in the conduct of psy ops.

Air strafing was resorted to in Nagaland at Purr and in Mizoram at Aizwal and Lungleigh to save the Assam Rifles posts from being run over by insurgents. Since 1960s, helicopters have been used extensively for movement of troops, casualty evacuation and reconnaissance as integral part of counter-insurgency operations, but the offensive use of air power has seldom been seriously considered.

Political and Diplomatic Initiatives

Counter-insurgency operations are politico-military in nature. Political mobilisation and military operations are undertaken side by side to achieve lasting results. In the context of north-east insurgencies, political initiatives have been taken at two levels, internal and external. At the internal level, negotiations have resulted in accords that granted greater political and economic autonomy to the disaffected tribes. At the external level, political and diplomatic steps have been taken to deny safe sanctuaries to the insurgents in neighbouring countries.

For example, movement of insurgent groups have been restricted by increased cooperation between Indian and Myanmar security forces. In the winter of 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army destroyed UlFA and Bodo camps, which had been in existence for over a decade in the jungles of southern Bhutan bordering Assam, thus forcing the insurgents to flee. But the Indian diplomatic effort to forge a mutually advantageous security and economic relationship with Bangladesh has been largely unsuccessful. The continued influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh poses a grave threat to India’s security.

Re-Organising of Infantry Battalions for Counter-Insurgency Operations

One of the earliest attempts to reorganise the infantry battalions for counter-insurgency tasks was the creation of I Battalions in the 1960s by converting some of the existing battalions drawn from some selected regiments. These units were to be permanently deployed in the Naga Hills and Tuensang Area with their personnel being periodically turned over from within their respective regiments.12

The I Battalions were to be lightly equipped having minimal motor transport but more radio sets. The battalions did good work but the experiment was given up for unknown reasons. The idea was revived again in the early 90s when the requirement of forces for internal security duties increased dramatically due to enhanced threat posed by Pakistan’s proxy war after Operation Bluestar. It was envisaged to raise ‘a paramilitary force with Army’s ethos’ under the Ministry of Defence, designated as Rashtriya Rifles.

The Rashtriya Rifles had been conceptually visualised as a specialised internal security formation with units constituted of seventy five percent ex-servicemen and balance from the regular army. But it didn’t work out as originally conceived. Ever since its inception the force has 100 per cent deputationists from the Army and has been deployed exclusively in J&K, except for a very brief period in the North-east.

Composition of Assam Rifles

Assam Rifles was raised primarily for deployment in North-east and comprised men from these areas. Over the years, the force earned a well-deserved reputation as ‘Sentinels of the North-east’, for its exemplary services in keeping peace in the North-east and guarding our eastern frontiers. Some years ago, its composition was changed to that of all-India force and its distinctive character diluted to one of the many para-military forces. It thus lost its excellent rapport with the local people, so essential for gathering intelligence. Gen VP Malik, the former Chief of the Army, recommends that the force should comprise 60-70 per cent of its personnel from the North-east.13

Civic Action: Winning the Hearts & Minds

Military operations against insurgents by its very nature are bound to result in some harassment and grievance to the general public, despite the best efforts of the troops. They have, therefore, to be balanced by effective civic actions, which provided relief to local people. Over the years the Army has expanded the scope of civic action. It has moved beyond initiatives by local commanders to deploying resources to improve the quality of life in villages by creating the basic infrastructure like provision of potable water, primary health centres, primary schools and improving village roads. Operation Good Samaritan in Manipur and Sadbhavna in the Kargil sector of J&K are examples. The concept is, however, not an original formulation of the Indian Army.

In the 50s when insurgency broke out in Nagaland, there was hardly any interaction between the Army and the media. There were many constraints. The means of communication were very limited; the existing network of road and railways passed through the then East Pakistan, which became inoperative after partition. The Brahmaputra was bridged only in 1961.

The concept of unified command in counter insurgency-operations was first experimented in Kashmir where it functioned effectively to begin with, but soon lost its way in the turf war between the various security agencies and the bureaucracy.

In the expanding American empire after 1898, civic action went hand in hand with military measures in the Philippines. In keeping with the American penchant for devising exotic phrases, they called it the ‘attraction’ programme, which included a variety of public works projects to improve communication and health.14 It was practised in Malaya in counter-insurgency operations against the communist guerrillas in the sixties by the British forces under General Templer.

Psychological Operations (PSY OPS)

Psy ops are powerful weapon in the hands of protagonists in any insurgent warfare. The Naga insurgents scored hands down over the administration and the Army in the conduct of psy ops. The Naga National Council had developed an expert publicity department headed until the end of 1955 by the charismatic Sakhrie and later by others. The underground propaganda has often been brilliant, carefully crafted to address the psychology of the people, and in sharp contrast to the dull and pretentious publicity work of the government.15

In a booklet published in 1953, the villagers were told that in the plains, ‘unlike our country land belongs to the state and the people have to pay taxes for land, for house-sites and buildings too, for fisheries and even for forest product. They have a water tax, latrine tax, entertainment tax and road tax. Everything has to be paid for if they have to live in this world. We Nagas pay no tax’.16 In Mokokchung, there was a definite attempt to win over the churches by frightening them that the Hindu Government of India would ban Christianity and force the Nagas to become Hindus, and for a time many Christians became alarmed and joined the insurgents.17

The Nagas are very fond of meat and their rice beer, which the insurgents exploited cleverly to gain their support by propagating that the campaign by the Hindus against cow slaughter and India’s policy of prohibition would one day be applied to them.

The administration’s attempt at psy ops was lackadaisical. Occasionally, pamphlets were produced setting out the protections provided to the tribes in the constitution and the many schemes formulated for the development of tribal areas. Even these never got distributed to the target audience and in many cases rotted in the government offices.

There was no policy to counter the specifics of insurgent propaganda, based on half-truths, other than announcing the allocation of large funds for the development of the north-east, which did not touch the daily life of the common people. Learning from their past experience, the army has lately produced pamphlets, e.g., ‘Bleeding Assam’ that give factual accounts of the amoral life and debauchery which the top leaders of ULFA indulge in the safety of Bangladesh and the brutalities committed by its cadres on innocent people of Assam. Here again, the pamphlets are in English, which is not understood by ordinary Assamese.

Human Rights

Human Rights is a recent phenomenon, but it has been the cardinal principal for engagement for the Army for long when called in aid of civil authority, which demanded strict compliance to impartiality, minimum force and good faith. When one looks at the record of human right violations in the last century, it is appalling to read that in the face of emerging guerrilla activity in Boer campaign in South Africa, General Roberts ordered that houses in the vicinity of any railway lines, bridges and telegraph lines that had been attacked should be burned down or blown up.

Counter-insurgency operations based on winning the support of the people. Along the way the soldiers developed a healthy respect for the fighting qualities of the guerrillas and the generosity of the tribal population, which in turn looked upon the Army for help in many ways

Collective fines were also imposed and Boer civilians were forced to ride on trains as a deterrent against attack.18 Indian Army’s record was more humane and practical in similar situation in Nagaland. To avoid ambushes of vehicle convoys, 50 metres on both sides of main roads were cleared of vegetation and undergrowth, which gave road-opening parties a clear view and denied the insurgents ambush sites to hide.

And yet, there were cases, fortunately few, when ambushed that resulted in death and injury, soldiers burnt houses, suspected to have sheltered the insurgents, and beat up innocent bystanders or used force that was not commensurate with the situation in the heat of the moment to avenge their dead comrades.

The insurgents exploited the collateral damage to civilian property and death or injury to innocent civilians in encounters with the security forces to tarnish the image of soldiers as trigger-happy. In most cases the allegations of atrocities by soldiers were exaggerated, if not wholly false. This is how Verrier Elwin, who lived many years with the tribes of the north-east and influenced the tribal policy of Nehru, describes the situation: “From the very beginning the rebels made great play with the allegations of atrocities on the part of the police and other security forces.

The booklet already quoted, which was issued in 1953 by the Naga Goodwill Mission to Assam, goes so far as to say that the government of India had instructed their Indian Armed Forces to rape Naga women whenever and wherever possible.”19

The Indian Army has come a long way since it was called out to meet the challenges of an extraordinary situation in Naga Hills in 1956. In the early years human right violations, as we understand the term today, were committed not out of any hostility or antipathy towards the Naga people, but soldiers reacted under grave provocation to avenge the death of their comrades, which were invariably spontaneous and seldom pre-meditated. One of the former Chief of the Army Staff, late General BC Joshi, issued the Ten Commandments for troops employed in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir and the North-east, which laid down the behaviour and conduct of troops.

Media Policy

In the 50s when insurgency broke out in Nagaland, there was hardly any interaction between the Army and the media. There were many constraints. The means of communication were very limited; the existing network of road and railways passed through the then East Pakistan, which became inoperative after partition. The Brahmaputra was bridged only in 1961. The radio and telegraph links were primitive.

The existing government policy permitted the Army interaction with the media, mainly print and radio (there was no television or multi media then), through the government’s public relation officers, who were very few and not at all trained to handle news or analyse them. All that they did was to give news of ambushes and the encounters with the hostiles. Even these were reported in the national newspapers much after the events. The Army itself depended on BBC for the latest news and political developments and their analysis. Mark Tully and Subir Bhaumik, the BBC correspondents who covered (Subir Bhaumik still does) the happenings in the north-east from Calcutta, became known names for radio listeners and enjoyed huge popularity even as some of their reporting was biased against the Army.

In the absence of news from the official channels, BBC Hindi service became extremely popular and also credible. The situation was redeemed later by reporters of some of the national and local newspapers, who went on to write excellent accounts of their reporting days in the north-east.20

The insurgents made better use of the opportunities to interact with the media. Fortuitously their access to BBC reporters helped them to freely project their views not only within the country, but more importantly to the western public, who had not yet got over the bias against their erstwhile colonial subjects.

As communications improved and north-east opened to the outside world and travel restrictions were relaxed, Army’s interaction with the media also became more frequent. But the old restriction of interacting through public relation officers continued. The Army has felt circumcised by the restriction on interaction with the media even for legitimate reasons to explain its viewpoint on issues for which the best spokesman would be the army itself.

Unified Command

Counter-insurgency operations being politico-military in nature, civil-military relationship have to be synergetic, which in the north-east has for most part been strained. In that context, the enhancement of Army’s public image as an instrument of social and economic change is viewed with suspicion and is opposed by both politicians and bureaucrats for it brings to light their inefficiency and the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus.21 One of the cardinal principles of counter-insurgency operations is the unity of command.

At the operational level it meant integrated civil-military operations under one military commander appointed by the civil government. It is obvious that the Malayan model could not be applied in the north-east, where all the states had elected popular governments. But the basic concept, suitably amended, could still be applied to maximise results.

The concept of unified command in counter insurgency-operations was first experimented in Kashmir where it functioned effectively to begin with, but soon lost its way in the turf war between the various security agencies and the bureaucracy. In Assam a three-tier system was evolved; at the top was the Strategic Planning Group (ostensibly under the chief secretary) to lay down the policy; the second tier, the operation group, was headed by GOC 4 Corps, the senior military commander in Assam. It was here that key operational decisions were taken; the third tier was headed by the district collector supported by the battalion commander and the superintendent of police of the area. The strategic group at the top had GOC 4 Corps, State DGP and IGsP of BSF and CRPF as members. GOC 4 Corps attended the meeting whenever the chief minister chaired it.22

In Manipur, the chief minister insisted that the DGP of the state head the unified headquarters, which resulted in the Army keeping out of it. In Tripura the situation was different; there were no army formations in Tripura. The DIG of Assam Rifles, who, if he was a serving brigadier, had army battalions serving under him. Tripura too adopted a unified headquarters model headed by the chief secretary.

Formation of North-Eastern Council (NEC)

North Eastern Council (NEC) was set up with its headquarter at Shillong to formulate and implement an integrated development plan for the North-east region as a whole. The NEC was given jurisdiction in all matters of common interest in economic and social planning, inter-state transport and communication, and flood control. The Governor of Assam heads the council. The chief ministers of all north-eastern states are its members.

Although the council’s main focus was on infrastructure and economic development it also had a security component; the Director General of Assam Rifles functioned ex officio as the zonal security adviser to the north-eastern state governments. Regrettably, the security function of NEC was seldom activated despite this being pointed out by Gen Shankar Roychoudhury in his report to the government when he was the Army Chief.23


Counter-insurgency operations have evolved gradually, but in a profound way since independence. The guiding principles have remained constant but the operational imperatives have undergone many changes. From the earlier ‘jungle bashing’, routine searches, which produced little results compared to the effort put in and often caused frustration in troops, the abysmal ignorance of the tribal culture, looking at the Mongoloid faces with a sense of bewilderment to more focussed operations against insurgents, refinement of basic infantry tactics, which resulted in the opening of the Counter- Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, realisation of the centrality of winning the hearts and minds of the people, and yet, ensuring ascendancy over the hostile population, for it is in nature of things to align with the winning side – the army has travelled a long way in its fight against insurgents.

In the process, it set a pattern of counter-insurgency operations based on winning the support of the people. Along the way the soldiers developed a healthy respect for the fighting qualities of the guerrillas and the generosity of the tribal population, which in turn looked upon the Army for help in many ways.

And yet, despite the herculean effort in the last fifty years, insurgencies in some form or the other continue to linger in many parts of the north-east. The causes are as varied as the divergent cultural ethos and the level of development of tribal societies. The nature of insurgencies in the north-east has also undergone profound changes in the last fifty years. There is no longer romance of revolutionaries operating out of jungle hideouts to execute spectacular hit and run guerrilla attacks. Today, insurgencies in the north-east are increasingly criminalised and terrorism has become the main weapon of the insurgents. In the last few years the contours of the emerging Islamic militancy are slowly emerging, which will pose greater challenges for the security forces in the years ahead.


1. Ian FW Beckett; Modern Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies; 2001, Routelage, London, p vii.

2. Ibid, p 24.

3. Ibid, p 24.

4. Ibid, p 25.

5. Shankar Roychowdhury; Officially at Peace; 2002; Viking, New Delhi, p 18

6. Two articles, one by Rajesh Rajgopalan; ‘Restoring Normalcy: The Evolution of Indian Army Counter-Insurgency Doctrine’ published in Small Wars and Insurgencies, London, vol 2, No 1, Spring 2000, and the other by Shankaran Kalyanraman; ‘The Indian Way in counter-Insurgency’ in Efraim Inbar (ed) Democracies and Small Wars; The Review of International Affairs, Centre for Eurasian Studies, vol 2, Spring 2003, are noteworthy.

7. Verrier Elwin; Nagaland; 1961; Research Department Adviser’s secretariat, Shillong, p 45

8. Nehru’s letter to CD Deshmukh in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, second series, vol 21, 1 Jan 53-31 Mar 53, a project of Nehru Memorial library, p 158

9. Ibid, 158

10. Shankar Roychowdhury; Officially at Peace; 2002; Viking, New Delhi, p 98. The insurgent groups in the north-east, who in the early decades of 50s and 60s were armed with .303 and muzzle loading rifles, are today armed with AK assault rifles and automatic grenade launchers.

11. Beckett, op cit, pp 36-37

12. Shankar Roychowdhury, op cit, p 219

13. VP Malik in an article titled ‘Security on the Borderline’, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 18 September 2004.

14. Beckett, op cit, pp 36-37

15. Verrier Elwin; Nagaland; 1961; Research Department Advisors Secretariat, Shillong, p 73

16. Ibid, p 75

17. Ibid, p 75

18. Beckett, op cit, p

19. Verrier Elwin, op cit, p 77. The alleged atrocities by the Indian Army and central and state police forces have been catalogued by Mar Atsongchanger in his book ‘Unforgettable Memories from Nagaland’ published by Tribal Communications and Research centre, Mokokchung (Nagaland), 1994, (chapter 3).

20. Journalists VIK Sareen, HK Sareen, DR Mankekar, Nirmal Nibedon, Sekhar Gupta and some others have written excellent books based on their reporting from the North-east.

21. Shankar Roychowdhury, op cit, p 121

22. Ibid, pp 123,124

23. Shankar Roychoudhury, op cit, p 105. Another former army chief, Gen VP Malik, favours a more effective coordination of intelligence and operations through a regional set-up based at either Guwahati or Shillong. See VP Malik, p17

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Brig SP Sinha

 Brig SP Sinha 

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One thought on “C I Operations in the Northeast

  1. Only for Assam rifles, North East is a part of India now…contributed greatly for cultural synthesis and assimilation of people to mainland..also fighting insurgency….Kudos to Unsung heroes of this royal force!!

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