By Subir Bhaumik*
India has made a mess of the purported trans-border strike into Myanmar. The wild claims of casualty inflicted on the Naga-Manipuri rebels, the mystery over the exact locations hit, the chest-thumping by ministers that led an embarrassed Myanmar claim the operation was in Indian territory have now been followed by strident claims by the rebels that they suffered no casualties in the June 9 raid.
The army spokesman, Additional Director General of Military Operations Maj-Gen Ranbir Singh, did not provide figures of militant casualties but only said the Indian troops had inflicted ‘significant casualties’. Later defence ministry sources claimed at least 20 militants had been killed, while home ministry sources said at least 50 militants had been killed. Some TV channels even speculated that the militant casualties might “exceed 100”.
Now the rebels are coming back with strong denials. The Manipur Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) admitted a raid by the Indian troops on one of their camps across Ukhrul district but said the raid was beaten back without the rebels suffering any casualties. United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) backed that claim while the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) even went on to assert that none of their camps have been hit. So far, there seems to be confirmation of only one Manipuri rebel camp being attacked.
From my experience in these areas, the rebel camps at the border are small transit camps where action squads of the rebel armies stay for a day or two before they move into Indian territory for operations, or when they move back into Myanmar on their way back to bigger bases. Never do they house rebels in hundreds — they don’t have that kind of infrastructure. And those bigger bases are far away from the border, clearly beyond the strike range of Indian special forces.
So it is unlikely the para commandos would have struck a camp with hundreds of fighters in it. Hence some media claims that between 100 to 150 rebels were killed in the strike is clearly over the top. Even some channels quoting reliable ministry sources looked funny with exact figures like 38 killed. The very nature of the strike makes it impossible for a reading party to count dead bodies — the commandos are trained to scout and shoot to kill and move out soonest possible, otherwise they risk envelopment by bigger forces. The reports of the strike, both in newspapers and TV channels, looked way over the top, of imagination running riot.
Then comes the chest-thumping started by junior Information Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. His claims that the strikes were “deep inside Myanmar” were not borne out by the locations available from the military sources. His allusions to “lessons for all neighbours” got Pakistan in a frenzy, uniting all, from Home Minister Chaudhury Nisar to former president Pervez Musharraf to current army chief Raheel Sharif, daring India to try doing anything like this on their soil. Some Pakistani journalists on Indian channels were even threatening retaliation by air force and submarines.
When the Pakistanis responded with their own chest- thumping and suggested their country is not Myanmar, President Thein Sein’s government was deeply embarrassed. One of his directors posted a rebuttal on Facebook saying the Indian raids were in Indian territory, not theirs. He was however quick to take a friendly route, saying no anti-Indian activity will be allowed from Myanmar soil. Only one channel, India Today, prominently flagged this denial.
Rathore’s military background seems to have lost out to his current political persona — the Olympic champion shooter is just shooting his mouth too often like some of his other colleagues whose Bollywood style “kantey se kanta” (thorn for thorn) has already caused much disquiet. Any sensible military mind must know that covert operations are most successful when they are kept a secret. Now National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will have to rush to Myanmar to do some damage control so that future operations on the India-Myanmar border are not affected.
It is also preposterous to assume that what was possible on an open and porous border with Myanmar will never be possible in a heavily manned border with Pakistan. Using surrogates is an option but that takes a lot of time to develop and cannot be unleashed overnight.
It was a bold idea to conceive a trans-border strike on a rebel base inside Myanmar. If the rebels are denied the transit camps on the border, it limits their operational capability because they don’t have the benefit of crossing the border for operations after carefully observing movement of security forces. It gives India’s counter-insurgency grid a fresh, though a limited option in handling insurgency.
But these raids are always one-off, because one needs to do something different every time to maintain surprise. If that is lost, it could have disastrous results. Psychological operations or psyops are useful to hit the enemy, but in this case it seems to have clearly backfired. Except the fact that India decided to hit a rebel base across the border and the troops returned without any casualties, there is nothing else in this operation that warrants so much jingoism. And if the rebel casualty is nowhere near as claimed, it would have only alerted the rebels without damaging them much.
*Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist based in the northeast. He can be reached at [email protected]