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Delhi’s chest-thumping journalists are becoming mere stenographers of power, forgetting to ask questions and interrogate offi cial narratives. A journalist from Manipur recounts the events leading up to and around the 9 June 2015 “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army against insurgents and explains the event in its contexts.
Pradip Phanjoubam (email@example.com) is editor of the Imphal Free Press. His book on the geopolitics that shaped the physical map and psychology of North-East India is due to be published later this year.
This article was earlier posted on the Web Exclusives section of EPW website.
There is something very strange about the ongoing operations against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), and other North-East militants in the wake of the 4 June devastating ambush on a convoy of the 6 Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army which left 18 soldiers dead and 14 more injured. All news of these operations, including the surgical commando strikes deep into Myanmar territory on 9 June, emanate from New Delhi and are loudly relayed through the many 24-hour TV channels and columns by North-East experts based in that city.
Virtually nothing of these is known in Manipur or Nagaland, where the operations are launched from. Even the state governments are left in the dark, as the Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi said in a candid reply to a query from a journalist on the sidelines of an official function on 11 June; “We have been depending on what is revealed to the media in New Delhi for information,” he said.
Maybe, the Chief Minister is being dutifully discreet, for these are supposed to be swift and secret operations, and at stake is the country’s diplomatic relations with Myanmar, but his act of discretion is appearing ridiculous amidst all the loud celebratory drumbeats and chest thumping in New Delhi. Some resourceful journalists and commentators of Delhi are apparently even privy to the battle plans used by the elite strike forces, latest satellite imageries shared between Indian and Myanmar government authorities immediately before the operations were launched, etc.
The other scenario is, if Ibobi’s government is actually being left in the dark, nothing can be more humiliating. Nothing can be a louder testimony of the centre–state relations with regard to the North-Eastern states too. This should place even the debate over the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in proper perspective. Who can now say it is up to the North-East states to do away with the draconian act merely by not extending the Disturbed Area Act in their states?
Some Obvious Questions
There are other unexplained points as well, and the longer these remain unexplained, the already darkening cloud over these “surgical strikes” will thicken.
The first of these unexplained points is, no clinching evidence of the two strikes, such as a picture of the destroyed camps, or those of dead militants, etc, has been provided. If pre-strike satellite imageries were available to be shared with the Myanmar government, as some columnists were so sure they were, there should be post-strike satellite imageries of these destroyed camps too, specially so after the unending orgy of celebratory drum beats and chest thumping in New Delhi; the secrecy argument can hardly be convincing now.
The second unexplained point is, the Myanmar government is now denying there were strikes within their territory. They did not do so immediately, probably because they too were unsure, as the areas where the strikes took place have very thin Myanmar government presence. Up north in the territory where Khaplang holds sway, government presence is virtually nil which is precisely why Khaplang can provide safe sanctuary for North-East militants. But in the past few days, quoting its northern army posts, Myanmar government is saying, quite definitively too, that the Indian operations did not spill into its territory.
On 9 June, the local media in Manipur and Nagaland on their usual beats were also confirming these reports from their own sources, chiefly the police and local army spokespersons. The army sent out a brief press release in Imphal saying there were encounters along the international border during operations, but did not specify numbers of casualties or whether the international border was crossed.
Local newspapers also contacted police stations in the border area, and only the Chassad police station reported hearing sounds of gunfire exchanges from the direction of the border on the morning of 9 June. Villagers of Bhaiko, under their jurisdiction, reported army helicopters landing near their village. Seventeen kilometres from this village is Ningsom village near which, along the international border, an encounter took place, but this was with cadres of the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), whose armed wing is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This encounter has since been corroborated by the RPF/PLA in press releases to the local media with photographs of what they claimed are ammunitions left behind by their attackers. They claimed no casualties on their side.
Known rebel groups from Nagaland and Manipur have all clarified, either through press releases or else phone calls to the press, that they know of no such attacks on their camps. As it is, in the Kabaw Valley most of them do not stay in camps, but in the townships, merging with the local populations and only reassemble when duty calls.
From Chassad and adjacent Kamjong hilltop villages, and further north Chinghai, you can see deep into the Kabaw Valley and the Angoching range flanking the other edge of the valley. You can also see the Somra Tract in the north. At night you can see the flickers of lights in the townships and villages. This region is not altogether abandoned by the Myanmar security establishment. Understandably, Khaplang’s sway also does not extend here, and probably this is the reason why the Chandel ambush was not a sole NSCN-K mission. This being so, the surgical strikes by Indian troops and destruction of rebel camps here would also have come to be known within hours. And if there is anything burning it would be seen from the Chassad police station.
Up north, where the Patkai Range watershed is the international boundary in the Nagaland–Arunachal Pradesh sector, the mountainous region east of the Patkai is more wild and out of reach of the Myanmar government. Two journalists from Assam had, two years ago, trekked there to meet United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chief Paresh Baruah and Khaplang, confirming this among others. If the surgical strikes had been in this region, it is likely to have missed official notice for long. From the reports so far however, this is not where the strikes were, at least not one of them.
There is yet one more uncertainty. The insurgents are not faceless people. They are in many ways prodigal children of families in Manipur and Nagaland, and their families are always in deep anxiety about their individual fates. Families do everything to woo their children back, and whenever there are news of encounters, they head for the mortuaries in town to identify bodies. Many mothers are known to suffer anxiety disorders. This is why insurgents are compelled to announce deaths of their cadres promptly, otherwise the families and communities of the dead fighters would turn against them. In the 4 June ambush, two militants, one Naga and another Meitei, also died. Within a day, they were both identified. If 15 to 100 militants have been killed in the border area of Myanmar on 9 June, it is unlikely this would have remained unconfirmed through this channel by now, unless all those killed belonged to Myanmar.
This could also be if the borders are sealed watertight, but this hardly is the case. This border, except in the Manipur sector where there are 38 boundary pillars erected in 1896, hardly has exact markers.
In the Manipur sector, the border was officially made in 1834. After ending Ava (Burmese) occupation of Manipur and Assam in 1826 at the end of the first Anglo–Burmese War and the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo, the Chindwin River was deemed the boundary of the British protectorate Manipur, putting the Kabaw Valley under Manipur. But in 1834, upon repeated complaints by Ava, and seeing that the valley could be much better administered from Mandalay (the Ava capital) than from Imphal, the British persuaded the Manipur king that a new boundary should be negotiated, and Captain R Boileau Pemberton as the Boundary Commissioner drew what came to known as the Pemberton Line along the foot of the “Murring Hills” on the western edge of the Kabaw Valley.
In 1881, this boundary was realigned by the then British Political Agent in Manipur, Major James Johnstone. The objective was to contain the then restive Chassad Kukis, against whom punitive measures were becoming difficult because they would claim to be domiciles of Burma when pursued by Manipur and vice versa when chastised by the Burmese (A detailed account can be found in Alexander Mackenzie’s book TheHistory of British Relationship with the Frontier Tribes of Bengal). Johnstone’s line included the Chassad Kuki settlements in Manipur. In 1896, another British political agent in Manipur, a colonel Maxwell, put 38 boundary pillars along this boundary which then came to be known as the Pemberton–Johnstone–Maxwell Line.
In the Naga Hills sector, the Patkai Range watershed was considered as the boundary by the 1834 demarcation. The boundary between the Lushai Hills (Mizoram) and Chin Hills (Chin State in Myanmar) were demarcated in 1901 with minor readjustments in 1921 and 1922. The boundary between India and Myanmar was ratified by the two independent countries on 10 March 1967 in Rangoon along these lines.
The 4 June ambush has suddenly awoken the Government of India (GoI) to the fact that it has to take every player in this conflict theatre on board for a comprehensive peace formula in the North-East. There are now allegations that the current crisis is a result of a misconceived plan of some officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to sideline the NSCN-K, so it can come to a settlement with National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issak-Muivah)—NSCN-IM—led by Khaplang’s rivals Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Swu, both from the Indian side of the border. The Indian government has been on a truce with both factions; with the NSCN-IM from 1997 and with the NSCN-K from 2001. The government has also been holding peace talks with the NSCN-IM but not with the NSCN-K, a fact resented by the latter.
The allegation is that the union MHA engineered a split in the NSCN-K and patronised a faction within which was opposed to Khaplang, to ensure that the latter leaves the peace process with the GoI. There are two reasons for suspecting this. First, Khaplang being a Myanmar domicile, it would have been out of the question for the GOI to think of reaching a political settlement with him. Second, the NSCN-IM wanted the Khaplang faction out of the equation. The MHA officials probably wanted to wash their hands off Khaplang, leaving him to settle his scores with the Myanmar government.
Things, it is proving now, were never so straightforward. Khaplang, as the two Assamese journalists who trekked to his camp noted, is reverentially referred to as Baba, and is a very respected leader in his home grounds in the upper Sagaing Division of Myanmar, and his territory is today virtually a liberated zone where only his writs command respect. In an interview to the journalists, he revealed, he has an interest in the presence of many rebel soldiers of the North East, for the size of fraternal troops on his land is a deterrent for the Myanmar Army. His call for a united liberation front of Western South East Asia, therefore was readily accepted by all in his sanctuary. The MHA and the Indian intelligence should have read this possibility. Had they done so, they probably would not have gone so wrong in assessing the threat potential of Khaplang and writing him off so casually.
In the aftermath of the 4 June ambush and the “surgical strikes by Indian troops within Myanmar territory,” another reality has dawned. The days of the media as the tough and uncompromising interrogators of the establishment and the authorities in power, are on the way out.
The 18 deaths in the ambush was tragic, and there cannot have been anybody whose heart did not bleed seeing pictures of the families of these soldiers in Himachal Pradesh. In Manipur, there would have been many who cursed the attackers, except for the incorrigibly bitter who probably have had personal misfortunes at the hands of the security forces, a prospect not so uncommon or unimaginable in a land torn by conflict and subjected to oppressive laws. When the combing operations and manhunts for the militants began and Chandel District was sealed off by the Army, people waited with bated breath praying that no “collateral damages” may result. Fortunately, nothing of this sort has happened, to the extent known so far.
On 9 June, there was the “breaking news” emanating from New Delhi of the surgical strike by special commandos neutralising (the sanitised term for killing) “a significant number of militants.” Nothing abnormal so far; this is war and in a war, it is natural for combatants to fall, was the general reception of the news in Manipur. But from here on, the media in New Delhi, in particular the TV channels took over. The “significant number” began to have definite two-digit figures. Some even pushed it to three digits quoting unnamed authoritative sources. Talking heads were rushed to studios and the mood everywhere was one of celebration. The blood thirst in the scrolling headlines on screen would have made anybody shudder: “revenge,” “retribution,” “you hit us we hit back harder.” Many of these words soon became the adjectives for Manipur and Nagaland, making residents of these states uneasy, embarrassed, and on cooler reflection, furious.
In the evening of the same “breaking news” day, when newspapers in Manipur also sat down to take stock of things, they had with them just two press releases from the Press Information Bureau’s Defence Wing and from the state police to depend on. Neither had anything that signified hot pursuit into Myanmar territory, so local papers wrote their stories accordingly, though the bolder amongst them used the stories from the websites of these TV channels to make their stories juicier.
In all the TV shows, there was not a single voice that exercised or recommended healthy doubt, which all students of journalism are trained to imbibe. Nobody questioned these sources, and instead simply joined the celebration—of death. This thought itself was gory, even if those killed were enemies. Gone was also the notion that insurgency is a tragic internal war, in the words of Sanjib Baruah, “India fighting itself.” If American journalists were accused of being embedded with their military in their invasion of Iraq in 2003, who can now say Indian journalists, in particular, the frenetic TV channels, are not guilty of the same objectionable practice?