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Political positions must not dictate response to Mon The Statesman 14 Dec 2021
Every incident in which there is a loss of civilian lives results in demands for repeal of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the one at Mon district of Nagaland being no exception. Most such demands are political without considering national security imperatives. In this specific case, the Chief Ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya have both approached Delhi on the subject. Joining them has been former CMs of J and K, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah with similar demands for Kashmir. In regions where the situation has returned to normal, AFSPA has been lifted, Punjab, Tripura and Meghalaya being examples.
India has faced insurgencies and terrorism fuelled by jealous neighbours for decades. Political action to resolve these insurgencies have failed for multiple reasons. Discussions with insurgent groups, funded and armed by neighbours, can only succeed from a position of strength, which is provided by resolute security operations. State security agencies have proved incapable in containing them leading to induction of central forces.
Officially, internal security management is the responsibility of the horde of Central Police forces, created for this purpose. It is only after they fail that armed forces are inducted to battle militant groups which have gained ascendancy in the region. Operations to regain the situation are slow and deliberate as the intention is always to avoid innocent casualties, while ensuring insurgents are targeted.
The armed forces remain the last bastion of the nation, and hence under no circumstances can they ever be permitted to fail if national integrity is to be maintained and state control re-established. If they have to operate with similar restrictions as police forces, then the situation may prove to be disastrous. Further, despite adverse comments from multiple directions, it must be clarified that the Indian army, operating in large parts of the NE and J and K have done so with one hand tied behind their backs.
Unlike other nations facing similar terrorist groups, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, South American countries etc, Indian armed forces have never employed disproportionate force including use of helicopter gunships or airpower. Casualties borne by the army is tantamount to this. The intention has always been to save innocent lives despite high losses to own forces. However, there are occasions when incidents occur leading to civilian casualties. These should be considered as an exception rather than a rule. It must be accepted that AFSPA is an enabler and essential to bring peace into a region.
Further, in disturbed areas there will always be organizations, funded by vested interests, seeking to discredit forces so as the demoralize them. Wherever operations have been done with malaise, the army has acted against the perpetrators, even faster than civil courts.
Utpal Kumar, quoting the home ministry report of 2019-20 on the NE states in an article in the First Post states, ‘The last six years have seen a significant decline in insurgency incidents by 70 percent, casualties of security forces personnel by 78 percent and civilian deaths by 80 percent. The year 2019 recorded the lowest insurgency incidents and casualties among civilians and security forces since 1997.’ The armed forces have brought peace and development in troubled regions and this fact must be accepted. However they have also created enemies.
In Nagaland, where the Mon incident occurred there are cadres of different terrorist groups, including some in talks with the government. Those in talks with the government reside in designated camps and continue holding weapons, while extortion and drug trade funds salaries and maintenance. Even flying over these camps can invite a volley of bullets.
Anti-India groups employ Myanmar territory as bases and operate from there. They infiltrate, conduct operations including ambushes on security personnel and subsequently retract. Recent ambushes on the army and the army operation into Myanmar in 2015 bears testimony.
The population residing in areas where the army operates, including J and K and parts of Northeast, are aware that check posts are established at regular intervals, based on intelligence inputs to nab insurgents. The population knows that it must halt and identify themselves, failing which there could be repercussions. Over the years there have been incidents in J and K and NE where people who have not stopped have been fired upon.
For any security force, a person fleeing from a check post implies that there is an ulterior motive. In some cases these checks have resulted in encounters with terrorists or arrests. In this instance, the vehicle refused to halt at the check post despite warnings leading to the army opening fire.
In counter insurgency operations decisions are in seconds and soldiers act on instinct. There is no doubt that in Mon mistakes happened on both sides, the first refusing to stop and the other having to take a split-second call on whether to open fire or let the vehicle go with insurgents. There were claims that the army subsequently opened fire on the mob which attacked them. If every soldier in the party was injured, one even had his neck split by a machete and the officer remains in intensive care, then it only proves that the army opened fire after it was attacked post a dialogue, and its personnel grievously injured, all a result of a close interaction with an unruly crowd.
Those accusing the army of not being wanted in the region must refer to Jaideep Saikia’s article where he states, ‘on 3 and 4 December 2021, in Pherzawl district of Manipur the Assam Rifles were in the process of vacating their base in Parbung. The villagers of Parbung, including women, elders and children, came out in numbers to request the Assam Rifles not to move out of the area. They even asked the chief minister of Manipur to request the Assam Rifles battalion to continue to stay.’
Multiple inquiries have commenced, and statements being made by political parties and vigilante groups. The army has issued an apology and nominated its own inquiry. It is important that all work in unison to rebuild trust and establish norms to prevent similar occurrences, rather than exploiting the situation.