On the evening of 9 June BJP spokespersons were quick to tell the national media that India was no longer a soft state by way of justifying the joint Myanmar-India operations that “avenged” the killing of 18 men in uniform from the 6 Dogra Regiment in an ambush mounted by Naga-Meitei militants under the newly formed United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia on 4 June at Paorlon village in Manipur&’s Chandel district. For the record, the Indian Army/Air Force operation was carried out in two locations inside Myanmarese territory — Chassad and Noklak, on that country&’s borders with Manipur&’s Ukhrul district and Nagaland&’s Tuensand district, respectively — and about 22 insurgents belonging to Naga and Meitei groups were supposed to have been eliminated.
The Centre claimed to have a security cooperation agreement with Myanmar — India has been supplying that country with military hardware since the 1990s — that enabled this strike, which in turn was hailed by the media and “experts” as a strong message to even Pakistan and China.
However, the idea that India is no longer a soft state needs to be pursued with a lot of caution in a geopolitically sensitive South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi&’s insistence that the Myanmarese army should also take on Kokang, Karen, Wa and other rebels in a joint operation with the Indian army to allow for the flushing out of anti-India militants is still very nascent for the Myanmarese establishment, and for good reason. Indeed, if Myanmar were to militarily pursue Kokans and Karens by entering into Chinese territory, it would require China&’s nod; and Beijing is unlikely to comply. Which means India will have to find its own grounds for cooperation and coordination with Myanmar in the anti-terror campaign.
More alarming is the fact that the NSCN(K) ended its truce with New Delhi in March this year and is now engaged in sporadic attacks on the Indian Army. Then there is the procrastination on the issue of greater Nagaland and finding a middle ground with Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh that makes the situation murkier because any armed battle between the Indian Army and the newly formed ULFWESA is going to worsen the ethnic rift and internal strife. Further indecision related to the withdrawal of the contentious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — against which Chanu Sharmila continues her hungerstrike — will not help. In this conundrum, moving the Army away from anti-militant operations and engaging it in guarding the porous Indo-Myanmarese border will strike the right note in conflict-ridden Manipur and Nagaland. If this is really followed and counterinsurgency initiatives are left to the local police and other such appropriate agencies, a new space can be created for a resolution through dialogue of the contentious issues of territory and identity by involving civil society groups as well.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi&’s task force has recommended disengagement of the Army from counter-insurgency operations, there is as yet no positive word on dealing with Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and this leaves a hole in the policy framework because the Act constitutes a threat to the right to life and curbs the right to a fair trial. If India is to strengthen its social, economic and cultural lacunae in the North-east, it has to combine the hard and the soft in prioritising human security over military might.
A real strong state needs to depend more on the popular support of its people and New Delhi can least afford to alienate its own people in the North-east. In its relationship with Myanmar and China, too, it must incorporate the needs and aspirations of North-easterners in its domestic and foreign policy in South Asia.