The tragedy that befell Army personnel on 4 June could qualify as the mother of all ambushes — not in terms of casualties but the heat generated thereafter across the country and remarks from Pakistan, Myanmar and China. On the day in question, a column of the 6th Dogra Regiment was waylaid and 18 soldiers, including a Junior Commissioned Officer, were killed and more than 11 injured. Two rebels belonging to the NSCN(Khaplang) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup succumbed to injuries in the return fire.
Having been reposted to Chandigarh, the Dogra troops were on their way home and must have heaved a sigh of relief that their tour of duty was over. It also appears that they were in a hurry to move out of Manipur and that was when they let their guard down. Ambushes are not accidental; they are planned over time and the enemy often sits it out for days waiting for the opportune moment. What happened suggests intelligence failure on the part of the Army, though it has denied this.
The second factor involves the violation of standard operational procedures like, for instance, why 35 troopers were packed in a single truck. Again, for instance, the 13 soldiers of the 9th Grenadiers, led by JCO Ranbir Singh, who were killed in Ningchou village in Ukhrul district way back on 18 February 1985. The attackers then were members of the NSCN(IM) and the ambush was led by “Captain” Livingstone. They had waited for a single Army truck to come along — again in deviation of the Army&’s standard operational procedures in insurgency-bound areas of not allowing single vehicles to hit the road.
That was a time when 24-hour television channels were not around and the only scribes present were myself and a colleague from Delhi. The practice of ferrying those killed for the last rites had not come into vogue and all the 13 Army men were cremated at the garrison at Kamjong. The local IB official there then informed us that he’d already warned the Army of the impending attack but he was paid scant attention because it was believed he was wrangling for free liquor. And all that an Army officer told us then was that “we cannot provide guards to guards”.
Moreover, this ambush marked the anniversary of yet another major entrapment at Namthilok in Ukhrul near the Imphal Valley on 19 February 1982 in which 21 soldiers, including a major of the 21 Sikh Regiment, were wiped out by the NSCN, which was yet to break up into the Issac-Muivah and Khaplang factions. This Army unit had earned notoriety for itself by indulging in acts of sodomy and was later hauled up by the Supreme Court for the disappearance of two citizens Rs C Daniel, a retired schoolteacher and C Paul, a village pastor Rs that they had taken into custody. It simply meant that the 21 Sikh Regiment was sought out, stalked and annihilated in an ambush believed to have been led by VS Atem, who later became “commander of the Naga Army” and is now a key figure in the ongoing peace parley between the Centre and the NSCN(IM).
On 29 June 1993, the NSCN(IM) then dropped a bombshell when it announced it had carried out an ambush at Tengnoupalm, also in Chandel district, along the Imphal-Moreh NH-39, killing 22 Army men, including two commissioned officers belonging to the 15th Assam Regiment and that this unit had been singled out by way of an initiation rite — a baptism by fire — for newly recruited “Naga army” personnel. This attack was believed to have been led by one “Lieutenant” Epshilon. Like the 6th Dogras, the 15th Assam Regiment was on its way out of from Manipur for posting in far away Gujarat. Observers, however, knew that something was in the offing when it came to be known that the NSCN(IM)&’s master planner Livingstone, now a “Colonel”, had taken over the outfit&’s administration of Chandel district. This coupled with the fact that the 15th Assam Regiment had a number of JCOs and NCOs belonging to the Kuki tribe who hobnobbed with Kuki militants as both were fighting the NSCN(IM) then explains that the attack was, again, not accidental because newly inducted troops from the 3rd Kumoan Rifles and 6th Madras Regiment were moving in and they would have been easier targets.
Now, for the aftermath of the Indian Army&’s revenge strike on rebels deep inside neighbouring Myanmar and the involvement of at least four different ministers holding different portfolios. This warranted a response, with Islamabad reminding India not to treat Pakistan like Myanmar, Myanmar denying that any such attack had occurred inside its territory and China saying it had nothing to do with the NSCN (Khaplang) group.
The Indian Army&’s special operations group carried out an operation akin to that mounted by US Navy Seals when they flew into Abbotabad in Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, but it should be noted here that while the Navy Seals carried back Bin Laden&’s body as proof of their prowess, the same cannot be said about the Indian Army&’s raid in Myanmar. There were no bodies or even uniforms or guns carried back as proof of the raid nor have there been any photographs of the two dozen-odd rebels killed in that encounter.
Again, like the US Navy Seals kept Pakistan out of the loop on their Abbotabad raid, the Indian Army also kept the Manipur government out of the picture. So much so that chief minister Ibobi Singh clarified that the state was not involved and all the information it was getting about the raids in its backyard emitted from New Delhi. Ibobi&’s embarrassment apart, it was no coincidence that Chief of Army Staff General Suhag Singh did not call on the chief minister during his visit to Manipur in the aftermath of the Chandel ambush.
Lt-General V K Nayar, former governor of Manipur and former GOC of the 8th Mountain Division that fought pitched battles with the proscribed People&’s Liberation Army, told me that they would venture into Myanmar in what was called a hot chase but would bring back the bodies. Then again, Ibobi Singh is no S C Jamir, former chief minister of Nagaland and now governor of Odisha. Since being on the NSCN(IM) hit list, he enlisted the support of Shanu Sanwang Khaplang, the man who led the breakaway faction.
When I met Khaplang on the Thai-Laos border in 1996, I asked him what he had done with the 50 AK-47 rifles he’d taken on loan from S C Jamir and he replied with a smile that “we have returned them to the Nagaland Police armoury at Chumukedima near Dimapur”. Jamir was also responsible for freeing Khaplang from the Army&’s clutches when he was encircled. A phone call from Jamir was said to have been made to Lt-General NS Malik, then GOC of the 3rd Corps, to let Khaplang slip by with the promise of a gubernatorial post. I was told this by Lt-General VK Nayar when he was governor of Manipur and Nagaland.
In 1994, when 24 jawans of the 21 Assam Rifles were killed in an ambush, General Nayar refused to visit the site. When it was learnt that instead of being on foot patrol they had hitched a ride on a Border Road Task Force truck to get home and were slaughtered in Senapati district, he said they deserved to die.
What is needed now is for the Union defence ministry to come out with a white paper on the causes leading to the 4 June ambush and whether there were any intelligence failure or official lapses, including the lack of effective communication between the Inspector General, Assam Rifles (South), which basically falls under the Union home ministry, although officered by Army men on deputation, and the command of the 6th Dogra Regiment, which is purely an Army outfit falling under the Union defence ministry. What is also required is the true story of the Army&’s supposed raids inside Myanmar and which unit participated and how many were actually killed or satellite images showing the so-called rebel camps.
Coming at a time when India&’s global image is improving and Narendra Modi emerging as a respected world leader, the ambush must have come as a major source of embarrassment for a country vying for a permanent post in the UN Security Council. Merely saying we are capable of chasing our enemies well into foreign territory and finishing them off will not be enough. An acceptable explanation is warranted, for there will definitely be more ambushes. After all, how would insurgent forces justify their existence otherwise?