A Botched COIN Operation of the Indian Army

As per a recent report released by the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC), more than 300 attacks have occurred against Christians in the first nine months of 2021 in India, making the country one of the worst for Christians to live under the Narendra Modi Regime. The recent killings of 14 civilians in a “botched” counterinsurgency operation (COIN) by the Indian armed forces in the northeastern Christian majority state of Nagaland exacerbated tensions among the government elites, the Naga insurgents and the local populace. The 21 Para Special Forces army unit opened fire and killed coal mine labourers from Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland. The troops later stated that they mistook the labourers for militants. The horrifying incident brought the six-decades long-running insurgency in the region back into limelight, putting questions on peace talks with the Naga insurgents.

Nagaland is one of those areas in the Northeastern region where the Naga insurgency is considered the most protracted of all the separatist insurgencies – an insurgency that has existed longer than Kashmir’s one. It is one of the smallest states in India, having borders with Assam in the west, Arunachal Pradesh to the north, Manipur to the south and Myanmar to the east. Following the British exodus in 1947 from South Asia, the northeastern part of India has seen sustained insurgent movements, mass miseries and the maladroit state response, leading to continuous bloodshed. Naga inhabitants indicted the British government for having deceived them and leaving them in the hands of India and Myanmar. On March 22, 1952, Angami Zapu Phizo, a Naga nationalist, established the Naga Federal Government (NFG) and later formed a separatist guerrilla army, the Naga Federal Army (NFA), to wage war against the Indian armed forces, seeking his dream of a sovereign Nagaland. By the mid-20th century, several insurgent groups such as the Naga National Council (NNC), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) (NSCN(K)), Naga Federal Government (NFG), and Naga Federal Army (NFA) functioned in the area.

The Indian Army avowed the incident as a case of “mistaken identity”; however, killing innocent civilians is not merely a mistake but a colossal blunder and war crime that blatantly displays the unprofessionalism of the Indian armed forces. As the Oting Citizens’ Office reported, by placing weapons near the killed civilians and dressing them in militant camouflage outfits, the Indian military attempted to conceal their lack of understanding of covert operations. Prima facie, it deems to be an intelligence failure and a question over its credibility because most of the clandestine operations are premeditated intelligence-based operations. For a long time, the troops already had intelligence inputs to investigate the armed Cadre of NSCN(K) movements in the region. The lapses in the Indian intelligence agencies, in this case, are conspicuous, as the Army remarked that the forces had laid an ambush following intelligence order to circumvent the insurgents’ planned attack on the Indian military.

Under the pressure of the locals, the NSCN and its affiliated factions might not be able to negotiate with the Centre, delaying the process of a peace pact for which the Indian government has been planning for the last couple of years.

Besides, the recent killings have rekindled the debate over the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA). The Nagaland and neighbouring Meghalaya chief ministers, who both are associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government, argued immediate rescind of the long-established AFSPA. The AFSPA is an Act implemented by the Indian Parliament in 1958, lending special power to the Indian armed forces to maintain public order in the northeastern areas designated as “disturbed areas”. During several COIN operations conducted by the Indian Army in the northern areas, the AFSPA has enabled many human rights violations and war crimes, allowing the forces to operate with state patronage and impunity. It lets the troops arrest based on “reasonable suspicion” and enter and search any building without a warrant. The act also permits the forces to destroy structures from which armed attacks have occurred or are likely to be utilised by potential offenders. Such powers are augmented under Section 6 of the draconian AFSPA.

Despite several peace agreements and reconciliation efforts to negotiate with the insurgents, the conflict is still not alleviated. Instead, the Nagaland shooting has added further fuel to the fire, sparking massive unrest in the already jeopardised region. The incident has grave ramifications for peace talks between the Central government and the Naga separatist insurgents. Under the pressure of the locals, the NSCN and its affiliated factions might not be able to negotiate with the Centre, delaying the process of a peace pact for which the Indian government has been planning for the last couple of years. Expressing regret over the unjustifiable killing of civilians would have no significance until and unless those responsible come under investigation and punishment. Soon after the incident, India’s Home Minister Amith Shah pledged that a Special Investigation Team would probe this incident and submit its report in 30 days. Only a preliminary report has been presented following a month of the incident, and a final report is yet to be submitted. Also, it is still to be seen whether the Indian government will allow the court to prosecute those found guilty or not.

The Indian military apparently targeted the rebels but­ attacked civilians that categorically infringed the laws and principles of armed conflicts. International law not only deals with the “total war” and limited war scenarios but also applies to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Article 51 (2) of the Additional Protocol I prescribes that “the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack”. Amidst any insecurity situation, if troops go for offensive use of force, they should conduct attacks within the limits of the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement (ROE) issued by the commanders. Concerning this terrible incident, either the military authorities informed the troops wrong or did not train them accurately to carry an offensive while keeping the ROE in mind.

Undoubtedly, it is difficult to distinguish civilians from insurgents during any COIN operation. But respecting the civilian population’s safety and those caught in the clash between insurgents and counterinsurgents creates a conducive environment for the military to collaborate with the local populace. Hence, the Indian Army needs to win the “hearts and minds” of the Nagas to get their support, rather not to lose its control and influence over population through such awful acts while operating in the northern areas. A holistic and less coercive approach to negotiating with insurgents would be feasible for the central government. Otherwise, the Indian Army will see the same result as what the British had during the Malaya insurgency (1948-60) and Northern Ireland, where they failed in winning the “hearts and minds” of the people, and their coercive means led to abuses of human rights.

Sajad Ahmad

Sajjad Ahmad is working as a Communications Assistant at CSCR.

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