Ministerial bluster

Print edition : July 10, 2015

The charred remains of an Army truck after an ambush by militants in Chandel district of Manipur on June 4. Photo: AFP

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Photo: V. Sudershan

Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyawardhan Singh Rathore. Photo: PTI

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The chest-thumping bravado by Ministers of the Modi government on the Army’s covert operations along the Indo-Myanmar border embarrasses the Army and leaves the country’s neighbours wary.

WHEN Nepal was jolted by devastating earthquakes, India was the first country to rush in with relief and rescue measures. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while magnanimously trying to wipe the tears of the suffering Nepalese people, went overboard and announced that the Nepalese Prime Minister had come to know of the quake through his (Modi’s) tweets. This generated a wave of hostile reactions in Nepal. The media overkill of the rescue and relief operations further marred a well-intentioned mission, and the Nepalese government ordered the Indian agencies, including the media, to leave.

It is the same story being repeated all over again in the case of the Indian Army’s covert operations along the Indo-Myanmar border on the night of June 9-10 in which Special Force commandos destroyed two camps of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, Khaplang group, or NSCN (K), and its allies such as the Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup (KYKL), inflicting major casualties on the militants. However, the Army has been left feeling embarrassed as a result of the “foot in the mouth” disease which has gripped some Ministers in the Modi government. Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyawardhan Singh Rathore, himself a retired Army officer, went on a tweeting and back-slapping spree, saying that the “cross border” operation was a warning to others harbouring “terrorist intentions” towards India and reminding Pakistan that “56 inch rocks” (a reference to the famous remark by Prime Minister Modi of his 56-inch chest).

The Minister, in fact, ended up giving crucial details of the operation in his interaction with the media. He was quoted as saying that following the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in Manipur in an ambush on June 4, the Prime Minister himself had ordered the “hot pursuit” and added that similar “surgical and bold steps” would be repeated “as and when required”. When he was asked whether one could expect similar responses on the Pakistan border, the Minister said: “We will carry out surgical strikes at the place and time of our own choosing. Western disturbances will also be equally dealt with.” He went on to say: “Friendship and zero tolerance will go hand in hand. This is a beginning. India is strong. This message should go to everyone.” He said the Army had always had strong capabilities but “it needed an equally strong leader to take such a bold decision. We will carry out such attacks.” This obviously caused a furore in Pakistan which is yet to die down.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar too was full of praise for the exercise, saying it symbolised a change in the “thinking pattern”. Yet another senior Minister, Prakash Javadekar, was also gung-ho about the operation.

All this chest-thumping and back-slapping resulted in Myanmar retorting angrily that Indian troops did not enter Myanmar territory and that Myanmar would not harbour any terror camps on its soil. It is another matter, though, that India and Myanmar have a treaty that facilitates cross-border operations in case of need. The National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was promptly dispatched by the Prime Minister to Myanmar on a damage-control mission.

The political naivete and immaturity, however, has left Army personnel livid. Senior Army officials, talking to Frontline, expressed dismay over Ministers discussing such sensitive issues in such a cavalier manner. “They obviously do not understand the concept of covert operations,” said a senior Army officer, stressing that such operations had been happening previously too without getting discussed and debated in press conferences. The officer, who has vast experience serving in the eastern sector, said that the fluid and porous boundary sometimes made it difficult to ascertain territorial jurisdiction, but covert operations should remain covert. “When it comes to safeguarding the security of the nation, that should take precedence over everything else,” he said.

In fact, the Army officially took a cryptic line immediately after the operation. The Additional Director General, Military Operation, Maj. Gen. Ranbir Singh, released a statement on June 12 saying the retaliatory action on June 10 had been “necessitated” as there were “credible and specific intelligence reports” that the militant groups who were behind the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in an ambush in Chandel, Manipur, on June 4 were planning further attacks against civilians and security personnel inside Indian territory. He said that the Army had been on “high alert” after the Manipur attack and in view of the imminent threat, an immediate response was necessary. “Based on intelligence, we conducted operations to counter these planned assaults. Two separate groups of militants along the Indo-Myanmar border in Nagaland and Manipur were identified. As a consequence, threats to our civilian population and security forces were averted.” He maintained that the Myanmar authorities were kept in the loop on the matter. “There is a history of close cooperation between our two militaries. We look forward to working with them to combat such terrorism,” he said. But he was categorical that “any threat to the safety, security and integrity of our country will meet similar response”.

Barring this statement, no further clarification came from the Army on whether this was actually a “cross-border” operation, or whether such operations had been undertaken in the past. There was no comment on the statements by the Ministers as well. “Beyond what has been said by the ADG, Military Operation, we are not commenting on this matter,” the Army Public Relations Officer replied stoically to all other queries.

The Congress, obviously, took the government to task for its “jingoism and chest thumping” on such a sensitive issue. Senior leader Anand Sharma said: “There should be sobriety and maturity. Jingoism and boastful claims are not going to help the operations of India’s Special Forces. The Prime Minister should restrain his Ministers so that there is no repeat of this.” He said the Prime Minister should have drawn a lesson from the Nepal experience when the publicity and propaganda overkill caused embarrassment to the government. He advised the government to behave with maturity and wisdom and not to make statements which might create tension in the region and embarrass neighbouring countries and governments that cooperated with the Indian Army. Reiterating that secrecy needed to be maintained about the Special Forces’ missions, he said: “They are always discreet. They are usually not revealed. It is not the first time that our Forces have proved their capability.”

In fact, similar sentiments were expressed by retired Defence personnel as well. Describing the assault as an “excellent example of military operation”, Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM), lashed out at the politicians, saying that action should be taken against them for jeopardising the interests of the nation and for riding piggyback on the brave soldiers to further their vested interests. “The calibrated response by the Army by way of the limited information that was shared was in order and perfectly in the interest of the nation. But the statements by the loose canons (Ministers) was totally uncalled for,” he said.

Events took a bizarre turn later as the government apparently released “actual photos of the operation”, which turned out to be fake. These pictures, claiming to be of the actual operation and released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), appeared in all the major newspapers of the country. Realising the faux pas, the MoD denied having released any such pictures and said these pictures had been taken from social media and used by newspapers without “verification”.

The principal spokesman of the MoD, Sitanshu Kar, clarified that the pictures had first surfaced on the social media platform WhatsApp, from where newspapers had picked them up. “But these were from some earlier exercises in 2009 and 2012, not of the Myanmar operation, and were only meant for representational purposes,” he said. He refused to say anything more on the operation as such.

But it would be in the fitness of things if the government could impart some training to its bumbling Ministers on how to deal with sensitive issues relating to the country’s safety and security so that the country’s strategic interests do not suffer.

Reverberations abroad

The misplaced bravado of the Ministers once again opened up festering wounds in India-Pakistan relations, completely derailing the peace initiatives taken in recent times and throwing up horrifying possibilities, if the statements by former Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf are any indication. Amidst a flurry of statements from various Pakistani Ministers, Gen. Musharraf said that India should not forget that Pakistan was a nuclear-weapons state and that “our nuclear weapons are not there for shab-e-baraat [celebratory purposes]”.

Reacting to Rajyawardhan Singh Rathore’s statement, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhary Nissar Ahmad said India should not mistake Pakistan for Myanmar. “Our Armed Forces are fully capable of responding to any foreign aggression and Indian leaders should stop daydreaming,” he said in a statement. In fact, the war of words was taken to a different level when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Bangladesh, obliquely referred to the role India had played in dividing Pakistan by supporting the Mukti Bahini. Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, while briefing the Senate on June 10, said that the Pakistani government had taken note of the statement by the Indian Prime Minister and that it would do what it could to expose India’s role in the separation of East Pakistan in 1971 and in destabilising Pakistan through terrorism. He urged the United Nations and the international community to take note of India’s admission of participating in activities that had destabilised Pakistan.

This followed a recommendation by the Senate Standing Committee on Interior & Narcotics Control, which suggested that Pakistan should consult the U.N. for registering a case of war crimes against India in the International Court of Justice in view of its admission of interference in East Pakistan. This was disclosed by the former Interior Minister and Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee, Rehman Malik, in the meeting of the committee which condemned the statements by the various Indian Ministers, including the one by Prime Minister Modi in Bangladesh. Malik said that Modi’s statement made it clear that India had played an “important role” in breaking Pakistan into two nations and that the Indian government was backing the terrorist activities of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan.

Sartaj Aziz also referred to Modi canvassing support in Bangladesh for a permanent seat for India in the U.N. Security Council and said India would not qualify for the seat because of its admission of interference in East Pakistan and because of the violations of U.N. resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir.

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