Indian Insurgencies

Wing Commander R V Parasnis (retd), August 2000

As the news about a series of killings in Kashmir goes searing through the heart, a message comes through loud and clear: 'securitywise, we have not quite got our act together and the terrorists can strike at will in Kashmir'.

We should have been the nation with the highest expertise in tackling an insurgency and not seen as blabbering fools not knowing what to do, besides expressing shock at the killings.

How do we bring this to an end? To find a solution, it is necessary to understand and analyse where we have gone wrong. That calls for a study of all old cases and a thorough understanding of the mechanics of the forces at play, identification of the mistakes committed as well as success achieved and learn lessons from them all. Partisan politics and half-baked solutions will not work.

Chronology of armed insurrections in India

The Communist Uprising

The first uprising that comes to mind is that ill-advised and misjudged attempt by the Communists to start an armed revolution just short of the fifties in the Telangana region. It was aimed at the landlords. The holdings of the landlords were huge and the subjects were indeed oppressed and yet the movement never had the people's support. It was closely followed by B T Ranadive's call to the Communist cadres to overthrow the elected governments all over India, without any organisational preparation/back up and military training/arms. He probably thought the country was ripe for a revolution of the Russia/China kind.

The Communist movement was put down easily enough by the government. The causes of its failure were:

a. The people were still afraid of the combined might of the landlords and the government.

b. The Communists were looked upon as anti-national by a fairly large portion of the populace. Alternatively it could be said that the Congress, under Nehru's leadership, was unbeatable in popularity at that time.

c. The Communist cadres had no military training and very few arms.

d. There was no external help for continued support such as supply of arms, change of tactics, replacement/reinforcement of manpower, widening the base of the conflict etc.

e. The tenancy act passed by the government and Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement took the bite out of the anti-landlord movement.

Nagaland insurgency

Next we faced a proper insurgency in Nagaland. The Nagas started an armed rebellion against the Union in the early fifties. The British presumably looked after them better because the Nagas were, supposedly, quite happy with them. They had, however, a strong grouse against us. That the missionaries were their advisers is an open secret and anyone spending some time in Nagaland, such as this writer, would know it. The sympathies of the West therefore were with the Nagas. Judging from the asylum granted by UK to their leader Phizo and the pro-Naga coverage in the British press at regular intervals, one can safely infer some tacit British support to this rebellion. A stable India was never on England's agenda.

Mizoram insurgency

This was followed by the insurgency in Mizoram, where again the disenchantment with the Union was the cause for the extreme disaffection of the Mizos. Of course, the ethnic differences and a wide social gap between them and the rest of us were used, both by Nagas and the Mizos, as a handy excuse for claiming autonomy/independence. In both these cases the rebels received arms and training from China and advice from the missionaries.

No action was taken by the government against such practices by the missionaries. If the inaction against the religious preachers indulging in politics and covertly creating a rebellious atmosphere strengthened our secular credentials in the eyes of the West, there is no evidence of it. There is sufficient proof, however, that we are and were always perceived as a weak State. Did the inability of our rulers to catch the bull by the horns and nip the trouble in the bud lead to such perceptions?

While both these insurgencies in the hilly states of the northeast lasted long and were often a scene of tough and bloody battles between the rebels and the security forces, the guns were never turned on the civilians by these rebels. They fought a gentleman's war. The guerrilla warfare in the thick jungles and the mountains was tough for our army, but they managed to get an upper hand and get the rebels on the run. The route to China was long and arduous and was sealed by the security forces well enough. Both the Naga and the Mizo rebel commands were unified commands and it is always easy to enter into a dialogue with a single adversary to find a solution. The eventual end of both these insurgencies was achieved with a political solution.

The Naxalite movement

Around this time there was that another Communist sponsored movement in Naxalbari and it did not last long either, though it created ripples as far away as Telangana. Without direct access to a foreign power, a genuinely popular cause and sufficient funds, the future and the scope of the uprising was doomed from the very start, though the basic cause of dissatisfaction among the poor/oppressed people was very much present.

To some extent these movements continue even today in Telangana in the form of the People's War Group and in Bihar in the continuing feud between the warring Senas, but they are well within the control of the respective governments. If we have failed to wipe out these movements altogether, it is because we are unable to enforce social justice and the government has not concentrated upon the eradication of this armed movement.

Our law enforcement machinery is bad and the laws are in favour of the criminals, giving us a very poor rate of conviction. It has become a tradition with us to find a military answer to every problem. We have made it a habit to turn away the moment the intensity of the problem at hand is reduced, the root cause thus remaining dormant and smouldering.

The Assam insurgency  

Then there followed the ethnic sentiment in Assam on the rise against the 'oppressive Indian government'. The Assamese blamed the Indians in general and the Bengalis in particular, for subjecting the state to demographic imbalance. Their grouse against outsiders coming and settling in their lands was genuine. And the governments in power then in greater Assam (in the time of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed) and the Centre must accept blame for the same, especially the influx of the 'Bangla Deshis'. As for the slow pace of development, the people of Assam need to do some introspection for their own lack of enterprise.

The northeastern situation became complicated with the number of smaller militant sects coming up. Over a period of time, in addition to the two main Assamese groups fighting for autonomy of Assam -- the AGM and ULFA, there came the Bodos, NDFB and Kukis to guard their tribal interests. Then came the National Liberation Front of Tripura, and now we also see the United Bengali Liberation Front and Bengali Liberation Tiger Force in action. Thus in the northeast we find polarisation of the people along Assamese/non-Assamese and tribal/non-tribal lines. The tribal armed bands are said to be missionary-linked/Christian sponsored.

These divisions are seen to only widen all the time. Is our entire social fabric getting torn and divided in such a dangerous manner? Why can't we be sincere about finding a genuine solution involving all the parties? Leave alone an odd kidnapping and murder, the killings in the northeast are mainly borne out of backlash against the migrants, tribal/internal feuds or a result of attacks on the security forces.

We have been able to keep the situation in the northeast under reasonable bounds with a strong military presence, though we have failed to control it. The problem is that we ignore the trouble created by the populist politics of the rulers as well as the opposition until it is too late. We fail to act against an aggressor and make concessions to a bully until those suffering injustice exhaust their tolerance.

Above all, appeasements and pretensions are our national trademark, as a part of the solution to any problem. An aggressive band of people can easily take advantage of such weak handling and gain in strength. Justice and fairness become casualties, forcing the oppressed to take recourse to arms. The simmering mixture finally reaches flash point due to inaction and a lack of will to call a spade a spade. In time new movements spring up, complicating the situation.

What are people to do when they find that they can get nothing by putting up demands peacefully and like decent citizens should but that our political rulers will always cow down before aggression? Our tragedy is that the same story has been repeated again and again with no lessons being learned.

The Assam insurgency was also solved through achieving a military upper hand and political agreements with the militant elements. The insurgency still continues, albeit at a lower intensity, due to our unwillingness to obliterate the root cause. Our politicians feel that inaction and passage of time eventually forces people to adjust and solve their own problems. That is exactly what the people are doing, but with recourse to violence and sabotage. By itself, the present-age trend has no place for mature understanding, peaceful adjustments and compromise, unless special efforts are made towards such an end.

Enter Pakistan: The Khalistan movement  

Then came the great Sikh insurgency, wherein a community known for its patriotism, sacrifice and enterprising ability went berserk and for the first time, our country faced a Pakistan-sponsored insurgency full in the face.

A covert Western support to the Khalistani movement cannot be ruled out if one were to draw inferences from the facts that Khalistani currency notes were printed in the US and Canada, that the world headquarters of this movement operated from the UK, and that the governments of these three countries acted in duplicitous manner on the Khalistani issue until it affected them and their citizens created an uproar at the atrocities, especially the sabotaging of the Air-India Jumbo jet. The biased coverage (pro-Khalistani and anti-India) received in the entire Western press gave one a feeling of it being some kind of a conspiracy. The US those days was bent upon destabilising India.

The taste of Pakistan-sponsored insurgency was bitter to the extreme. Not only did Pakistan manage to turn a patriotic community against its motherland, but by making the best use of the cruel element inculcated by this community, ironically to fight the brutal, barbaric and non-tolerant rule of the Muslim kings, they edged them on to indulge in cold blooded mass murders and mayhem, turning guns on the innocent and the unarmed, sparing none -- neither women, children nor the aged. The utter cruelty and the heinous criminality of this movement are best forgotten.

Here again the Sikhs felt they were deprived of their rightful share of everything by the Government of India. I fail to see how. It appears that a weak government naturally invites a host of accusations, mostly imaginary. The blame for doing political injustice to the Sikhs was one such.

We had given Punjab a great dam and an irrigation system on priority before the other states received them. That is what made their Green Revolution a reality. We even gave them the surplus water, originally the rightful share of the arid regions of Rajasthan, for decades, the Rajasthan canal system being under development. The background was that as per the Indus Treaty, the international water treaty between India and Pakistan, the catchments of that much water from the rivers flowing from our territory into theirs was permitted mainly on account of the arid regions of Rajasthan. So when the time came to return the rightful share to Rajasthan, it was made to look as if it was at the cost of Punjab.

Also, Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular have always represented India in every field and have managed to receive maximum lollypops from the Centre with their aggressively demanding nature, to which the Centre is always seen to submit meekly. Compare that with what Maharashtra has received in spite of having contributed nearly 80 per cent of the nation's wealth for decades. So where was the political injustice? The whole movement was a result of a well-planned conspiracy, instigation, subversion and the gullible people falling prey to such nefarious designs.

In spite of regular killings, dacoity, hijackings and other heinous crimes, there were no convictions of the dastardly criminals in Punjab.

Eventually, the known weaknesses of the Khalistani terrorists caused them to lose popular support among their people. A determined, strong military action by the Centre and the steely resolve of the Punjab police under K P S Gill put an end to this shameful chapter, but not without involving a political process. Nevertheless, during the negotiations the government gave an impression of talking from a position of weakness, mainly on account of the appeasement tactics and pretensions that every one is basically goody-goody.

Thus we have it on record that:

a. In spite of our long experience in tackling insurgencies, we have learnt nothing about dealing with them on a political level.

b. A State becomes weak in the absence of a strong judicial system to mete out timely justice and punish law-breakers.

c. By itself, military action cannot obliterate an insurgency, though the military upper hand is a fundamental ingredient absolutely necessary to get the militants to the negotiating table. Also, military superiority is of only temporary use in the face of an ineffective judiciary.

d. The insurgencies are caused by severe injustice or external instigation, bad and selfish politics, weak handling by the state and lack of will to take tough decisions.

e. The other ingredients necessary to fuel it are subversion and assistance by some external power for the regular supply of arms, ammunition, explosives and funds. Also needed is an easy access to an external power for getting reinforcements, a safe haven to operate a command and control centre, withdraw for rest, review of tactics and training.

f. The insurgency can only be solved through a political solution based on fairness, firmness of resolve and merciless military reply breaking its back.

g. While we have always used appeasement and pretensions as tools successfully in our political dialogues, it has shown our government in a weak position and has, in all probability, encouraged similar rebellions, again or elsewhere.