Surgical Strikes in Myanmar: India’s tectonic shift in Counter Insurgency
Ever since her independence, India has had to deal with the issues of fragile borderlands and insurgencies- whether it is along the north western frontiers bordering Pakistan or along the eastern frontiers bordering with Myanmar. The fragile borderlands along North East India have seen widespread conflicts mostly related to the multi ethnicity of population and the political and economic feeding grounds of discontent. Militancy or insurgency in the region has been ranged as the strategy to achieve political and personal ends, through the use of extreme violence and picking up arms against the Indian State. One such act of insurgency in North East India that saw a tectonic shift in India’s Counter Insurgency Policy was the attack on the Indian Army Convoy in June 2015.
On 4th June, 2015 a group of insurgents in Manipur’s Chandel district (80km from the capital city of Imphal) ambushed a 4 vehicle Indian Army convoy at around 0830 hours killing 18 of our brave soldiers and injuring 11 others. It was the worst attack on the Indian Army in the last 2 decades on a single day. The Army Patrol/Convoy attacked had soldiers from the 6th Battalion of the Dogra Regiment that was out for a road opening party. The 4 vehicle convoy also included soldiers who had finished their tour of duty and were to return home. The Ghatak Platoon of 6 Dogra was also present in one of the vehicles and they were going out for area domination. There were close to 50 plus insurgents present at a higher ground, hiding in the plush green jungle when they opened fire. The insurgents used land mines, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), rocket propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles to attack the vehicles. The Indian Army barely had a chance to respond to the simultaneous attack because of the casualties that had already taken place and also due to the difficulty of the terrain. However SS Raja (member of the separatist group NSCN – K) (National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang) the leader of the insurgents that had attacked the convoy was killed in the ambush when the Indian Army soldiers fired back. This attack was carried out as a joint operation of an umbrella organization of insurgents that came together after the NSCN – K and NSCN – IM (National Socialist Council Of Nagaland – Isak – Muivah) split in Nagaland, following NSCN – K walking out of the agreement of peace talks with the government of India. It was considered to be a major realignment of militant forces in the North East of India and a first major strike under the leadership of the NSCN – K.
The attack on the army convoy in Chandel district of Manipur
Right after the attack, the Indian Army launched a massive combing operation in an attempt to seal off the porous border with Myanmar where the insurgents had escaped to. They also ensured that there was enough surveillance and personnel presence there to avoid a repeat of a situation like this ever again. Back in New Delhi , as the news of the cowardly attack on the army came in, then Home Minister Rajnath Singh convened a meeting attended by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, NSA Ajit Doval and then Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag. The Defence Minister and Home Minister ordered for the strongest retaliation possible at the earliest, while General Suhag and NSA Doval maintained patience and assured an effective action at a place and time very carefully chosen and confirmed. The very next day Army chief General Suhag flew to Imphal to take stock of the situation on the ground and discuss the plan of action with the area commander of that zone (Lt General Bipin Rawat), the GOC of 3 Corps (The Dimapur Based Nagaland Corp), Lt General MMS Rai (Eastern Army Commander) and with the officials of the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing to zero down on when and where to strike against the group of militants. Along with them attending the high level meet were two others – Commanding officer of 21 Para (Special Forces) unit and his 2IC – two officers, who a fortnight later would eventually execute the plan that was being formulated at that point. Once the go ahead for the counter response was given by the political leadership after the army chief and NSA had made direct suggestions for a cross border “hot pursuit” operation, the army chose its best force trained for counterinsurgency and jungle warfare – the 21 Para (SF). Nicknamed the Waghnakh (Tigers Claw), the unit operates in the most impenetrable tropical jungles. They are the masters of stealth and unconventional warfare – they fight their guerilla with utmost effectiveness. A unit of the 21 Para (SF) was waiting in Delhi to take a special flight to South Sudan since they had been selected to go on the UN deployment. The army chief ordered them to get back to their base in the North East as their first task was to conduct special operations on home soil. Later that night, the Indian Air Force’s C-130J Super Hercules from the 77th ‘Veiled Vipers’ squadron carried them at full throttle to Manipur, from Delhi.
The location of the insurgent camps across the Indo Myanmar border
After hours of surveillance from the reports available at the Rangapahar Military Base and after on ground intelligence being verified by the Kuki Jawans (one of the numerous tribes in the North East), two insurgent training camps, very close to the Indo-Myanmar border, were zeroed down as the strike places for the hot pursuit operation, with each camp estimated having about 150 insurgents. (Hot Pursuit means that a border doesn’t matter in case of an attack on the State, if the insurgents or terrorists attack the state, the Army will come across any border to take revenge on that attack). The 2 locations identified included: one beyond Manipur’s border and the other off Nagaland’s border with Myanmar. Since these were porous borders in dense jungles, it was very difficult to man the borders and any insurgent could easily enter India and slip back into Burmese territory. On the 9th of June 2015, 64 hand-picked men were carrying Carl Gustav 84mm Rocket Launchers, Pulemyot Kalashnikovs general purpose machine guns, Israeli made Tavor Tar 21 assault rifles, Colt M4 carbines, AK 47s and under barrel grenade launchers. Their CO carried his preferred M4AI assault rifles ready to take down the insurgents who had mercilessly killed their 18 brothers-in-arms. The men covered 40km on foot from the Indian side to reach a designated hilltop in Myanmar from where they could scan the camps before conducting the final attack. The 2 camps had been completely annihilated by the Special Forces men, estimated to have killed between 65 to 70 insurgents who were completely taken by surprise by the swiftness of the attack of the Special Forces. There were no casualties on the Indian side making it one of the most successful operations of this kind ever. At around 1500 hours on the 10th of June the operation was considered a success and complete as the soldiers had returned to the first border village on the Indian side, where two of Indian Army's Dhruv Helicopters waited to fly back the victorious jawans back to Leimakhong, Manipur.
The 2015 Surgical Strikes in Myanmar saw a landmark shift in India's Counter Insurgency Policy. The first of its kind, swift yet effective retribution was only possible due to the stealth and strength of the Armed Forces and the will of the political leadership. Hot pursuit made way as India's latest and official counterinsurgency policy. The notion of safe haven beyond the country’s border after every hit-and-run insurgent attack stood shattered now for the insurgents. The surgical strikes further tightened the two countries’ collaboration over security concerns that facilitated co-ordinated patrolling and intelligence sharing. Over the years, the strikes continue to be a significant reason in the declining trend of insurgency-linked casualties in the North Eastern states of India, with the lowest ever, since 2000, at 37 casualties in 2019. Incidentally, 2015’s Myanmar Ambush, knowingly or unknowingly, set precedence for similar surgical strikes in PoK witnessed by the country in the recent past.
The clandestine operations were also the first Hot Pursuit Operation of its kind in the eastern sector, first Joint commando operation by Indian Army and Indian Air Force on Foreign Soil, first Seek and Destroy operation officially acknowledged by the army and the first direct special forces action against north east terror groups.
The Myanmar raid heroes : 21 Para SF troops
Book : Securing India The Modi Way by Nitin A Gokhale, Chapter 5 Striking Hard In Myanmar
Book : India's Most Fearless 1 by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, Chapter 2 They Didn’t know we were there.