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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 26, New Delhi June 20, 2015

Army’s hit against Rebels was masterly. But some things a Government must keep to itself

Saturday 20 June 2015, by T J S George


The wise keep their own counsel, the foolish boast. Did we forget this timeless principle in our very moment of triumph? India’s commando operation against insurgent groups in Myanmar was skilful in planning and brilliant in execution. It was also unambiguous in the messages it conveyed—that attacks on our soldiers would not go unpunished, that insurgents who thought they were in safe havens because they were outside the border would have to think again. To the extent that decisions were taken at the Prime Minister’s level, the operation also reflected a toughening of India’s official position regarding enemies who harass our border forces.

All this is to the good. For the new toughness to be effective, however, circumspection is essential. Wise strategists have told us that intentions and tactics should never be made public. They have also explained why. “Don’t let the enemy figure out how to prepare. The best of plans is the one that is unknown,” said Sun Tzu in his The Art of War. If we do not want to listen to Chinese advice, let’s turn to Chanakya. In simple Sanskrit, he told us: “Manassaa chintitam karyam, vachsaa na prakaashyet... Never leak out well thought-out intentions; the implementation of them should also be achieved without any fanfare.”

But we have had only fanfare ever since the commandos returned to base. Ministers and spokesmen—with channel masters in excited attendance—beat their drums and flexed their muscles, gave details of what we did and how we did it, described how our troops and helicopters went inside Myanmar territory, “annihilating” two entire camps. If anybody missed the point, our chest-thumbing Tarzans said this was a message “to all countries”.

This was an exhibition to all countries of our political naivette. By contrast, the Army’s own official statement said, simply, that it had engaged two groups of insurgents “along the Indo-Mynamar border”. The Army respected Myanmar’s sovereignty while the politicians did not. We are lucky that we have a history of cooperation with Myanmar in tackling militant groups who roam the border regions. This time also, there is evidence to believe that Myanmar did what it could to help. But that does not mean that we should make it diplomatically difficult for Myanmar to hold its head high before the world. They protested (through diplomatic channels) and subsequently India has played down its “hot pursuit” claims. What message has this avoidable faux pas conveyed? We are going to need cooperation from Myanmar and from Nepal and Bangladesh and Bhutan and Sri Lanka and Mali to tackle crisis situations. They will all now be wary about India’s tendency to blow its own trumpet.

When our spokesmen bragged about the message to “all countries”, they meant of course Pakistan. Junior Minister in the Information Ministry Rajyavardhan Rathore rammed it in by saying that “all countries” included “even groups within countries that harbour terrorist intentions”. A textbook case of breaking Sun Tzu’s precept and giving strategists in Pakistan plenty of time to figure out their preparations and action plans. Some days ago the Defence Minister himself leaked out what was our manassaa chintitam karyam when he said that India would use terrorist groups to strike at terrorist groups elsewhere who try to attack us. Let us do that by all means, but no mature country will say this sort of thing in public. Insurgency by armed rebels is not a problem that can be solved with one “surgical” strike. In fact it can be further complicated if that one strike is handled in ways that motivate the rebels more strongly and provoke their abettors into more bellicosity. In this case the Army’s professionalism has been defeated by the politicians’ amateurishness.

Somewhere along the current alignment of power, there is a fault-line. In the past also Indian forces have carried out operations beyond the border with Myanmar and the Line of Control in Kashmir. These raids served their purpose and our adversaries took it in their stride quietly, for we made no public posturings to hurt their pride. This time even the scattered rebel groups in the North-East have sworn vengeance. A great deal of damage has been done by the indiscreet strutting of some of our leaders. To trumpet India’s power, for example, Rajyavardhan Rathore also used a twitter hashtag #56inRocks, an obvious reference to the Prime Minister’s chest size. Petty praise does more harm than good to Narendra Modi. Big bombast does more harm than good to India.