Eighteen soldiers died in the Manipur ambush on June 4. The political and military leadership was embarrassed. But the attack was overshadowed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. A credible and quick response was needed to signal the government and army’s resolve to meet the latest militant challenge. That came within a week, when the army carried out an operation against the militants that was widely acclaimed.
However, the manner in which the government informed the public about the military action has become controversial. Government articulation and messaging in such cases has to be appropriate. Was it so in this instance?
The government’s information-sharing had multiple objectives: repairing the army’s morale, assuring the nation that such actions would not go unpunished, gaining political mileage and fulfilling the imperatives of security and foreign policy. It would be unrealistic to expect that complete secrecy would be maintained after the operation and that the action itself would have constituted the entire message to the concerned militant groups.
The army statement on the day of the attack was professional and gave sufficient information to fulfil the objectives of the messaging — except that of gaining political credit. The statement read out by Major General Ranveer Singh said that “the Indian army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders”. The urgent action was needed because of an imminent threat and it was revealed that the operation had resulted in “significant casualties” to the militants. On Myanmar, it stated, “We are in touch with the Myanmar authorities on this matter. There is a history of close cooperation between our two militaries.”
If the operation had involved cross-border action, it was necessary to obfuscate it. This is precisely what the army statement did, while stressing the cooperation that takes place between two countries in security operations. No country, especially not one as sensitive as Myanmar, is willing to accept that action has taken place on its soil by the army of a neighbour, even with prior notice and approval. Respecting the sensitivity of a neighbour is a prerequisite for continued and unhindered cooperation.
The minister of state for information and broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, had clearly, though informally, been fielded by the government to gather political kudos. There would have been nothing wrong in doing this if he had stuck to the army’s script, simply underlined the political will demonstrated by Modi and spoken generally of India’s determination to defeat terrorism. However, he went further to say that the forces had entered the territory of another country during the action. This was ill-advised. Responding to a query, Rathore said the action was a message to any country, even to our west.
That the action was “cross-border” was leaked, deliberately or otherwise, prior to the army statement. Over the next two days, leaks on the “details”, including on the roles of the national security advisor and the army chief, followed. Altogether, these leaks were haphazard and damaging. Rathore’s comments and the media reaction naturally angered the Myanmar authorities, who were compelled to deny that their country’s territory had been used. Their outrage will now have to be soothed, as their cooperation is essential for anti-militancy operations.
Pakistan’s intense reaction, including its parliament’s resolution, is par for the course and entirely along expected lines. The resolution and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s riposte have attracted attention, but in the larger scheme of India-Pakistan relations, they are of little consequence.
The enduring lesson from this episode is that political novices, careless comments and over-ambition to gain political credit can cast a shadow on undoubted achievement.
The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.