Although there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes terror, the manner in which the term is used suggests both a descriptive and prescriptive application. It is, however, used primarily in the normative sense in order to signal that violence that is perpetrated is wanton, immoral and unjustified. As a consequence, groups accused of being terrorists rarely identify themselves as terrorists, using instead terms such as freedom fighters, militants, insurgents, guerrilla or even fidayeens.
Notwithstanding the fact that India has suffered considerably from terrorist action, it has not been able to take steps against the perpetrators in the way it should have, nor has it addressed the nuance of counter-terror in an inclusive manner. To that end, most action against terrorism has been stimulus-response, promenading on the margins of ambiguity. Whether it is the situation in Kashmir and the North East, or the activities of left-wing outfits in Central India and external groups—with dynamic India connection—such as Lashkar-e-Toiba or Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, conflict experts are of the view that absence of a visibly defined anti-terrorism guiding principle has not only straitjacketed India’s response to irregular warfare and terror, but has barred it from constructing full-bodied resolution with ethnic militant groups that are slowly beginning to take on terror characteristics.
In any event, what is the concept of a doctrine in the discourse of state action? If a doctrine is to lend itself to comprehensive evaluation, then it would surface purely as a belief system that is created on the basis of authority. Therefore, a doctrine comes to the fore when there is a correct comprehension of the universe of discourse in which a state stations itself and its perception of threat to the discourse. A clearly defined manner in which it seeks to both fortify itself and respond to threat would consequently propel it to prime nationhood.
Indeed, the quest for a doctrine effectively begins with a correct understanding of the paradigm in which a state seeks to situate itself in. Such an understanding could stem from the examination of a number of aspects, including a state-system’s distinctive character, ethical values, the relationship between the governance and the governed and how it perceives renegade behaviour, anti-state action and external aggression. If a doctrine is normally accepted as authoritative, and as a principle that may not be questioned, then the reason behind such a consideration would be that the doctrine was arrived at after extensive weighing up. Even age-old Indian commandments have evolved over the ages on the shoulders of a philosophy that has been held to be uncreated and eternal,[i] at times even assuming canonical status. But a closer examination at even such imperatives would showcase that considerable deliberation had spawned that eternal authority: even as ancient Indian seers delved deep into the Brihadarnayaka[ii] in search of the uncreated word, it was essentially cerebration and dialectics that had characterised the end product.
If the combat guideline for the Indian army, for example—in its broadest structure—is based on holding and strike formations, then it exhibits a belief system based on tactical consideration that has been arrived at after considerable thought and validation. India has been to war on five occasions, and although each time witnessed a different character of warfare, the fact of the matter is that the Indian army had the opportunity to assess and develop its doctrine. A doctrine will, therefore, have to perforce evolve, even as it adheres to a set of beliefs that have been substantiated over time. In other words, although the tactical considerations of a doctrine may acquire newer insights, and as a result experience calibration, the broad parameters would not change unless a paradigm shift occurs. Paradigm shift—by way of illustration—in an extra-Indian context would include the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 and the Soviet Union in 1991.
Other formulations of doctrine could include ones that are a priori, as opposed to a posteriori ones like the aforesaid Indian army doctrine. An instance of an a priori doctrine[iii] would be the Indian nuclear doctrine. Despite the fact that it has never used its nuclear arsenal in war, India possesses an operational nuclear doctrine. The doctrine stems from India’s understanding of the discourse in which its own nuclear potential and that of its adversaries rest. Therefore, if the most important coordinates of India’s nuclear doctrine rest on (i) building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent (ii) a posture of “No first Use”: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere (iv) nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority and the last point (viii) continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament,[iv] the aspects which filter through showcase India’s worldview by way of its faith in democracy and civilian authority, non-aggressive posture and an understanding of the principle of deterrence.
The formulation of a full-bodied doctrine, therefore, is characterised by a state-system’s Weltanschauung, and need not necessarily be egged on by experience. However, a doctrine is needed to not only govern response of a state-system, but also to act in the manner of a design that would guide the response. In India, anti-terror perception has waxed and waned in the most quixotic of ways. Different governments have different ways of relating and reacting to the same dilemma. Indeed, political one-upmanship has forced a regime to hold dialogue and negotiate with terrorist/separatist outfits, which the replaced regime had avoided. While debate continues whether there is profit in such vagueness,[v] the fact of the matter is that a mature democracy such as India cannot afford to continue with such ambiguities. Indeed, the need for a doctrine becomes even more imperative when a problem is persistently afflicting a state-system, the experience of which should actually hasten the process of formulation. The absence of a well-thought out anti-terror doctrine for India, especially as it is one of the most terror-distressed nations, is a weakness that is conspicuous, one that has led to a great deal of not only uncertainty but at times even calumny on the Indian security forces.
The doggedness with which IIGs camping out of Myanmar have been attacking security forces in the North East has become almost a textbook portrayal. Therefore, if it was the 6 Dogras that were ambushed in Chandel on 4 June 2015, it was the 46 Assam Rifles in Churachandpur on 13 November 2021. The only brazen variation was that the militants did not spare non-combatants including the wife and minor son of Col. Viplav Tripathi in the second instance. The act was uncanny because non-state action has never quite targeted civilians in the past. This is so despite the fact that both the People’s Liberation Army (Manipur) (PLA-M) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), terrorist outfits that perpetrated the assault have feigned “ignorance” about the presence of Col. Tripathi’s family when the ambush took place, a barefaced lie by all accounts. The analysis, therefore, points to a style of action that approximates terrorism. After all, when the United Liberation Front of Asom’s (ULFA) “Programmable Time Delay Device” killed children on 15 August 2004 in Dhemaji, Paresh Baruah apologised for the mistake. The NSCN (IM), too, reportedly never targets civilians and it apparently observed Sundays as a day of non-action during the period preceding the 1997 cessation of violence agreement. But for all the ethical conduct of the past the face of North East insurgency—hijacked by anti-India forces—are jettisoning their earlier “Rules of Engagement.” Indeed, one of the reasons for the attack on Col. Tripathi was because he was coming down heavily on the “drug cartels” in the area and the PLA-M and the MNPF—insurgents that make up the “southern cluster” in Myanmar’s Chin Hills—were reportedly “paid” to “teach him a lesson”. In any event, the key indicator that should be drawn is that terrorist outfits are being mobilised in order to carry out anti-India operations. Furthermore, with the reported entry of the Chinese, the North East is all set to witness more such action in the future, perhaps with the objective of pinning down troops to Counter Terrorism duties and away from their primary border management posture in the India-China boundary. The coming days would be the era of irregular warfare and India has to decisively prepare for it at every conceivable level, tactical, strategic as also in the grand strategy realm.
Therefore, the question which needs to be asked at this stage is as to why has India not anvilled an anti-terrorism doctrine? Is it because it continues to grope around for a comprehensive definition of what constitutes terror? Or, is it because its unique belief system deliberately wants a flexible anti-terrorism policy? Or, has it, in the face of inability to formulate a flexible policy, kept clear of any doctrine formulation whatsoever? The predicament that India is faced with also stems from the fact that there exists a non-articulated perception in policymaking circles that there is an inherent distinction between ethnic militancy such as NSCN and ULFA on the one hand and Islamist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba on the other. Indeed, this is so despite the fact that—at times—the activities of outfits such as PLA (Manipur) approximate that of a group like Lashkar-e-Toiba as was seen to be the case when the Churachandpur ambush took place. It should also be questioned whether ethnic insurgencies realising the futility of pursuance of their founding principles for utopian imaginings such as sovereignty are taking, as aforesaid, to aspects such as narco-terrorism and gun-running for purely mercenary reasons. The fact that such groups are aligning themselves with sworn enemies of India in return for safe havens, monetary and arms aid and sustenance makes their intentions all the more dubious. For instance, some years ago, the self-styled chairman of the ULFA made statements about Tibet and the Dalai Lama which was almost as if he was acting as a public relations manager of China. Insurgent behaviour in the North East, therefore, is taking strange turns answers for which the policy planners of the country should not be unaware of. Indeed, there seems to be no crisis of definition. It is quite clear in its understanding of the meaning of terrorism. Indeed, in the opinion of the author, it is in fact such an understanding that has led not only to the ambivalence that characterises India’s response to terror, but the non-articulated perception of what constitutes terrorism.
The paper enumerates the various stages in the evolution of an anti terror doctrine:
- A clearly defined policy
- Central guidance and execution of such policies: It has been seen that most state governments work at variance with the policies of the Centre. This works to the detrimental of the country’s over-arching national security. A full-bodied, clear-cut policy that is guided by the Centre is the need of the hour. Indeed, despite the fact that law and order is a state subject, terrorism must be addressed directly by New Delhi.
- The defined policies that would guide the doctrine may include:
- No negotiation with terrorism or insurgency that approximates terrorism.
- Dialogue with insurgency movements only within defined guidelines. A task force comprising of retired Indian army, law enforcers and domain specialists should be constituted by an executive order to determine the aforesaid defined guidelines.
- Pro-active measures, including pre-emptive strikes on anti-India terrorist/insurgent camps and bases outside India as well as surgical strikes as was carried out in both inside Myanmar and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. However, such action should not be tom-tommed and there should be complete discretion in its execution.
- Sovereignty is non-negotiable. Indeed, even a discussion of the question of sovereignty would greatly dilute the concept, and should therefore not be permitted. In case of stalemate arising out of such a policy, it should fall on the various agencies of the government to circuit the issue. The ability to convince the NSCN (IM) to steer clear of the phrase “sovereign Nagalim” in the Naga talks was a way out. The long and short of it is that India must not even be seen to be discussing sovereignty or aspects such as separate flag and constitution. The manner in which these aspects are being discussed with the NSCN (IM) are emboldening other groups who would perforce demand similar concessions.
- Strengthening of existing anti-terror laws.
- Punitive action against sympathisers , beneficiaries of terrorism and funding sources.
- Strengthening of mechanisms such as psychological warfare in order to combat terror.
- Creation of and the joining in anti-terror cooperative groups in the region especially with countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Indeed, the paper takes the opportunity to question the ambivalence with which India’s Myanmar options are being sought to be constructed. In the aftermath of the 1 February 2021 military takeover several IIGs have come into an agreement with the Myanmar army whereby they are being utilised to quell the rebellion against the Tatmadaw. A clear policy is required by which New Delhi should adopt a pragmatic approach and conduct business with whoever is in the seat of power in Naypyidaw. It is all the more imperative as there are clear signs that China is making active inroads into almost all aspect of Myanmarese life and would be utilising the areas that abut the North East to encourage cross-border attacks on Indian security forces and sensitive installations inside India.
- Spearhead a global denouncement and alienation of states sponsoring or not acting against terror.
- Non-distinction of terror perpetrated by religious groups. It is extremely important to address the threat of terror in an objective manner, without colouring ones anti terror spectacles with a religious bias. Therefore, if Islamist terror groups are to be targeted then the war should be proclaimed as one against terrorism and not religion. Similarly extremism perpetrated by other religious groups must be dealt with equivalent severity.
New Delhi’s failure to match short-term goals with long-term imperatives is conspicuous by bouts of short-sightedness. Counter insurgency operations by its very definition play black, a disadvantage that determines response. But as any sound chess player will surmise, advantages can easily be engineered after opening gambits have been traded. Unfortunately, for the North East, this has not been perceived as a possibility. Non-sensitive solutions that do not look beyond the immediately conceivable, non-comprehension of the dynamics that govern the North Eastern mind and the failure to set into action methodologies that prevail over mere stimulus response are responsible for the ailments that continue to beleaguer the region.
But what should be the immediate way ahead? One that can be instituted pending the construction of a full-bodied anti-terror doctrine that is comprehensive in its character. The author has always felt that there should be a separate security policy making body for the North East. Polemics apart, brass tacks demand that such an arrangement needs to be formed without delay. New Delhi has not applied sufficient cerebration for the construction of an all-inclusive structure that would resolutely attend to the essentials of the region’s security. The need of the hour is, therefore, the constitution of a North East Security Council under the Prime Minister’s Office. Such a Council, which would have a Security Adviser (North East) as its head, would report to the National Security Adviser (NSA) and advice the nation’s security czar, after due process and consultation with representatives from all the eight states, on facets that would have in its ambit not only traditional security issues like border management, illegal migration, drug-gun running, insurgency and Islamist terror, but would also be mandated to plan and guide retributive and appropriate action against belligerence of any form or manner from terrorist/insurgent groupings. The formation of such a council would also decisively inform the North East that New Delhi is serious about the region’s health. The attacks in Chandel and Churachandpur in Manipur as also the unfortunate incident in Mon district of Nagaland should present itself as opportunities for serious introspection and even consideration of what is being recommended by way of a North East Security Council under the broad rubric of an anti-terror doctrine.
Notes and References
[i] Indian philosophy renders itself to certain authoritative sources, or sruti, something that was heard and revealed. For instance, Vedic literature is regarded as revealed truth because it is eternal truth perceived by the ancient seers and then transmitted to humanity. Such eternal authoritative aspects have parallels in other religions and philosophies as well such as Islam (when Allah revealed the Holy Quran to the Prophet).
[ii] Literally translated, it means the “great forest.” The Upanishads—profound philosophical statements—were a result of great contemplation, and one such, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is ascribed to the sage Yajnavalkya. The doctrine of “Neti, Neti” (“not this, not this”) is found in this Upanishad which can be interpreted as the negation of all conceptions of self, which is akin to the Anatta doctrine of Buddhism.
[iii] It must be understood that all doctrines per se are a priori. The paper is making a distinction here only in order to distinguish between the two types in the aforesaid context.
[iv] The other four points in the eight-point Indian nuclear doctrine include (iii) Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage (v) Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states (vi) However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons and (vii) A continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
[v] Certain separatist organisations in India have come to the negotiating table primarily because of the principle of charity, which certain regimes have undertaken. While the H.D. Deve Gowda regime may have taken on the Naga issue in order to earn political brownie points, it willy-nilly ensured that the process became irreversible. Indeed, the way in which a stalemate has come about at present in the centre’s dialogue process with the NSCN (IM) by way of a separate flag, constitution and even an inclusion of Naga dominated areas into a Greater Nagaland is to a considerable extent the manner in which the present dispensation has inherited the NSCN (IM) dialogue process from earlier regimes.
[Jaideep Saikia is an internationally acclaimed conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. He had his education in the RIMC, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Saikia also served in several security advisorial capacities in the Governments of India and Assam. He is also Asia’s sole Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA]