6 Dogra had completed their tenure in Manipur and were scheduled to move out shortly to their new location. The unit was deployed in the Chandel District of Manipur, and a convoy of four vehicles was moving on the Tengnoupal-New Samtal Road on 4 June 2015. It was a routine convoy movement. The road had been sanitised or so the unit believed. At least they had sanitised the portion that fell in their area of operational responsibility. The rest of the road was the responsibility of an Assam Rifles Battalion.
Unknown to the unit, a group of militants had planned an ambush on that stretch of the road. The area was hilly, with thick undergrowth, which enabled the militants to lie well concealed and was about 15 to 20 km from the Myanmar border, which enabled a quick getaway to a safe sanctuary after the operation was over. At about 9 a.m., the convoy was on a stretch of road between Paralong and Charalong villages, when the militants struck, firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and Lathode Grenades, followed by a deadly fusillade of automatic fire. This firing continued for about 10 to 12 minutes. The first vehicle carrying the quick reaction team and the next two vehicles carrying troops came into the killing zone of the ambush. The leading two vehicles suffered the maximum number of fatalities and the third vehicle suffered the maximum number of non fatal injuries. Of the 30 plus personnel travelling in these three vehicles, 18 were killed in action and 11 were wounded.
A lot has been said and written about his ambush. Indeed, it was the biggest attack on the Army in over a decade, and brought forth questions about operating procedures and drills. Some were quick to castigate the unit, alleging that Standard Operating Procedures had not been followed. There was a desire to be first with the news, a ‘breaking news’ moment with all the gory details, mostly conjecture and half truths. In the process, some fundamental issues remained unaddressed.
That the unit was not moving as per SOPs is not correct. The troop carrying vehicles had about 15 personnel each to include the driver and the co-driver. That meant that in the body of the vehicle, there were about 12 to 13 men. So obviously, the vehicles were not overloaded. 6 Dogra had sanitised their stretch of the road, so that was all right too. The Assam Rifles Battalion responsible for the stretch of road where the ambush took place had also confirmed that the road had been sanitised. How the ambush took place in a stretch of sanitised road is now being investigated and doubtless lessons will emerge. But reports stating that SOPs were not followed were patently false and were an attempt to inject some element of sensationalism into the incident and to find an immediate scapegoat for what was certainly a very serious loss to the Army, both in terms of casualties suffered and in credibility.
What got missed out however, was the counter ambush drill followed by the Army. The militants were many times more in number than the army jawans and they had the element of surprise with them. In the initial burst of fire, they had caused massive casualties to the Army personnel. What was left were a few injured personnel in the vehicles that were attacked. From here onwards, an adverse situation was retrieved and a massacre was averted. Despite the shock of the initial assault, the survivors fought back. This surprised the militants who did not expect any resistance at all. They had planned to kill the survivors by closing in on the vehicles and thereafter taking away all the weapons. That plan could not fructify. With fire being returned immediately on the militants, they found the going too tough to handle and left the scene in haste. Their commander, a 30 year old man called Rajabglung Kamei of Noney in Tamenglong district was killed and his body and weapon recovered. Another militant was killed and his body was found some distance from the ambush site. It appeared from radio intercepts that quite a few militants were injured of which two more are believed to have died later. This indicates a very high standard of training and discipline of the Army and undoubtedly must redound to the credit of the unit.
But something did go wrong, else we would not have had 18 Indian soldiers killed. There perhaps wereshortcomings in the road opening drills followed. That will be determined by the investigation. But looking at the situation from a different angle, what a road opening party does is to ensure that their are no IEDs placed on the road and after that it pickets the road to see that the road remains clear. In hilly terrain with thick forest cover, it is easy for a large group of men to lie concealed about a hundred yards off the road and move forward just before the ambush is to be sprung. In the ambush, there was no IED on the road, so the road opening party would have assumed all was clear. If the militants were hiding away from the road, it would be practically impossible to detect them. As the area to be covered is large, every nook and corner cannot be picketed, especially in an area where the entire stretch of road is a potential ambush site and the aim is to hit a vehicle by rocket fire. This, to all intents was what the ambush did. It did not use IEDs and initiated the attack by firing RPGs. A change in operating philosophy of road opening parties is hence called for and doubtless drills will be refined in the near future.
The attack was carried out by three groups. These were NSCN (K) (Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)), The KCP, (Kangleipak Communist Party) and the militant Meitei KYKL(Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup). The NSCN (K) was formed in 1988 after a fallout between the Burmese-born S S Khaplang and the leaders of the NSCN (IM), Thuingaleng Muivah and Isaac Swu. For the last few years, the Khaplang Group, which is strong in Eastern Nagaland and in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, has made inroads in Manipur, which is the stronghold of NSCN (IM). It withdrew from a declared ceasefire with India in March this year but continues to have a ceasefire with Myanmar.
‘Kangleipak’ is the Manipuri name for Manipur. There are about 30 factions of the KCP currently operating in Manipur. The smaller groups number just about 15 to 20 personnel; the larger groups go up to 100. Amongst the banned groups, the KCP splinter groups are considered mercenaries who can be hired to shoot at small-time shopkeepers, deliver extortion demands, plant IEDs on highways, attack non-locals, and kidnap for ransom.
The third militant group which carried out the attack was the KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup), formed in 1994 after the Oken faction of the UNLF, the Meiraba faction of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak), and the Ibo Pishak faction ofthe KCP came together. The KYKL has traditionally been close to the NSCN (IM).
The joint attack by the above groups, led by NSCN (K) was apparently a message by Khaplang to the Central Government that they were a strong force and not to be trifled with. The Centre is in talks with the NSCN (IM), but has generally ignored the Khaplang faction, which is its rival. The attack was meant to show that despite being based in Myanmar, the NSCN (K)’s sphere of influence and strike capability extended deep inside India. It was well planned and expertly executed, showcasing capability, intent and will. The group was well trained and operated almost to perfection in executing its task. It is fortunate that despite being taken by surprise and hit hard in the initial stages itself, the remaining personnel of 6 Dogra responded with speed, courage and guts to retrieve the situation after suffering the initial onslaught.
Traditionally, militant groups in the Northeast represent tribal affiliations and exert influence over the areas they dominate and from which they receive their support. Over a period of time, income through taxes from their respective areas has expanded to the control over government contracts, affiliations with political entities, control over smuggling routes and dayto- day business activities. Now that the ‘K’ faction has carried out an ambush in an area where the PLA is powerful and where the NSCN (IM) has support, internecine warfare amongst them for influence could perhaps lead to greater instability in the region, further adding to security concerns. The NSCN(K) did not traditionally have an influence in the Chandel district of Manipur. The ambush indicates its desire to join forces with Meitei terrorist groups to have a greater say in the regional balance of power, especially in relation to the NSCN(IM). The growing capacity of militant groups, their ability to unite and forge a unified entity for operations, and the availability of safe havens in neighbouring Myanmar presage a worsening of the security situation and the need for appropriate response mechanisms.
While the NSCN (K), has shown its ability to spring an ambush with precision, the larger failure on the part of the security forces does not rest on the shoulders of the unit, but on the state police forces and the intelligence agencies. The RPG is a sophisticated tool of war and Indian agencies should have been tracking the movement of such weapons from their supply sources to India. The militants also used incendiary devices for the first time, which resulted in the vehicles catching fire. How and when they got access to such sophisticated munitions should have been known to the intelligence agencies. Within Manipur, it is evident that the intelligence units of the state were taken by surprise. Launching an operation of this nature would have required a great deal of intelligence and ground reconnaissance. The movement of a large body of militants too would have attracted some level of attention, which did not come to the notice of the state police forces. Evidently, ground level intelligence remains weak and is a cause for concern.
The army too needs to enhance its intelligence gathering capability in the Northeast through enhancing electronic surveillance capability, improving language skills and laying emphasis on Humint. With the availability of sophisticated weaponry and communication devices with the militant groups, we could be looking at attacks from stand off ranges, to permit easier getaway by the militants as an antidote to future swift and firm responses as given by 6 Dogra. Finally, better intelligence sharing and analysis of available inputs could give the security forces the edge in countering militancy. A firm response across the border has already conveyed a message to all militant groups that they have no place to hide. But along with a firm military response, political initiatives too must proceed hand in hand to bring lasting peace to the region.
Ms Rashmi Oberoi is an accomplished author, freelance writer, HR Consultant and Corporate trainer. She writes regularly for major newspapers and journals.