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Posted at: Jun 16, 2015, 12:34 AM; last updated: Jun 16, 2015, 12:34 AM (IST)

Myanmar raid: It’s the message, not the statistics

The message was that the Government was prepared to go after insurgent hideouts, which could not be regarded as “safe” any longer. The specificity and simplicity of that point makes the celebratory mode quite redundant.
Myanmar raid: It’s the message, not the statistics
Sensitive operations must be spared hype

As the stories about the Army raid on camps of North-eastern extremists in Myanmar proliferate, the accounts of the “details”get murkier, not clearer. Since the day of the raids on two lots of anti-India insurgent groups a few kilometres from the the Indian border with Myanmar, even something as basic as the casualty toll of those “neutralised” by the strike is not available. Various media have placed the number of rebel deaths at seven, others at about 100, and still others at one-third of that number.

Rebels in Myanmar have rubbished the official figures as highly inflated and said that the casualties are barely half a dozen. A former security official says that the operation had a limited but clear goal —to send a clear message to the rebels (and to Myanmar) that the Government was prepared to go after insurgent hideouts and these could not be regarded as “safe” any longer.

The specificity and simplicity of that point makes the celebratory mode and mood shared by the media and officials quite redundant. The Special Forces were assigned a specific task in a limited time slot which they carried out competently and without suffering any casualties.  The Indian media seems to have missed the basic point of the operation which wasn't aimed at routing the insurgents, an impossible task given the vast hilly, forested terrain where numerous armed units are located, or even to inflict heavy casualties on the latter.  It was just to send a message that New Delhi wasn't shy of going after them.

This limited goal has not been helped by chest-thumping commentaries and by statements by junior ministers who declared India's willingness to strike on other fronts, including the western front and also described the Myanmar raid as a “revenge” attack for the insurgent assault that killed 18 Army soldiers on June 4 in Manipur. Such remarks were unnecessary and ill-advised.  Given the sensitivity of the issue in so far as it involved entering the sovereign territory of another country, (although a 2010 agreement enables this) a senior member of the Council of Ministers — or the official spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry — could have been given the task of briefing the media.

It must be borne in mind that both our Northern and Western neighbours are nuclear powers and our border disputes with China and Pakistan remain unresolved. In fact, the only border with a larger neighbour that has been finalised is the one with Bangladesh, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed through in his recent historic visit to Dhaka. There are stretches of the Myanmar-India border too which are disputed while Manipuris feel deeply angered by the sleight of hand by which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru handed over one of the most fertile parts of the state, the Kabaw valley, to Myanmar (then Burma), without a reference to Manipur's leaders.

But in this frenzy of reporting and speaking, few local voices have been heard either from either Myanmar or Manipur. Indeed, the Myanmar Government has been extremely diplomatic on the matter, while denying that Indian troops crossed the border, an extremely touchy subject.  Indeed, the Myanmar media has been largely silent on the matter, barring a handful of news articles. On the Indian side of the border, both the Manipur and Nagaland state governments have been completely in the dark about the operations and the Manipur Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh told a reporter that all he knew about the operations was what he had seen of the media reporting in Delhi.

Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of the Imphal Free Press, says that such secrecy is humiliating to leaders of the region, especially when the Centre has gone overboard with sharing information with the media in Delhi. As a senior editor from Manipur, his perception should shake media and policy makers here: that “clinching evidence” has not been provided of the raid's effectiveness without photographs which could have shown the impact on the insurgents and their camps. In fact, the release of such photographs is quite common after anti-rebel raids and operations in the North-East. Perhaps the fact  that this was an intrusion into a neighbouring country is holding the Centre back. 

The hype over the Myanmar raids has meant that critical issues such as the devastating floods in Assam, with 14 districts battered by heavy rain and high water, three lakh homeless and livestock and property at risk, have been completely ignored both by the media and the Central Government. Villagers are being rescued by boats and taken to higher ground. The disruption in the lives of ordinary people means that critical health and education projects are also being jeopardised —including immunisation programmes for children and providing access to vulnerable and pregnant women. 

Assam has the worst maternal mortality ratio in India and some of these critical issues get completely buried in the daily melas and shouting matches on television which are totally disconnected to the realities and harm that ordinary people have to live with.    In the North-East, they don't have to live with Delhi's horrible heat, its traffic jams, its local government in limbo, or even withviolence at all times and in all places (though the metro media may make us feel that blasts are going off everywhere and insurgents are running amuck). 

In Nagaland, the leaders of civil society want to ensure that the fragile peace, which began 18 years back with the first ceasefire, continues. There is anger at Khaplang for endangering the peace — since for all these years, despite extortion and abuse, a rare but tangible condition has taken root — a safer quality of life. 

These issues matter for the people of the North-East as much as tackling conflict. These are the small challenges that make up the Big Picture for them, not a handful of jingoistic media types shouting in studios or political propagandists.

— The writer is Director, Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia. New Delhi

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