India’s eastern sector borders two countries, China and Myanmar. Each border presents the Indian army with a unique challenge. Lt Gen Rana Pratap Kalita, GOC (general officer commanding) of the army’s Dimapur based 3 Corps, outlined the issues to Prabin Kalita on the eve of relinquishing charge:
The eastern sector varies from the western sector in terms of geography, terrain, history and host of other factors. The basis of claims and counterclaims, including the nature of disputed and sensitive areas also varies. Though border guarding per se implies ensuring territorial integrity, these factors impact the approach to border guarding in both the sectors.
How would you rate the hostility factor in the eastern sector where you have a not-so-friendly neighbour (China) and a friendly one (Myanmar)?
As the northern borders [of India], both the eastern as well as western borders are equally sensitive and you cannot really measure the factor of hostility, nor can it be compared. The border with Myanmar is generally peaceful due to excellent relations with the Myanmar army. It’s only marred by insurgent activities, presently at an extremely low key.
How would you describe China’s stance in the eastern sector vis-à-vis the one we are recently seeing in the northern side?
In the present strategic context, China’s stance is more profound and aggressive towards the northern sector owing to its interest in providing security and depth to its Belt and Road Initiative among other reasons. However, successful implementation of our own Act East Policy may see increased interest in eastern sector. We are already seeing massive infrastructure development in Tibet opposite the eastern sector, which are indicators of things to come in future.
Do you think China will ever try a repeat of 1962 using the same or a different axis any time in future?
In the present multi-polar world order, with economic interdependence between nations, possibility of large scale confrontation is unlikely. Though as a policy we are always for peaceful resolution of all issues, India today is much better prepared politically, economically and diplomatically, and our armed forces are well prepared to handle any misadventure by our neighbours.
Can we actually call Myanmar a friendly neighbour given that the northeast’s last militancy is surviving on Myanmar’s soil?
Myanmar has been aiding in our fight against insurgency in a number of ways. They have conducted a number of operations against the Indian insurgent groups operating from their soil. Both armies and countries share a good mutual understanding of problems related to insurgency and are working together to address the problems.
Is the unfenced and unmanned Indo-Myanmar border giving an edge to rebels to sneak in and out of Indian soil?
The free move regime coupled with the difficult terrain does offer an avenue to all criminals and insurgents. It’s very important that the boundary is manned and dominated to deny freedom of movement to insurgents. Additionally, we’ve also recommended that villages falling under the 16km belt of free move regime (FMR) be issued an identity card which makes identification and checking easier.
The porosity of the Indo-Myanmar border is due to the existence of FMR, necessitated by the fact that people of same tribe inhabit both sides of the border. This helps criminals in smuggling contraband and illegal items across. However, Assam Rifles has been making significant recoveries. This year alone we recovered illegal goods/ drugs worth approximately Rs 900 crore.
Is it time for the army to get out of the counterinsurgency (CI) role in Northeast? As long as the troops are out, AFSPA stays.
The removal of AFSPA is not recommended till the time the army is deployed in CI/ CT [counterterrorism] role. Continued deployment of army/ Assam Rifles is a necessity because of presence of insurgents of various proscribed groups as well as groups under ceasefire and suspension of operations. Before we take a call to de-induct armed forces, it’s necessary to build capabilities of police and CAPF. However, as the internal situation improves with visible decrease in violence level, gradual disengagement and deinduction of the army would be possible.
Having handled both northern borders and CI ops in eastern theatre, how do you envisage the future prospects of this strategic northeast region?
First step would be towards finalisation of Naga Peace Accord and its implementation, followed by bringing remnant insurgent elements into the peace process. Infrastructure development with a whole of government approach and effective border management would be the next key area. Gradual disengagement and deinduction of army from CI operations to concentrate on northern borders need to be brought about soonest, keeping in mind the northern borders dynamic.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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