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Northeast: A tale of two ambushes

FILE PHOTO of bodies loaded on a mini-truck after the Oting incident

The recent incidents in Manipur and Nagaland have put forth several questions that need answers

By Yambem Laba

In the last one month, the Indian Army has been in the news for almost all the wrong reasons. First came the ambush in Manipur on 13 November during which the Commanding Officer of 46 Assam Rifles and his family, along with some soldiers, were killed by the proscribed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur. Next was the botched ambush by the Army on suspected National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) insurgents on 4 December during which 13 innocent civilians were killed in Nagaland. Finally, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, along with his wife and 11 others, died in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu on 8 December.

Let’s begin with the ambush in Manipur. Colonel Viplav Tripathi, his wife and nine-year-old son, and four jawans of the 46th Battalion of the Assam Rifles were killed. The ambush by the Manipur PLA took place in Singhat sub-division of Churachandpur district at about 10 a.m. The entire country expressed anger over the incident and national television channels were filled with retired generals spewing venom on the Manipur PLA and suspecting a Chinese hand behind the killings. But none of them spoke about the intelligence failure on part of the Army/Assam Rifles leading to the ambush. Also, why there wasn’t a road opening party before the CO’s ill-fated journey wasn’t discussed.

The Manipur PLA was quick to claim responsibility, which came via social media on the same afternoon. They seemingly expressed regret for the deaths of the Colonel’s family but said that they had no knowledge of their presence in the vehicle, which received a fusillade of 72 bullets. The ambush, according to the Manipur PLA claim, was a joint operation carried out with the Manipur Naga People’s Front, which can be described, at best, as a group of Naga ultras. The latter do not get along with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) who are currently engaged in talks with the Government of India.

The Manipur PLA has come a long way from 1978 when 18 youngsters, led by the late Nameirakpam Bisheshwar Singh, returned from Lhasa after receiving ideological and arms training from the Chinese Communist Party. I recall Bisheshwar Singh telling me that the Chinese had initially refused to provide any help but relented when he told the Chinese party bosses “to halt broadcasting over Radio Peking calling for a world revolution”. Apart from the name, the Manipur outfit refused to take any arms or monetary aid from the Chinese.

Armed with the thought that their enemy was the source of weapons, the Manipur PLA began operations in the Dharmasala area of Imphal one evening in 1978 when they stabbed a Manipur Rifles Junior Commissioner Officer and snatched his side arm. Then, they lit the entire Manipur valley with prairie fires. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was India’s minister of external affairs, he had taken up the Manipur PLA issue with his Chinese counterpart Huang Hua in Beijing in 1979. Vajpayee had told me that Hua assured him the training and assistance to the Manipur PLA by the Chinese was a thing of the past.

The Manipur PLA has received a lot of setbacks at the hands of the Army during four decades of counterinsurgency operations in the state. The first major win for the Army was the Battle of Tekcham in 1981 when Bisheshwar Singh was captured. The Army seizure note, contained in the first information report and still in my possession, includes things from toothbrushes to different types of weapons but not even a single rupee.


The second notable victory was the Battle of Kodompokpi a year later when Thoudam Kunjbehari , or Raghu, the man who took over the mantle of chairmanship from Bisheshwar Singh was killed. Major General V K Nayar, then General Officer Commanding of the 8-Mountain Division, was flown in by chopper to supervise the operations. General Nayar had also told me later that he had to utilise the services of flame throwers to burn the houses down. At the end of the operations, Raghu and seven other Manipur PLA members lay dead. It is believed that the Army paid their last respects to Raghu during his last rites.

The Oting ambush in Nagaland followed the incident in Manipur. It involved the 21-Para Special Forces under the command of the Army’s 3 Corps based in Rangapahar near Dimapur. According to sources, the Army had received hard information that movement of NSCN (K) cadres was taking place and therefore, an ambush was laid.

When the pickup vehicle carrying suspected insurgents went past the first scouting party of the Army, it ran into a frontal attack from the security forces. After the firing, six civilians were dead and two injured. When villagers swarmed out in protest, the Army requisitioned help from the nearby Assam Rifles battalion and in the clashes that ensued, eight more people were shot dead and an Assam Rifles jawan was also killed.

Union home minister Amit Shah expressed regret over the incident and soon, the Army ordered a Court of Inquiry. But what deserves attention is the way in which the 3 Corps of the Indian Army has been functioning. It has provided three Chief of Army Staff, namely General Bipin Chandra Joshi, General Dalbir Singh Suhag and the late General Bipin Rawat. But that apart, the 3 Corps has, what is called, the Corp Intelligence and Surveillance Unit, or Cisu.

In 2010, the Cisu picked up three Manipuri boys from 8th Mile of Dimapur in Nagaland. They were allegedly tortured behind the Officers Mess in Rangapahar and later shot dead. Their corpses were transported across the border into nearby Assam and dumped in the jungles of Karbi Anglong. After a person close to the deceased filed a missing report with the Nagaland Police, the decomposed bodies were discovered and recovered by Assam Police. The Nagaland Police attempted to get statements from the Army in Rangapahar but they sought immunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

All remained quiet for a while till Major T Kiran, who was the second in command of the Cisu, allegedly brought it to the notice of the Army authorities through two letters. The first one was addressed to the Corps Commander but when no action was initiated, Major Kiran wrote to the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command in Kolkata’s Fort William.

Then in 2017, Lieutenant Colonel Dharambir Singh, also attached to the Cisu, was arrested by the Rangapahar authorities from his official quarters in Imphal. He was subsequently released following a habeas corpus case filed before the Manipur High Court by his wife. But in his affidavit to the High Court, Lieutenant Colonel Singh spilled all the beans about the Cisu from the Dimapur killings, the arrest and killing of a Manipur PLA functionary called Gypsy to the abduction and killing of a Manipuri youth and his accomplice from Cachar District in Assam. Subsequently, Lieutenant General (now retired) Abhay Krishna, then the Brigadier General Staff under whose direct supervision the entire operations of the Cisu were allegedly orchestrated, was made GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command at Fort William. Following a series of exposures made in this newspaper and an order asking the Superintendent of Nagaland Police to submit the post-mortem report of the Dimapur killings to Gauhati High Court, Krishna was moved to the Central Command due to a perceived clash of interest.

After mounting media pressure, the Indian Army reappointed a Court of Inquiry, which was headed by Major General Nimesh Shukla belonging to the newly formed South Western Command, based in Jaipur. He had travel led to Imphal and recorded my statement, but the results of his findings are not yet known. It is about time that the Major General Shukla Report be brought before the public. But at the end of the day, one must question whether the Oting ambush was based on inputs by the Cisu.

In the meantime, voices in the North-east are growing shriller by the day to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Only time will tell what transpires.

(The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman. This article was first published in The Stateman)

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