Comrades in Arms
Lt Gen (Dr) K. Himalay Singh and Jaideep Saikia in Conversation
Jaideep Saikia: General, our association predates your days as a student officer in the National Defence College, General Officer Commanding of the Rajouri based 25 Infantry Division, Corps Commander of 16 Corps in Nagrota and finally the enviable stint as the Commandant of the prestigious Infantry School in Mhow when you invite me to lecture. If you recall we first met in the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi when B.G. Verghese inaugurated my book Frontier in Flames in February 2008. Do you remember the day?
K. Himalay Singh: Yes, I certainly do, Jaideep. How can I ever forget the wondrous multitude of people that had gathered in the auditorium to welcome your bestselling book on the North East! The auditorium was jam-packed and there were people standing on the aisle, but I clearly remember a few people who were part of the audience. There was Ajit K. Doval, the present National Security Adviser, General V.P. Malik, former Chief of Army Staff, General B.K. Bopanna, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, the then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, Lt General H.S. Lidder, Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, Arundhati Roy, Stephen Philip Cohen, Lt Gen. B.K. Bopanna, Arvind Gupta, present Director, Vivekananda International Foundation, E.N. Rammohan, A.B. Mathur, Ved Marwah and Prakash Singh. The guest list was endless and it seemed as if the who’s who of India’s capital had turned up to witness the opening of Frontier in Flames which Penguin India had published. The antecedents of the chairpersons, the panellists and the guests on the occasions spoke volumes about not only your professionalism, but the deference and respect that you command in India’s strategic community.
JS: Indeed, I have been rather fortunate that I have well-wishers such as you who have mentored and chaperoned me in every step of mine. Incidentally, your recently released memoir for which you were gracious enough to ask me to write the postscript along with you is a marvellous piece of work. It has already begun to make waves and the youth of the North East have particularly been taken in by your forceful encouragement. I am certain that the enchanted frontiers would witness an altogether different sort of character in the days to come as a result. Whereas in earlier times there have been dissonance and a sense of frustration, I think your book Making of a General will enthuse and erect the formative years of a young North Eastern to devote herself to the cause of India’s national building enterprise. People might have not yet realised it as yet but your reminiscences and unique narrative is going to stand out as a veritable bridge between the North East and the rest of India.
KH: Thank you for your kind words, Jaideep. Indeed, you have to partake of a slice of the proverbial “credit” cake; such has been your contribution to the book. But tell me—with much of the insurgencies out of the way—how does one cement aspects which in my view have to do with peace-making? After all, uncertainty seems to be dogging peace processes that have been anvilled with certain belligerent groups such as the NSCN (IM).
JS: In my view, General, the most protracted of processes pertain to the period following the cessation of violence. It is also the most treacherous of coordinates with spoilers attempting to derail the progression. As you are aware a heightened sense of caution guides belligerent parties before they enter into a political reconciliation process. The primary concern of such groups is whether the stronger party—in the case of the NSCN (IM) would permit an honourable solution, which would be acceptable to the belligerent group and the constituency it seeks to represent. This aspect is particularly important as asymmetry characterises almost all cases of conflict between belligerents and constituted authority. Such groups also exercise caution as they sense that a coaxed entrance into a political process could be a ploy of the stronger party to “wear them out” by engaging them in protracted negotiations. But notwithstanding such predicaments compromises are often made when a belligerent party perceives a stalemate in the movement and when conflict fatigue begins to set in, as also when they realise that the populace among which they operate are building consensus to force the belligerents to enter into dialogue. In such scenarios belligerents try to shape the environment in an array of ways, which may range from escalating the level of violence, increasing the rhetoric (in the manner that the NSCN (IM) has been doing of late), pressuring for a change of Interlocutor who the NSCN (IM) feels has become capricious and bossy, as also to internationalise the movement. I hope you are with me on the same page.
KH: I think you are correct. The motivation seems to be to force the stronger party to “open new channels” for dialogue, including as you said a change in the Interlocutor, as the moves of the belligerent party becomes increasingly unacceptable. However the movement from intention to actual institution of political process is usually long drawn: most belligerent groups put forward conditions that may not be acceptable to the stronger party. But non-acceptable conditions are usually made only by way of bargaining counters, with a comprehension that a climb-down to acceptable conditions would eventually take place, and ones which were actually intended by the belligerents. Sincerity of both parties to resolve conflict by adhering to the principle of mutual accommodation and by prolonging the peace dividend when fighting ends is crucial at this stage. This is primarily because of not only the possibility that subterfuges may be engineered by hardliners among belligerents who feel that they will not be given their due in a post settlement scenario, but also because of the presence of spoiling efforts,, as you had suggested, by vested interests. Don’t you think so?
JS: Precisely, I think back channelling and secret parleys with sincere mandate are best suited to navigate the process at such junctures: publicity normally results in devious objectives coming into play, derailing the political process in its infancy. I am not certain whether New Delhi has comprehended this important aspect about discretion. In many ways it continues to be diffident and feels that tom-tomming temporary successes are necessary in order to inform the fence sitters among its electorate that all is well. To my mind it is not a mature course of action.
KH: But a stalemate seems to be on the cards in the case of the NSCN (IM). Neither New Delhi nor certainly Manipur would never relent on the NSCN (IM) demand for the integration of the Naga-dominated areas of Manipur in the Naga organisation’s avowed objective of a Greater Nagalim. So, where does it leave the Indo-Naga conflict and a resolution thereby?
JS: Thuingaleng Muivah is a Tangkhul from Ukhrul which as you know is a district of Manipur. Being the Numero Uno of the NSCN (IM) not to speak about the “dominating” presence of the Tangkhul in the NSCN (IM) it would not do for a Indo-Naga agreement which does not include the territories that are traditionally Tangkhul. Muivah himself is from Somdal village located west towards the west of Ukhrul. I cannot, therefore, for the life of me countenance a situation where an accord is signed between New Delhi and the NSCN (IM) that circuits Ukhrul or such other Naga dominated areas of present day Manipur. I can understand the dilemma that Muivah is faced with. He is a “Corsican” like Napoleon and he envisages himself as the leader of all Nagas. Napoleon had to walk the extra mile in order to prove that he is the emperor of all Frenchmen. Muivah has understood this imperative. In my opinion he just cannot make a compromise about non-integration of all Naga-dominated areas. His kinsmen would term him as a betrayer and his credibility would die an ignoble death. So stalemate ad infinitum it would be.
KH: There has been some sort of disengagement between the Indian army and the PLA of China in Eastern Ladakh. However, I think it is the Chinese are merely pressing the pause button. It is a possibility that Beijing might bare its fangs sooner than later. But what bewilders me is the relative quietitude in the Eastern Sector during the Galwan impasse. What according to you is the reason for this?
JS: It is difficult to say, especially as there are quite a few disputed areas in the sector including Asaphila, Longju and, of course, the Fish Tails. My deduction would be that the Chinese are aware of the considerable concentration of elements in the sector as opposed to the “gaps” in Eastern Ladakh prior to the intrusion last year. Furthermore, I think the real objective was CPEC and perhaps even Siachen. I was in a minority but I was quite clear that had it not been for the alacrity with which our forces were deployed there would have been some sort of quid pro quo with the Pakistanis. You are, of course, aware of the fact that PLAF had moved their refuellers and Chengdu Fighters to forward airbases like Skardu. Therefore, there is more in l’affaire Galwan than meets the eye. But our armed forces—despite the degree of relative asymmetry—put up a good show and I think our position in the area has strengthened as a result not to speak about the morale boosting effect that it has provided our men on the ground.
General, we have spoken about my concept of Line of Amity. I will not go into details at this juncture. Suffice to say that with the “disengagement” in the west, it is the right time to go in for the Line of Amity that I have been harping about for years. I am for converting the Line of Actual Control in one subsector in the Kameng Sector toa Line of Amity. A Ligne Mediane: let them stay perched in Thagla Ridge and let us reside by the Namka Chu.
JS: General, what are your views on the recent developments in Myanmar?
KH: The developments in Myanmar are disturbing to say the least. It will have far reaching ramifications for the geopolitics of the region, especially as it pertains to the “Great Game” that is being played out between the two Asian giants, India and China. I think India’s response should be guided by its national interests, primarily as it attempts to ensure that the Chinese foothold in Myanmar does not become robust. India’s “Act East” policy and the continued presence of Indian insurgents in Myanmar should direct New Delhi’s course of action. Furthermore, India—as a responsible nation—should be ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the aggrieved section among the Myanmarese people who the Tatmadaw might be targeting.
KH: Do you see any future in the Act East policy that the government has been tom-tomming for quite some time now?
JS: General, there is no point Acting East unless you actually Go East. The Tatmadaw is back in power and unless New Delhi gets over its ambivalence we would have lost the passageway that we have been hoping to construct to dynamic South East Asia for decades. Incidentally, what do you make of Bangladesh. They are in a celebratory mood at this time with the 30th Independence Day anniversary just round the corner on 26 March!
KH: The relationship between India and Bangladesh is growing by leaps and bounds. I think the bonding is unique and notwithstanding the fact that there are stealth puritans in Bangladesh (with spill over possibilities into India) the fact of the matter is that the association between the two countries is going to become even more intense and rewarding.