Insurgency and Terrorism

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INSURGENCY AND TERRORISM Insurgency and terrorism are as old as war. These are tactics of the weak, a means by which people with a cause attempt to gain political objectives through violence. Since independence, India has extensively experienced both insurgency and terrorism, essentially of two types. One type is oriented to socioeconomic Marxist revolution, the first of which began at Telengana in present-day Andhra Pradesh, spreading over time to include Nepal. In the 1960s it engulfed parts of West Bengal in violent urban terrorism inspired by the politics of Mao Zedong. These movements were countered essentially by state police forces, subdued but never eliminated. There has been a resurgence in these movements; in 2002 they formed an umbrella organization called the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) to facilitate cooperation and coordination among fourteen Marxist groups. The other form of violence was guerrilla war, or an insurgency, advocating separatism and affecting the peripheral regions of the country. It began at independence among the Naga people in Northeast India and spread elsewhere later. Terrorism evolved and spread in India in the 1990s as an even more intense form of violence.

Insurgency and terrorism have definite characteristics in India. Insurgency may be said to represent a people's movement with a political cause, usually aiming for independence and often settling at some stage for political autonomy. It uses violence as the principal though not the only means to achieve its ends. It targets mainly the state apparatus and particularly the security forces. Legitimacy is sought through popular support; it therefore attempts to create an alternate state structure. Even though violence may be intense, it is neither random nor meant purely for effect. The battle is for the hearts and minds of the people, based on a perceived cause, with the insurgents likely to have an initial advantage. Terrorism, a comparatively recent phenomenon in India, is more likely to be inspired by religious causes. Particularly since 1999, it has also adopted the version of suicide or fedayeen attacks.

The Northeast Insurgencies

Insurgencies in independent India began in the Northeast region of the country, which today comprises seven provinces. The region was deprived of its links with the rest of the nation at partition, with East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) interposed between the two parts. Only a narrow 12 miles (20 km) wide corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal link the two parts. Deprived of an outlet to the sea and with limited access to the outside world, the region was condemned to underdevelopment. Ethnically, the people are immensely diverse, with distinct and separate identities, more akin to those in Southeast Asia, from where many of them originally came. Except for the Brahmaputra River valley and the adjacent low hills suitable for the highly lucrative tea cultivation, the British had left the tribes almost entirely to themselves. It is not surprising that they would ask for independence.


Insurgency in India began in Nagaland on 14 August 1947, when the Naga National Council (NNC) demanded independence from the Indian Union. The movement was initially limited to political action. First, the NNC conducted a "plebiscite" in 1951, which it claimed supported their cause. Next, it launched a boycott against the first general elections, held in 1952. Soon after, the movement turned violent. In September 1954, Naga leader Angami Zapu Phizo announced Nagaland independence and confronted the central government with an armed insurrection. Initially, the Indian government responded with escalating counterviolence, using local police and the Assam Rifles, and in 1956 sending in the regular army. By 1964 an Indian infantry division of some 20,000 soldiers was deployed against a few thousand armed rebel insurgents. Simultaneously, state administrative structures were strengthened, and political actions were initiated, granting statehood to Nagaland in January 1964. A peace initiative was then launched under Jaya Prakash Narayan, B. P. Chaliha, and Michael Scott, a Scottish missionary. This initiated a cease-fire, and after a decade of sporadic violence, peace terms were finally agreed upon. The Shillong Accord was signed in 1975, under which most Nagas agreed to surrender their arms. Two armed Naga groups were, however, enroute to China for military training and arms procurement at the time the agreement was signed, and hence were left out of the peace process. The leaders of this group, S. S. Khaplang, Issak Swu, and T. Muivah, decided to continue the insurgency from adjacent Myanmar. After prolonged discussions they too finally abandoned the insurgency in 2002.


South of Nagaland lie the Mizo Hills, inhabited by a single tribe, the Mizos. Unlike their neighbors in the plains, however, they did not initially demand independence, merely greater autonomy from the state of Assam in order to maintain their identity and traditional culture. Crops failed repeatedly in the area in the early 1960s, leading to acute famine in the hills. The slow response of the Assam government led to deep discontent and finally to insurrection. The Mizo movement, led by Laldenga, commenced with armed attacks throughout the region at midnight on 28 February 1966. India responded in force, sending in an armed division to punish the Mizo tribals. Support was offered to the rebels by East Pakistan (Bangladesh after 1971) and sanctuary in Myanmar. Violence continued for two decades. After prolonged discussions, a peace settlement was finally reached in 1986, with Laldenga finally vowing to accept the Constitution of India. He was made the chief minister of the state of Mizoram the next year. All violence ended with the accord.


The plains of Manipur, adjoining Nagaland, saw an outbreak of insurgency in the mid-1970s. Several factions had varied goals, centered around factional and tribal demands. At least one was pro-Communist, its leaders having come in contact with China. Sporadic violence continued during the initial years of independence, but was countered successfully by the army. The state remains prone to law and order problems, though virtually all insurgency ended by the early 1990s.


Economic stagnation, lack of employment, and a continuous flow of refugees from Bangladesh have posed major challenges to Assam's state government. Prolonged popular student agitation in the late 1970s led to the All Assam Students Union forming its own state government in 1983. Assam's problems did not go away, however, and the resultant instability bred greater discontent, leading to the outbreak of more insurgencies. The principal one, led by indigenous Assamese of the valley under the United Liberation Front for Asom (ULFA), brought out the army in support of the government in Operation Rhino before the end of 1989. The Indian army has remained engaged, though at much lower levels of intensity. The situation in Assam remains disturbed and is countered primarily by central police forces. A number of smaller insurgencies have emerged, opposing ULFA and challenging the Assamese majority. Violence remains in the region and has spread to Bhutan, with armed groups seeking sanctuary there as well as in Bangladesh.

The Punjab

Insurgency came to the heartland of India's in the early 1980s. The Sikhs constitute a vibrant minority in India, with 2 percent of the nation's population. The linguistic reorganization of India's states after 1957 led to the formation of a much smaller state of Punjab, where the Sikhs had a bare majority. Autocratic and interfering policies of the central government led in turn to fundamentalist Sikh aspirations, which soon turned violent under a charismatic religious leader, "Sant" J. S. Bhindranwale. Sharing a border with Pakistan, dissident Sikh groups received arms and support from Islamabad. Armed groups soon established themselves in Sikh religious shrines (gurdwaras), with Bhindranwale moving into the holiest of them all, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. They openly challenged Delhi, promising a violent revolution. The Indian state responded with military force, launching Operation Blue Star on the night of 4 June 1984. After an intense overnight battle employing tanks, the army secured the Golden Temple, damaging it seriously in the process and suffering over three hundred casualties. Many Sikh insurgents and some pilgrims perished in the attack. The state was traumatized.

Barely five months later, on 31 October, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. A riot broke out in Delhi, targeting Sikhs. It is claimed that some mobs were led by political leaders belonging to the ruling Congress Party. Over two thousand innocent Sikhs were murdered and torched in the nation's capital over the next few days. An armed insurgency soon broke out in the Punjab.

The insurgency was intense, violent, sectarian, and indiscriminate. The situation was countered primarily by the state police, with the army remaining always on call and in support. Even though an accord was signed with the moderate Sikh leader of the Akali Party, Sant Gurcharan Singh Longowal, in 1986 and a government installed in the state under him, insurgency continued. Finally, when in desperation the insurgents targeted the families of policemen, they countered with greater violence under the leadership of the director general of police, K. P. S. Gill, himself a Sikh. After prolonged attrition, the situation was controlled by 1992, returning to full normalcy soon afterward.

Jammu and Kashmir

The most complex and intense insurgency that India has faced is the ongoing proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. Its origin can be traced to the state's accession to India at partition. The Indian Independence Act promulgated by the British Parliament allowed the rulers of the princely states to decide to which dominion (India or Pakistan) the state would accede. The maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, delayed his decision. Only when armed marauders from the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, led by regular officers from its army, invaded the state did the maharaja seek help from Delhi, signing the Instrument of Accession to India on 25 October 1947. Indian forces flew in the next day and over time stabilized the situation. India referred the question of "Pakistani aggression" to the United Nations Security Council, and a cease-fire was agreed to from 1 January 1949, with Pakistan still in control of about one-third of the state.

Two more wars were fought between India and Pakistan by 1971. Under the Simla Agreement of 1972, both sides agreed to resolve the issue bilaterally. The earlier cease-fire line was replaced by a new "line of control" demarcated after prolonged meetings of senior military commanders of both sides and both countries agreed not to violate it. Peace prevailed in Jammu and Kashmir for the next sixteen years.

Discontent surfaced in the province over the central government's interference with the political process in the state in the 1980s. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a wing of the Pakistan military, seized this opportunity, and with surplus weapons of the Afghan War (supplied to it by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) directly sponsored insurgencies in India. The turning point came in December 1989, following new elections to Parliament, when the new home (interior) minister's daughter, a medical doctor, was kidnapped in the state capital at Srinagar. The new government was unable to deal with the situation effectively and released the prisoners sought by the kidnappers unconditionally. Euphoric celebrations followed, expecting a collapse of the government in Jammu and Kashmir. The situation was restored, but only with much martial power, and the state settled in for a prolonged period of insurgency encompassing the entire province.

Two terrorist organizations took up arms. One, led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), consisted of indigenous insurgents seeking independence. The other group, led by the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), sought to merge Kashmir with Pakistan. All insurgent groups were supported and supplied by Pakistan and its ISI, with training, weapons, and money from across the border. By the end of 1990, additional formations of the regular Indian army reinforced the police and paramilitary organizations, and intense counterinsurgency repression was launched. Cordon and search, raids, patrols, and special operations formed the bulk of counterinsurgency operations throughout the state. Borders had to be sealed and the deployment posture along the line of control was shifted from conventional defense to anti-infiltration. Force levels increased over the years, and a new paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya (National) Rifles was formed, consisting of regular soldiers on deputation in Kashmir. By the early 1990s, the JKLF was marginalized, and the HM was slowly replaced by extremist Islamic forces

Kashmiri insurgents continued their terrorist attacks against Indian security forces, which by then were more than half a million strong in Kashmir, as well as against minority Hindu families, forcing the latter to leave the valley. Indigenous militants were replaced by "guest" militants from Pakistan Occupied (Azad) Kashmir, Pakistan itself, and Afghanistan, and by Islamic terrorists from around the world. Advanced training was carried out under the Taliban, supported by Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, the situation had turned into "cross border terrorism."

Indian Counterinsurgency Strategy and Tactics

Indian counterinsurgency doctrine evolved from the British era "Aid to Civil Authority," the lessons of the Malayan campaign, and its own experiences of what it terms "low intensity conflicts." The premise has always been that operations were against misguided elements within one's own society and therefore justified use of only "minimum force." In very exceptional and rare circumstances, and as a last resort, the Indian army has used tanks or helicopters in such combat. The principal focus has been to win the "hearts and minds" campaign, with civic actions always following coercive tactics.

There has never been any dichotomy or questioning within the army of its use in internal security. A secondary role of the armed forces, enshrined in the Constitution, mandates aid to the government when required. Detailed modalities and procedures are laid down by the government for its implementation. Special legal authority is provided by the Parliament through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, applicable in specific "Disturbed Areas" as notified and for a fixed duration, which allows the army to search and arrest without warrant.

When called upon for counterinsurgency operations in a rural area, the army would deploy in a grid pattern. A battalion of about 800 soldiers in five companies would operate over an area of about 4 sq. miles (10 square km). About one-third of the force would remain in reserve at all times. The rest would be engaged in patrolling, collecting information, and launching operations. Opening roads and protecting convoys were important initial tasks. Specific search-and-destroy operations would be carried out on known hideouts and weapons caches. Grouping of villages, as in Malaya, was tried in both Nagaland and Mizoram with varying success. A grid system facilitated civic actions, which in turn produced intelligence and also ensured accountability.

Major fedayeen attacks have been frequently launched by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir since 1999. These terrorists seize hostages, murder innocents, and kidnap and rape at random. India has trained special forces and antiterrorist cells in military and police units to deal with these situations. An elite National Security Guard specializes in hostage rescue and antihijacking operations.

The security forces' record in counterinsurgency has not been without blemish. There have been many cases of human rights violations, deaths in custody, rape, and looting. Perhaps police forces with a less stringent regimental system of discipline are more vulnerable to such behavior. Cases brought to light have been dealt with severely, and exemplary punishments meted out. National and state human rights commissions are vigilant in trying to keep the security forces in check. A notable feature of the Indian counterinsurgency experience has been that, despite their extensive use in India's internal environment, the forces have never attempted to usurp political power. They have consistently maintained their accountability to Indian law and their adherence to the Constitution.

Dipankar Banerjee

See alsoAssam ; Ethnic Conflict ; Ethnic Peace Accords ; Jammu and Kashmir ; Manipur ; Mizoram ; Nagas and Nagaland ; Northeast States, The ; Paramilitary Forces and Internal Security ; Punjab


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