07 November, 2010

Insurgency and COIN

by Rajesh Rajagopalan


INDIA has been beset with armed rebellions from its earliest days as an independent nation. Some rebels wanted to secede from the republic; others wanted to redraw the partition to join Pakistan; some even wanted to replace the liberal democratic political order. Most of these rebellions have continued in fits and starts over the last many decades and many are still active. None have succeeded.

The measure of success and failure is somewhat different in guerrilla wars: there is a military saying that guerrilla wars cannot be won, only lost. India has been successful by this measure: it has not lost any of the domestic counterinsurgency campaigns that it has fought. The only one that the Indian Army lost was the ill-fated expedition to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Only one campaign can be considered to have been successfully ended, the one in Mizoram. But India’s approach has been successful in ensuring that the intensity of violence is kept low and that certain level of normalcy is maintained in political and civil life, even though many insurgencies continue. What accounts for India’s impressive record?

Insurgents have had some extraordinary victories in the last century, defeating both of the Cold War superpowers and a host of smaller powers. But it is also notable that most of these successes have come when guerrilla groups have been fighting at home against foreign forces. Guerrilla fighters have had far less notable results when fighting against their own government. Where they have succeeded, as the Mukti Bahini did when they liberated Bangladesh, a large measure of such victory was due to foreign military assistance and intervention. For example, while the Bangladeshis succeeded, other rebellions against Islamabad in Sindh and Baluchistan, which have not had the benefit of direct foreign support and intervention, have been brutally crushed. It is possible then that India’s successes are not so unique after all. If the success rate of domestic insurgencies is generally low, then India’s record seems somewhat less spectacular.

Nevertheless, the Indian experience with insurgencies is worth serious study and perhaps emulation. India has not only managed to keep under control a large number of rebellions, but has managed to do so without recourse to the kind of methods that has recently been referred to as the ‘strategy of barbarism’.1 Such strategies would have been morally abhorrent to democratic India, and India’s saner approach provides an alternative that is equally successful in countering armed rebellion. The lessons from the Indian experience reiterates the British approach to counterinsurgency and finds resonance in the recommendations of the so-called ‘fourth generation warfare’ theorists, though the term is itself unfamiliar in India.

It is difficult to say with certainty whether India has a counterinsurgency ‘strategy’ because strategy suggests an amount of deliberation that, in this case, is notably absent. Nevertheless, there is a certain consistency in the Indian approach towards counterinsurgency that allows us to characterize it as strategy. We might even call it ‘grand strategy’ because it is primarily a political approach in which military force plays an essential but ultimately limited role. The essence of this strategy is the willingness to compromise with rebellious sub-nationalities on all issues with one exception: secession is taboo.

But short of secession, the Indian state has been willing to compromise on most other political demands. New states have been carved out to satisfy demands for local government and under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution some ethnic communities have been allowed to create autonomous regions and districts to allow for a measure of self-rule. Those rebels who were willing to give up the demand for secession and work within the Indian Constitution have been welcomed into the political order, becoming important regional leaders.

In order to permit such compromises, it was essential that military force be kept carefully limited. Thus, though military force was employed frequently its use was circumscribed by the clear understanding that the ultimate solution would have to be a political rather than a military one. Today, the fact that the Indian forces do not use aerial bombing or heavy artillery in fighting against insurgents seems unremarkable. But a look at the manner in which other counterinsurgency campaigns are fought illustrates how remarkable the Indian approach is. Whether it was in the Cold War conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan, or in the more recent American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Russian campaign in Chechnya, the use of heavy fire-power – aerial bombing, tanks and artillery – is standard.

Around the region, the Pakistani counterinsurgency campaigns in erstwhile East Pakistan and in Baluchistan, or the Sri Lankan campaign against the LTTE have all been marked by the intense use of fire-power. It is not that Indian counterinsurgency campaigns have been gentle. Nevertheless, the intensity of violence in Indian counterinsurgency campaigns has been carefully calibrated by political calculations and it has completely abjured the use of heavy firepower that causes indiscriminate casualties and has the potential to become an obstacle to future political resolution.

The limitation on the use of force in counterinsurgency campaigns began with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Many of the early rebellions were initially handled by the state police forces or paramilitary forces such as the Assam Rifles. But by the mid-1950s, it was clear that the challenges facing the nascent nation state could not entirely be handled by these forces. The Nagas, in particular, represented a serious challenge. Despite tribal differences, the Nagas had managed to forge a strong sense of common identity in opposition to the idea of an Indian nation that included them. Their initial activism was confined to peaceful protests, including mass rejection of the national elections in 1951.

But such peaceful initiatives were rapidly overtaken by more forceful ones, as the Nagas developed a growing military capability. The Nagas were well positioned to do this because a number of Nagas had fought in the Second World War, and some stocks of weapons were available. As the rebellion took a violent path, New Delhi dispatched military units to put the rebellion down by force.

As the Indian Army began to fight the Naga insurgents in the mid-1950s, they sought the use of airpower but were rebuffed by Nehru. He emphasised the political nature of the Naga problem, arguing that the Nagas had never developed a sense of Indian nationalism because they had been kept isolated from the rest of the country by British colonial rule. Thus, the Naga alienation was understandable, and their identity with the Indian nation needed to be developed gently. This was coupled with Nehru’s ambivalence about the development project of modern India as applied to the Northeast. Nehru, as a modernist, believed that development had a lot to offer, but was uncertain about the impact that it would have on the way of life of the tribal population of the region.

All these uncertainties suggested a carefully moderated policy that emphasized the need for understanding the context of the Naga rebellion, and a strategy that sought political accommodation rather than military victory. Punitive actions were forbidden, and force was to be used as sparingly as possible. Nehru reminded the army that the Nagas were fellow-countrymen who had to be won over, not suppressed. Though there were rumblings within the army about being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, the army accepted these political limits on the use of force. In the early days, the Naga tendency to fight conventional set-piece battles, a consequence of their experience in the Second World War, helped the Indian Army. But the Nagas soon shifted to guerrilla tactics, making the army’s task much harder.

The use of force against the Nagas was complemented by political concessions to the more moderate sections among the Naga leadership. They had demanded greater self-government and in response the Indian government formed a new administrative unit called the Naga Hills-Tuensang Area (NHTA) in December 1957, carving out the Naga Hills district from Assam and placing it directly under New Delhi’s administration. This concession managed to strengthen the moderates within the Naga community without seriously weakening the Indian position. When this concession did not satisfy all the insurgents, and in order to further strengthen the moderates within the Nagas, a new state called ‘Nagaland’ with a local legislature was created in 1963 to replace the NHTA.

A ceasefire was declared in late 1964 and a meandering peace negotiation began which ultimately led to the Shillong accord in 1975 under which most of the rebels agreed to lay down arms. Some of the Naga fighters were inducted into the newly formed Naga Regiment while others joined the Border Security Force (BSF). This did not mean the end of the Naga rebellion, for some Nagas continued the struggle. Nevertheless, the Naga insurgency is a much weaker force today, riven by internal divisions, and no longer a major threat.

A similar strategy of political compromises and a judicious use of force also helped end the Mizo insurgency. The Mizo rebellion began in 1966, spurred by famine and a callous administration. Led by Laldenga and the Mizo National Front (MNF), the first phase of the rebellion was so successful that several towns were captured by the rebels, which included parts of Aizawl. The Indian Air Force (IAF) had to be called in to help the army retake control, one of the few instances when combat air power was used in counterinsurgency operations in India.

Once again political compromises and military effort went hand-in-hand. Responding to the demands of the more moderate sections of the Mizos, New Delhi made Mizoram into a Union Territory in 1972, with its own legislature. But complete resolution would have to wait another decade, until a final peace agreement was signed between the MNF and New Delhi in 1986. Under the agreement, Mizoram became a full-fledged state in the Indian Union and Laldenga became chief minister of the state. Though there have been some recent rumblings in the state, Mizoram has largely remained quite since the insurgency ended over two decades back.

The Indian experiences in fighting the Nagas and the Mizos set the broad outlines of the Indian counterinsurgency strategy. But an important reason why this strategy succeeded was because its underlying principle was accepted by the Indian Army. The army developed a counterinsurgency doctrine that complemented this larger political grand strategy.2 The most important element of the army’s counterinsurgency doctrine is the limitation on the use of force. Though this restraint was originally imposed by Nehru, the army has assimilated this as an attitude when it engages in counterinsurgency operations. Army elements deployed for counterinsurgency operations are usually divested of any heavy equipment and do not receive artillery or air support. Such attitudes were reinforced by the army’s own professional view of counterinsurgency, which was based on studies of both British post-Second World War counterinsurgency experience as well as Mao’s writings on guerrilla war. Both stressed the political nature of insurgencies and both were frequently cited in Indian military journals.

The British experience in Malaya and Mao’s writings were an important source for yet another element in the Indian Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine: the need to isolate the guerrillas from the population. The Briggs Plan, under which the British resettled villagers in what they called ‘New Villages’, helped to isolate the Malayan communist guerrillas from their sources of support in the general population. The Indian Army attempted the same tactic in dealing with both the Naga and Mizo insurgencies. But what worked for a colonial power was difficult to implement in an independent democratic society. The constitutionality of the village grouping scheme in Mizo areas was challenged in the courts by local political parties and human rights groups and ultimately stopped by the Assam High Court. Nevertheless, the principle continues to be an important one in the army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, though the method used subsequently was with cordon and search operations rather than resettlements.

A third element in the Indian Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine was the emphasis on dominating the area of operations by blanketing it with troops. Large troop presence in insurgency affected areas allowed the army to assert control without using heavy firepower. For example, India deployed as many as four divisions in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka when it fought the LTTE. Such troop intensive operations are possible because India has a very large army and even larger central paramilitary forces. Large-scale deployment has a psychological effect, preventing the insurgents from claiming victory and demonstrating to them the impossibility of any ultimate victory.

A fourth element of the doctrine is conducting operations in large numbers. This goes against the conventional wisdom regarding counter-guerrilla warfare which stresses the importance of small unit operations. Indeed, small unit operations are stressed even in the army’s professional journals but rarely followed in actual counterinsurgency combat operations. This is chiefly because the Indian Army sees its main mission as defending India against external threats (Pakistan and China) and trains primarily for full-scale, high-intensity conventional wars. Most of the Indian Army’s infantry equipment is also optimized for conventional war rather than counterinsurgency. Retraining and retooling for small unit operations might make the army more effective in fighting domestic guerrillas but also hurt its preparations for fighting conventional wars.

The final element of the army’s doctrine is the firm conviction that insurgencies are political problems that require a political solution. The army’s role is seen as limited to creating the conditions for the political process to resume (‘restoring normalcy’ in army parlance) rather than militarily defeating the insurgency. This is also the most recent element in the army’s doctrine, achieving visibility in professional writings only in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is difficult to read any essay on counterinsurgency in the army’s professional journals that does not include the mantra that ‘there are no military solutions to an insurgency.’

This comport between political ends and military means has not been without problems. Politicians, from Nehru down, have worried that the army might not be sufficiently sensitive to political considerations. Army officers, in turn, blamed the political and administrative leadership for creating the conditions for insurgency through their political short-sighted-ness and administrative incompetence, and then saddling them with the task of fighting their own countrymen. For the army, counterinsurgency is a task they would gladly give up not only because it brings little glory but also because it is a hard, thankless one.

A more serious limitation that the army faces is that it views fighting conventional wars against Pakistan and China as its primary mission. In consequence, there are limitations to how innovative the army can be with its counterinsurgency doctrine. The earlier reference regarding small unit operations is a case in point. The army attempted to create a much ‘lighter’ fighting unit called the ‘I’ (Insurgency)-battalions in the late 1960s. But the experiment was short-lived and the Bangladesh war in 1971 demonstrated again to the army that it could not afford such experiments.

In the 1990s, the army again attempted to create a new dedicated counterinsurgency force called the Rashtriya Rifles (RR). The original purpose of the RR appears to have been to create a new paramilitary force but one stiffened with army officers, which would relieve the army of its counterinsurgency burden. Though Indian paramilitary forces are much larger than the army, they are not trained or armed well enough to tackle insurgencies. The RR was supposed to make up for this lacuna. The plan for the RR went through many changes because of disputes between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs about who would control and pay for this new force. When it was finally established, the RR became a completely army-based force, defeating its original purpose. But the 60 plus battalions of the RR have at least increased the strength of the army by an equal amount, thus marginally offsetting the army’s manpower commitment to counterinsurgency.

How effective will India’s approach be in the coming decade? While India has had considerable success with its approach to secessionist insurgencies, the Maoist/Naxalite rebellions brewing in many parts of rural India represent a different kind of danger. Because they are seeking political power through violence but not secession, they are more dangerous but also less capable than ethnic secessionist movements. The Maoist seek political power by ‘liberating’ swathes of rural India which they rule. They hope that this process might eventually help them overthrow India’s bourgeois state.

The Maoists are more dangerous because it is unclear as yet what political compromises can be made with such groups. But the Maoists suffer from the perennial problem that all insurgencies suffer: deciding when to convert their insurgent fighters into a standing army. As the LTTE learned in Sri Lanka, it is not easy for an insurgency to convert itself into a full-scale conventional military force that occupies space. Once that transformation is done, the guerrillas lose one of their most vital sources of strength: their capacity to withdraw from battle. Thus the Maoist rebellion has the potential to be a serious headache but not a fundamental threat to the Indian state.

But the Indian state also faces some challenges in tackling the Maoist scourge. Until now, the Maoists have been tackled by either local police forces or central paramilitary forces. If they are unable to handle the threat, there will be increasing calls for the army to be called in, which will strain the already overstretched army. A better alternative would be to either retool the existing paramilitary forces or create a new paramilitary force that can handle insurgencies. But it should also be understood that such measures are temporary solutions to essentially political problems. A more responsive and representative political and economic order would prevent the conditions that gives rise to rebellions. Whether India’s counterinsurgency strategy would evolve to recognize that larger truth remains to be seen.


1. Ivan Arreguin-Toft, ‘The [F]utility of Barbarism: Assessing the Impact of the Systematic Harm of Non-Combatants in War,’ at

2. I use ‘doctrine’ here to mean not just the pamphlet that the army issues but more importantly the attitude of the army towards counterinsurgency task, gleaned from interviews, essays in professional journals and other writings.

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