Does Counter-insurgency SoP works as 'friendly' tool for militants ?

Nirendra Dev 

If to err is human, the Indian soldier fighting insurgency or Naxalite is also a human being. 

"We are family men ourselves....we respect Indian ethos and as disciplined soldiers respect human rights but SoPs are often friendly to militants," -- an armed force personnel would have said effortlessly.

Months after the Supreme Court stayed further proceedings in a botched operation that resulted in the death of Naga coal miners in Nagaland, the Indian army has announced that amended Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will have to be adhered to for any military operation.

The announcement has been made by General Officer-Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command, Lt Gen R.P. Kalita in Guwahati. The fact of the matter is there is nothing drastically new in the statement.The botched up operation by 21 Paratroopers on Dec 4, 2021 in Oting, Nagaland, had resulted in a series of critical statements from certain quarters against the forces. 

Sources in the know of things say the SoP being followed over the years are "always good enough and were tailored such that no soldier can get away easily if he indulges in any violation" of the Rules of Engagement. 

The crux of the issue is things are judged in retrospective effect. One major incident takes place, everyone would say intelligence failures or security lapse; but a mistake and bungled operation, soldiers face court martial and a very unfriendly media. 

The latest round of Naxalites attack killing security personnel in Chhattisgarh yet again has left the security apparatus anguished. 

Some years back a statement was tabled by the Defence Ministry on the floor of both Houses of Parliament wherein it was asserted that the forces must adopt the policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ in letter and spirit, towards any instance of human rights violation.  

The Armed Forces will never let the nation down on this count, it was reiterated. 

The track record of the Indian Army in J&K and the Northeast, where it has been deployed as an aid to the State’s apparatus for internal security tasks, has been guided also by the “Dos and Don’ts”, it has drawn up for itself and which have been endorsed by the Supreme Court.  

The Armed Forces Special Powers Acts (AFSPA) of course accompanied with the Disturbed Area Act empower the Forces to act in difficult situations.  However, the government says there is also a robust mechanism in place for course correction. 

Thus, while admitting the need for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the onus lies squarely on the Armed Forces to ensure that these special provisions are not put to any "misuse". The government has in the past "did not hesitate" in taking stern action against the guilty, in case of any misuse/abuseof powers.   

However, it ought to be remembered that the anti-India elements or militants in the northeastern region and possibly also the Naxalites have an advantage or surprise elements. This 'surprise' actually means near fatal roadmaps for soldiers.


 It is in this context, a source said in Nyasa, four km from Mon, two Assam Rifles personnel sustained injuries because the unit was more than careful and was too much bothering about adhering to the Standard of Procedures (SoP). 

The incident happened on Aug 15, 2022 when the NSCN-K Y faction comprising 17 ultras tried to take over the Assam Rifles post. 

"Inputs suggested the presence of 17 NSCN-KY in Zankham and accordingly an ambush was laid by theforces on Nyasa-Zankham stretch. On the wee hours of Aug 15 (2022), soldiers observed suspiciousmovement. It was bad weather, heavy rains and hence bad visibility," the source said.

The soldier following his 'Rule of Engagements' challenged the strangers and to the bad luck of the forces,the undergrounds immediately opened fire from a nearby hut and tried to flee the spot. In retrospect, the soldiers would recall that their seniors applauded "exemplary restraints" that led to avoidance of collateral damage. But the other side of the story is two soldiers suffered splinter injuries and they were quickly evacuated by local villagers only first to the district town of Mon and later airlifted to Jorhat in Assam

evacuated by local villagers only first to the district town of Mon and later airlifted to Jorhat in Assam.

Later a statement was issued stating that -- "this compassion and restraint shown by the forceson the fateful day were greatly appreciated by the villagers".

But there are occasions such 'restraints' can be fatal and the casualties can happen. Retired officials during interactions with journalists on a number of occasions cite incidents when 'such compassionate' actions could be also treated as an act of indecisiveness and cowardice. 

When there is a failure -- either a major terror/militant action takes place or a botched up operation like Oting, very few would say to err is human and that men in uniform were following the rule book.

Moreover, several militant outfits put civilians and women and children as 'human shields' to flee the spot of military actions and the soldiers find themselves 'handicapped' by the restraintsand the SoP not to harm any vulnerable sections.

Now to recollect what Lt Gen Kalita has said, it must be noted that the SoP being implemented says the soldiers have to ensure three basic things before taking the last option -- that is opening fire to safeguard one's interest as well as the good name of their regiment.

The first Rule of Engagement is to ensure establishing the 'Identity' of the underground. The rule also says even if the suspect is an underground element but if he is not carrying arms; there is strictly 'no chance of opening fire'. The second rule is to give the opportunity to the suspect to surrender. And the third option says one back in self defence "only after the militant has opened fire".

These rules look good on papers, but offer a quite different and difficult situations for soldiers on ground. 

As it is, the serving and retired military personnel would often say that the SoP is "generally friendly to the suspects and militants".