Operation Haila – The ULFA insurgency in Assam

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

Operation Haila is Section – 3 of Chapter -2 from the book ‘The ULFA insurgency in Assam’ written by Colonel Rajinder Singh Kushwaha. The author is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy and is a seasoned defence and strategic affairs analyst who had served as the Commanding Officer of 3 Bihar Regiment.

He led his regiment in insurgency environs in Assam in 1990-93 and has amassed vast experience in Counterinsurgency operations from the Northeast, Punjab to Jammu and Kashmir. He has authored books on both the J&K & NE internal security dynamics.  The veteran is a regular contributor and leading defence and strategic affairs publications. He has held prestigious appointments in the army, including as an instructor at a premier army institute, Colonel General Staff, Col Administration of an Infantry Division and Col “Q” works at a Command Headquarters.

(United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is an armed separatist organisation operating in the Indian state of Assam. ULFA seeks to establish an independent state of Assam with armed struggle in the Assam conflict.)

Excerpt published with the permission of the author.

During the third week of October 90, communal riots broke out in Hailakandi town. On 28 October 90, at 9 P.M. while listening to the TV News, I gathered that situation in Hailakandi was tense and the ‘army had been deployed’. This was strange as ours was the nearest unit and we were totally unaware of ‘our so called deployment’. I rang up my Adjutant and asked him if we had received any such communications. His reply was negative. I immediately cautioned him to get ready to move and place the battalion on half an hour notice. Though nothing came through the night but I had my apprehension.

Next morning, there were frantic messages from Division Headquarters, located more than 60 kms away from us at Masimpur (Silchar). At about 0730 hours in the morning, Deputy GOC (General Officer Commanding), Brigadier Pantal, came on the line and asked me as to how much time I needed to mobilize a company column. I said, “Half an hour”. He could not believe it. Any way, he said, “You can move by 1300 hours but if you can do it earlier it will be very good”.

To say the least, the moment I had kept the telephone receiver down, my Adjutant had already asked Major Shamsher Singh (Later Major Genera) to move his company column to Hailakandi- a distance of 90 kms from our location. Thus, by 11 A.M. the column had established itself well in the Hailakandi Town.

The speed with which the column was positioned at Hailakandi stunned the Division Headquarters. I was very happy on two counts. Firstly, at the initiative being displayed by my officers, and secondly but most important was the fact that they could preempt me. Hereafter, it became a ‘battle of wits’ between me and my officers as to what came first, my directions or their anticipatory actions. To say the least, on several occasions I was outdone.  In fact they could anticipate faster than I could think.  What better set of officers does a commanding officer need?

Operation Haila -  The ULFA insurgency in Assam
The ULFA insurgency in Assam by Col Rajinder Singh

To cite another example, in the second week of November 90, battalion was again asked to be deployed in Hailakandi.  This time it involved the whole battalion.  It was a holiday and I must be asleep when the orders came.  It was only at 1500 hours when knocks on my door followed by a loud and clear voice of my Adjutant, shook me out of sleep.  He was screaming; “Get up, Colonel, we are moving”.  I came out and asked him as to what had happened.  He was crisp, “It is Hailakandi again.  Two company commanders are already in Hailakandi with their respective company columns.  I am moving the Battalion Headquarters.  You may join us by evening.  I am leaving your protection party behind.  Situation out there seems to be very bad.  We might need you”.  I could see a triumphant grin on his face-almost knocking me down with my often used pet-words, “You lazy, lethargic, stagnant minds stop poodle-faking.  Use your rusting brains”.

I decided to move immediately and by 1800 hours I was there at Hailakandi.  By now, my second-in-command had already surveyed the whole town.  He had the situation under control and he curtly told me, “Problem is not amongst the people, it is between the Superintendent of Police (SP) and the Deputy Commissioner (DC), one a Hindu and other a Muslim.  They are blowing it out of proportions.  You might like to hold a conference of civil officials and restrain them”.  I said “OK! Fix it for tomorrow morning 9 AM”.

I learnt during the night that there were five companies of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and six to eight platoons of Assam Armed Police under the SP.  I wondered what the need for the Army was!  I also learnt that Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police in the Barak Valley, was also camping in the town.  I realized what was going on and decided to give a few lessons on administration to the civil officials.  I told my 2IC to ask DIG of Police, also, to attend the conference.  To my utter astonishment, the DIG agreed.

 In the conference next morning, in full view of my officers and plethora of civil and police officials, with my blazing anger and whacking tongue, I fired the salvo thus: “Gentlemen” I said, “We need to take a dispassionate view of the situation. Let us rise above our petty-mindedness and think in terms of national interests. I personally feel with the kind of police force available here; there was no need to call the Army in”.

The Deputy Commissioner of Hailakandi, interjected, “No, Sir, we have no confidence in police. They are taking sides”.  To this, Superintendent of Police, angrily retorted, “No, it is you who is taking sides.  You are giving shelters to those criminals who initiated the riots”.

It was now clear to me that police and civil administration were definitely at loggerheads due to their religious affiliations. I intervened, “Gentlemen, this is no way to handle the crisis.  I am not here to sort out your personal problems.  Do not see me in the role of a super-policemen and an administrator.  I am here to assist you in maintaining law and order.  You want my assistance you will have to prove it to me that you need me.  Do not expect me and my men in the streets while you sleep in your bungalows and your police force goes on holiday.  Deploy your police, send your Magistrates on the roads and then call for me.  If you think, as Army has come, so your job was over, you all are very sadly mistaken. Army is not here to get involved in your intriguing games.  Take control of the district and start administering it jointly or else I will march out the Army”.

The Deputy Commissioner pleaded, “Please Sir; there is a loss of confidence in the police.  Please take over control of the district”.  I cut him short, “No way Army can take over administration.  Law of the land does not permit.  This needs amending the constitution.  Do tell me when you have done it.  We are leaving”.

This panicked them.  DIG of Police requested me to stay on for two days. He agreed to deploy police in the sensitive areas, if magistrates are provided with each picket and a stand-by Army column to provide assistance in case the situation goes out of control.  I agreed.  I also ordered flag marches by the Army. By evening every thing was under control and Hailakandi town was incident free.

Next day I suggested to the DC to lift the curfew, which was done.  Normalcy had returned within 24 hours.  There were no cases of torching, arson and looting as had happened some 36 hours before.  By third day, I pulled out most of the battalion to go back, leaving behind a column of ‘company plus’ under a very able officer, Major MS Jakhar.    

‘Operation Haila’ gave me a good insight of the way civil administration functions and it came quiet handy during my conduct of ‘Operation Rhino’ later. I also realized that the role of Army in such like situations was not of a ‘super-police-man’ but of deterrence, whose presence must evoke fear amongst trouble-makers and generate confidence amongst normal citizens. This became my cardinal principle for conducting future operations.

Well! ‘Operation Haila’ is years behind us and there are many more experiences to be talked about, but I must make one final comment. ‘Operation Haila’ gave me a measure of the high degree of initiative and self-confidence prevailing amongst my Officers, JCOs and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and it certainly boosted my own confidence. “If time comes”, I assured my self,  “I can freely devote myself to higher level strategy and plans, while my officers and JCOs can evolve and modify ground level tactics depending upon the situation”.

In fact, what was not known to me before but became apparent during ‘Operation Haila’, was the golden rule that internal security operations demand decentralizing execution to lowest level while retaining centralized control at the highest level. And this became my guiding principle, a year later, when I conducted ‘Operation Rhino’ in Jorhat.

Another lesson, I learnt during this period was how to deal with invariably indifferent and inflexible approach of staff at higher headquarters. It is a known fact that staff officers are always rigid and bookish to the last detail. To them everything must be done as stipulated in the General Staff publications and operational manuals. Any deviation invites their wrath and non-cooperation.

It is a natural habit with them to pick holes in anything not conforming to the book. They do not realize that the ground realities in India have changed manifold. But to them, ‘Aid-to-Civil-Authorities-manual’, is a sacred book. Therefore, all operations by the Army, in such situations, must be carried out as per this book.

In our ‘after-action-report’ of ‘Operation Haila’ we had mentioned that we had established ‘Section and Platoon’ sized protective patrols (PPs) at a large number of places to check-mate mischief-mongers and generate confidence amongst normal citizens. This was objected to by the staff at Headquarters 57 Mountain Division. We were asked to explain as to why we did so. Division Headquarters also objected to our carrying out joint patrolling with the police. The matter was only resolved when I contrived to justify it in tune with the terminology of General Staff publication that we had only carried out ‘piqueting’ in sensitive areas to bring violent mobs under control.

Next question, they asked, was if each piquet had a magistrate on duty and whether or not situation was handed over to Army. To this our reply was in affirmative, with a proviso that need for situation being handed over to the Army did not arise as the mob invariably dispersed on seeing the Army. The lesson was clear to me. Do whatever you want to do but tell the staff what the book says. Otherwise even a good job done will be put to hammer for a small irritant.

In the later years, I perfected this art of keeping the military hierarchy amused. I shall talk about it later. It is suffice to say here that civil administration in such like situations always wants the army to carry out certain acts which may not be permissible by the Army’s red book. But to win over their confidence and goodwill, a commander has to accommodate some requests. Such adjustments lay the foundations of mutual trust which the Army can exploit in many ways. To give an example, let us say, when the Army is called in to deal with militants, it is natural for the civil administration to not to show much confidence in civil police, because of its local profile. It is so because the police would have been rendered ineffective by the propaganda and coercive tactics of militants.

Some of the policemen, particularly at lower levels, become active sympathizers and some of them work for militants out of fear. It is quite a common phenomenon as policemen are basically locals. It was so in Assam; it was experienced in Punjab and J&K. In such scenarios, civil administration does not trust the police and looks towards the Army for personal protection. Such requests will pour in from all civil officials including some high ranking police officials. But there is no such provision by which the Army can accept this. Asking for official permission to meet such requests is to invite troubles from staff. But a commander on the spot has to find out a via-media to win over the civil administration. Once done, you will find them totally amenable. This is just a hypothetical case brought out to highlight the inconvenience of ground commanders engaged in combating militancy. Therefore, every good commander evolves his own methods to find solutions to such ticklish situations.

In fact, in modern times, command of troops in the Army, whether in peace or war, in ‘WOM’-affected areas, violence and terrorist-torn areas or during Counter insurgency operations, is a very difficult assignment. Most of the army’s law manuals contain rules and regulations which were written for soldiers of a different era by the British for the colonial army some 150 years back. The army law books were supposedly updated after independence but it was only a broad brush and not a comprehensive exercise.  Social conditions, in the past seven decades have undergone a dramatic change today. Old values, ethos, attitudes and moralities have been transformed. Therefore, what was applicable to soldiers of yester-years can not be blindly applied to soldiers of today. Unfortunately, our law manuals have not changed. They continue to see soldiers with legal eyes of a period pertaining to a century and a half back.

Today, the problems of command and man-management have not only become cumbersome and tricky but also multifaceted and varied. Undoubtedly, this has been brought about by the ongoing social transformation, which has affected the cultural, economical, political, religious and regional landscape of the country. I shall be dealing with this in next section on ‘formulating my Commandments of Command’. I will only add here that so much of change has taken place in the social forestry of the nation that it warrants a reorientation of our command philosophy.

Accordingly, I formulated my ten commandments of command which were a result of my being in command for initial three months.


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