How India’s military intelligence betrayed the Burmese resistance
by Nandita Haksar
On 10 February 1998, an operation organised by the Indian intelligence agencies and carried out by Indian Army soldiers culminated on a tiny islet in the far north of the Andaman Islands. For years, the Indian government had been covertly supporting members of the Burmese resistance, a relationship that eventually led up to promises of a small sanctuary in the Indian Ocean from which the resistance fighters could base their ongoing struggle against the Rangoon junta. For the purposes of handing over control of a speck of land called Landfall Island, a few dozen resistance fighters were asked by Indian intelligence to meet on the island at an appointed time. They were asked to come unarmed.
According to eyewitness accounts, instead of receiving the keys to their new kingdom, the Burmese were suddenly surrounded by Indian soldiers, and six of their leaders were marched off into the jungle. Those six were allegedly executed, and the remaining 36 (in addition to several dozen Burmese fishermen and a few Thai boat captains, all of whom were later released) were hogtied and placed under arrest. Later that day, the Ministry of Defence in New Delhi announced at a press conference that a wide-ranging Indian military undertaking known as Operation Leech had successfully intercepted an “international gang of armed smugglers”, and had recovered some USD 1 million worth of weaponry. This was said to have been bound for rebel groups in the Indian Northeast waging battles against the Indian state.
Despite copious media scrutiny and multiple changes in government, the official line on Operation Leech has not changed during the subsequent 11 years. Little has changed with regard to the Burmese revolutionaries, either, having been kept behind bars almost the entire time (save for a brief bail), first on Nicobar Island, then in Port Blair and currently in the Presidency Jail in Calcutta. (Their number is now down to 34, however, after two were presumed killed while attempting to escape.) The legal process, meanwhile, has dragged on, stymied by obstructionism from the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence services, as well as by the usual vagaries of the Indian legal system. After a somewhat inexplicable break since March, ostensibly to allow for the Indian national elections, the trial is now scheduled to recommence on 22 June.
Long a central figure in the unfolding situation – indeed, the one who first got the 36 out of jail in Port Blair on the quickly rescinded bail – has been the human-rights lawyer Nandita Haksar. In Rogue Agent, she lays out as clear a story as could be hoped for about this complex decade-long case. Which is to say, of course, that few hard answers are forthcoming, even from someone who has been involved in the intricacies of the legal process throughout, and has talked to and badgered almost everyone that a civilian can look to for answers in such a situation. Laudably, given her background, Haksar maintains her focus less on the human-rights element of this story, and far more on the political nature of the ongoing Burmese detention. Indeed, the overriding question behind the book is notably straightforward: what made the Indian government switch its allegiance so suddenly, withdrawing its support for the Burmese resistance and giving it wholeheartedly to the authoritarian – many would say outright tyrannical – Burmese generals?
And let there be no doubt about it, New Delhi’s decision was sudden, over and above the specific flashpoint of the incident on Landfall Island in February 1998. India’s connections with Burma, political and otherwise, are long and deep, moving well beyond the colonial era when the two territories were jointly ruled. Indo-Burmese relations received an immediate post-Independence fillip when New Delhi offered its support to Burmese Prime Minister U Nu’s incipient government; through Indian support for pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988; right up to 1992, when the Indian government conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Prize on a then-recently interred Aung San Suu Kyi, whose victory in national elections two years earlier had been (and remains) overturned by the junta.
The official awarding of the prize to Burma’s best-known democracy advocate was a brazen poke at the ruling military government. It was also one clearly in keeping with international sentiment, and comfortably in line with India’s oft-touted role as the world’s largest democracy and nascent role as Southasia’s top neighbourhood minder. Within just a few years, however, New Delhi had dramatically receded from actively assisting the Burmese resistance to reneging on previous promises to those same resistance fighters, under pressure from the Burmese generals. The victims of that about-face, meanwhile, have remained behind bars ever since
Even if Haksar is not able to offer many concrete answers (even the exact date of the fake encounter on Landfall Island is disputed), she fills out a remarkably cohesive and even-handed book by broadening her scope to include a spectrum of historical, geographical and political musings. As it turns out, the jailed Burmese fighters offer profound opportunities by which to look into the seams of Indian Ocean culture, politics and intrigue, past and present. The 36 were mostly poor farmers involved in the (mutually exclusive) Karen National Army and National United Party of Arakan, which are engaged in separate fights for autonomy that go back well before the widely known popular uprisings of 8 August 1988. (The recent international outrage over the treatment of the Rohingya ‘boat people’, one of the most oppressed subsections of today’s Burma, was actually concerned with the Arakanese, the traditional name of the modern state of Rakhine.) For the incarcerated Burmese, Haksar writes, “the ocean was not associated with beauty, pleasure or holidays. It was a battleground. They knew that the old adage ‘the sea unites while the land divides’ was just not true.”
All of this only adds to the central focus of Rogue Agent, which remains the question alluded to in the book’s subtitle, if the ‘how’ were to be replaced with a ‘why’. In the midst of a plethora of theories attempting to explain New Delhi’s sudden withdrawal of support for the Burmese resistance, there are two stock suggestions. The first and most sensational deals with Haksar’s titular rogue agent. Lieutenant-Colonel V S Grewal was a Burmese-speaking officer with India’s military intelligence who was, by all accounts, the sole liaison between the Indian establishment and the Burmese resistance leadership. It is also clear that he became increasingly corrupt, utilising his position as sole liaison to demand in total some USD 50,000 in cash and favours from the strapped resistance leadership, all the while purportedly disallowing any contact between the Burmese fighters and any other wing of the Indian military. It was also Grewal who ultimately lured the 36 fighters and their six leaders to Landfall Island in February 2008. In the storm of media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Operation Leech, Grewal is said to have been allowed to disappear into the Burmese countryside, where he evidently continues to be shielded by the Rangoon government.
In fictional thrillers, of course, the ‘rogue agent’ theory is generally one to be disbelieved, offering an answer that is at once too perfect and too final. Haksar, too, regardless of the title of her book, downplays this particular theory. “If Grewal had been working alone,” she writes, “why would the Indian Army want to protect him?” The answer might be to cover for embarrassing oversight or even incompetence on its part, of course – and, indeed, there is little reason to suspect that this does not play some part in the ultimate answer.
The rest of that answer, however, involves a far murkier mix of realpolitik, geo-strategy and plain-old paranoia. Although India’s so-called Look East policy was first formally instituted as such by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao during the mid-1990s, its contours had been in the works since as far back as the 1962 war between India and China. In the bout of acute Sino-anxiety that gripped New Delhi for decades thereafter (and extends to this day, in many corridors), Indian influence began to be seen specifically in terms of a ‘counterweight’ to the reach of Chinese tentacles. This was particularly so in Southeast Asia, where Indian mandarins were presented with two inescapable facts: the sole direct connection between the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia went through both the volatile Indian Northeast and Burma.
This dual factor was reinforced over the past decade or more, as New Delhi began to rely increasingly heavily on the Burmese military for help in putting pressure on the two dozen resistance groups operating in the Northeast, many of which sought sanctuary on the Burmese side of the border. Meanwhile, both of these elements came together during the mid-1990s – and, three years later, the official assistance to the Burmese resistance was ignominiously called off. One of the more incisive conclusions at which Haksar arrives on the subject is that “India did not have a cohesive policy towards Burma because it never had a policy for its North-East, except a counter-insurgency policy made up largely by inputs of the intelligence agencies.”
What could have offered a greater Indian ‘counterbalance’ to Chinese influence than the constant and even-handed support for Burma’s nascent democracy movement? Embedded in this question are some of the more depressing long-term ramifications of the case of the 34 Burmese political prisoners, whether or not the case is eventually resolved once it resumes in late June.
There appear to be very few legal options available to the Burmese, even if freed. Even if New Delhi were suddenly to engage in a dramatic turnaround – retracting its accusations that the 34 were engaged in gunrunning for anti-state rebel groups in the Northeast, and allowing the Burmese to remain in the country – there seems little doubt that few would want to take up the option. Even as political prisoners, however, international law currently stands as a hypocritical impediment. Although both the Czech Republic and East Timor have made provisional offers of asylum to the fighters, such a move would still require approval from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. However, UNHCR has maintained that it is unable to give refugee certificates to the 34 Burmese on the grounds that international convention prohibits such status for members of armed groups. While such stipulations do indeed exist, they are watered-down provisions that are only to be enforced on a case-by-case basis. As Haksar notes, there exist a host of examples of UNHCR registering individuals known to have taken part in armed insurrections, including other Burmese resistance fighters.
Most importantly, however, the 34 will not want to go back to their homeland, at least not in its current political situation. And in this, the Indian government will have done nothing to assist in engendering any kind of change in Rangoon. Nor will this bitter taste be left to linger solely in the mouths of the 34 and the families of those killed. Rather, just as certain as the eventual release of the Burmese resistance fighters, the Burmese junta will, eventually, implode or crumble, whether under its own sluggish weight or due to outside forces. At that point, the pungent memory of the neighbourhood superpower’s weakness in the face of trying circumstances will inevitably colour the way in which any new Burmese government, and its people, will feel in dealing with its neighbour.
“We” – Indians – “have lost the goodwill of the people who one day will return to their country with bitter memories of their days in India,” Haksar writes. “They will look upon the support and solidarity of some of us as only gestures by well-meaning individuals, not by Indians.”