India’s betrayal of Burma’s democratic aspirations
by Nandita Haksar
Monday, 06 April 2009 14:21
Title: Rogue Agent: How India’s Military Intelligence Betrayed the Burmese Resistance
Author: Nandita Haksar
Publisher and Year: New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2009
Price: Rs. 299
Reviewed by: Subir Bhaumik
The post-colonial Indian state has proven to possess an unfortunate knack for turning friends into enemies. Personally, I cannot see how this serves the very national interests that the defenders of the Indian state seek to protect. As a student of diplomacy and international relations and a close watcher of India’s ‘Look East Policy’, I cannot figure out how Indian interests will best be served if Burma fails to evolve into a democracy and if India does not back the forces of democracy instead of hobnobbing with the xenophobic generals who control the Pagoda-studded nation.
I am happy that my good friend Nandita Haksar raises this point so effectively in her book Rogue Agent. When she says that “Indian support to the Burmese generals and betrayal of the pro-democracy movement has not served Indian interests,” I could not agree more. In a seminar on India-Burma relations about six years back, I raised this point with some of the military generals who were attending the seminar in Delhi. Among them was retired Lieutenant General Ravi Sawhney, the man who headed Indian military intelligence during the so-called ‘Operation Leech’ and who let the “rogue agent” Lieutenant Colonel Grewal, get away with perfidy, betrayal and plain murder.
In Rogue Agent, Haksar paints a vivid picture of the betrayal of Arakanese and Karen rebels from Burma, who trusted in India only to be betrayed by Grewal. Today, 34 of those betrayed still remain in India’s penal system, over a decade after their wrongful arrest. Additionally, six of their leaders were killed in cold blood at the very onset of Grewal’s vicious U-turn.
I had told Sawhney and his military friends — “Sir, people like me and Nandita Haksar are fools, we talk of human rights. Forget us. You say you defend Indian national interests. Now Sir, how are Indian national interests served when your agent betrays and kills some key foreign assets like the Arakanese rebels of NUPA (National Union Party of Arakan). Because after ‘Operation Leech’, nobody, no foreign group, will ever believe India and will ever work for India.” The generals had no answer, they just promised to “get back” to me.
I am happy Haksar’s book raises this key point.
Forget human rights. It is the passion for people like Haksar and some media people like me, but that’s perhaps not relevant for the citizens of an emerging power like India, who sometimes argue that if the Chinese can be a big power without respecting human rights, why should India make so much noise about it.
But purely from India’s national interest point of view, is it good to use a friendly foreign insurgent group like NUPA for a decade and then just allow a greedy, corrupt scoundrel like Grewal to betray and kill them and severely weaken them. The answer is a resounding ‘No.’ Such a reversal of policy is how good friends are turned into deadly enemies. In this instance, an enemy who will refuse to give India the natural gas, off the Arakan coast, so coveted.
I have exposed Grewal before, in a Times of India article on the 15th of April 2001 and in multiple BBC stories. Haksar is right in saying that the assassinated Major Saw Tun stayed with me in Calcutta — he even showed me a video of how the Arakanese rebel navy operates. They would be our best bet against arms smugglers who attempt to import black market weaponry destined for insurgents in India’s northeast. NUPA indeed gave the Indian army huge help in Operation Golden Bird. Veteran intelligence officers like B B Nandy and Rajinder Khanna understood the value of NUPA, which is why they cultivated them.
Grewal was perhaps a lone, greedy, cunning and avaricious anomaly in the Indian military intelligence system, fleecing the Arakanese, as Haksar recounts, of tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps he even fooled Indian authorities into believing he was trapping gunrunners. But nevertheless, the Indian military intelligence and the great Indian Army should have punished him once the truth was disclosed. Military intelligence, when it now looks for sources amongst the Burmese, draws a complete blank because no Burmese believes them after ‘Leech’. So, in the end, a scoundrel like Grewal has severely damaged Indian interests. This analysis holds true unless, as Haksar subtly hints at, other army generals as well also made money from Grewal’s foul deals.
Sadly, the media is full of army-controlled “media assets” which have provided stories supporting the official line on ‘Operation Leech’. Military Intelligence got its top media asset to write a cover story in Outlook magazine, blaming George Fernandes for supporting Burmese gunrunning and justifying ‘Operation Leech’. And CNN-IBN’s top investigative unit actually interviewed Grewal last year as “an expert on Northeast”. What kind of an expert, I ask? These media people, for reasons known only to them, help rehabilitate a scoundrel like Grewal – man who violated all the basics of humanity and who damaged Indian national interests vis-à-vis Burma. It is in fact he — and not the poor Arakanese who trusted India so much that they would even stake their lives for India — who deserves the punishment.
Grewal had his personal reasons to look good to all parties and make as much money as he could from the situation. But unless the Army metes out exemplary punishment to Grewal, it will only prompt future uniformed crooks that seek to undermine Indian interests and strike their own sweet deals.
I suppose this is the underlying purpose of Haksar’s book. She is a patriot. She and I make money the hard way and we defend India by saying the truth. We believe in a truly democratic India — and a truly democratic neighborhood with Burma included.
India, as we argue, cannot fall into the U.S. mold — democracy at home and support for autocracy abroad. The Burmese generals have done nothing to stop the flow of deadly drugs into India, they have done nothing to check the flow of huge consignments of Chinese weapons traveling through Burma and, significantly, they have not given India the gas from the Arakan gas fields.
India’s interests in Burma can only be served by a democratic regime and never by the generals, who will always serve Chinese interests first. So even as Haksar has exposed in greater detail the betrayal of the Burmese resistance by elements within Indian military intelligence, she has also built up a strong case for changing India’s Burma policy.
Former Indian army commander Lieutenant General H R S Kalkat once advocated that India’s Burma policy be left to the army. “We are soldiers, they (Burmese army) are soldiers, our blood is thicker than the blood of the bureaucrats and politicians,” were his exact words. However, diplomacy and politics is too important a matter to be left to generals, a lesson India needs to realize before it misses the bus in Burma.