India is often portrayed as the strong yet benevolent nation of South East Asia, who goes to great lengths to maintain cordial relations with its neighbours. But there is a secretive murkiness of scandalous military and economic dealings that hardly comes before the public eye.
On February 12, 1998, India’s defense ministry announced that the Army’s Operation Leech had busted a Burmese massive gun-running racket, and claimed to have recovered arms worth a million dollars in Nicobar’s Landfall Island. The ministry said six leaders of the arms smugglers were killed in an encounter, while the other 34 men were arrested.
Apparently, the group was supplying weapons to insurgent groups in India’s north-east. Burma shared borders with four north-eastern states in India: Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Insurgency in these states was rising, and it was evident that they were receiving aids from outside India. The ministry’s claims sounded plausible, but it didn’t last long.
A shockingly different tale began to unfold when the arrested “smugglers” started narrating the incident. They said they were Burmese revolutionaries, fighting against the Military regime in their country. They claimed on February 11, India’s spy agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), in a joint operation with the Indian Army, killed six of their leaders in cold blood, and arrested the others.
Another disturbing truth began to emerge. The arrested Burmese men claimed they were members of the National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) and Karen National Union (KNU).
Not only were the RAW and the military lying, but it was now evident that the rebels had been back-stabbed by their old friends. NUPA was “friend” with Indian intelligence agencies. Two years before they were gunned down in Nicobar, some of the rebel leaders had visited New Delhi to meet RAW officials.
NUPA had seen better days with India. They were trained and aided with arms by the Indian Army. RAW had cultivated the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). While KIA went on about its business, India allowed the group carry a limited trade in jade and precious stones as a front business.
The Burmese were double crossed by a certain Indian military intelligence officer known as Lieutenant-Colonel VS Grewal, aka Gary. According to the arrested rebels, it was Gary, who called NUPA and KNU rebels to Landfall island, promising them logistical support and a base to carry on their movement against Burma’s military regime.
The sinister plan of the double crossing party sends down shivers even now. On arrival, the rebels were given a friendly welcome (probably like they were greeted in the past), and were wined and dined on the first night. The second day, the army shot down six of the Burmese leaders, including General Khaing Raza, the outfit’s military wing chief.
But what could have been the motive for such a large-scale planning that involved three wings of the Indian armed forces: navy, army and coast guard in Operation Leech?
It emerged that Lt-Col ‘Gary’ Grewal was friends with the Burmese military regime and he took a big stash of cash to eliminate or sideline the rebels that was beginning to become a sore point for Burma.
Then defence minister George Fernandes ordered a CBI probe into the bungled up affair. But the army dodged the attempt, and the CBI could not make much headway. The bureau’s repeated requests for access to Grewal were also not granted by Army chief General VP Malik.
It took the CBI six and half years to file a charge sheet for the 34 arrested men because the army just would not cooperate. Meanwhile, a lawyer, T Vasanda, who was helping the rebels legally, was murdered. The scandal became such an embarrassment that later the Army denied there was ever any officer going by the name VS Grewal.
Since Operation Leech, it became clearer that after Thailand, India was Burma’s second largest export market. Allegedly, Burma’s armed forces are now provided all logistical help by the Indian Army. India is also in a race with China to acquire gas reserves off Burma’s coast.
This is one chapter that RAW wouldn’t like us to know, let alone remember. Operation Leech, ironically ended up in a botched condition that showed Grewal as the leech, who sucked the rebels’ blood and killed them too!