Indian Express reviews Mission Overseas

Rudra Chaudhuri reviews Mission Overseas in The Indian Express:

Strategy might be understood as a way of using military means to achieve political ends. In the world of business, strategies of action are designed and redesigned to conclude mergers and acquisitions. Political parties use strategy to devise ways to maximise electoral gains. In the domain of military affairs, the difference between considering and ignoring this art form cruelly determines life and death. In this respect, Mission Overseas, authored by Sushant Singh — an officer turned journalist — is a crucial contribution to Indian military history.

This is a fast-paced, lucidly written, and well-researched account of Indian overseas operations in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone. Narrated in a unique style, each chapter transports the reader to three separate locales. Whether it be a decision taken by a senior officer to risk landing a military aircraft on an airstrip potentially controlled by enemy forces in the Maldives, or the gripping account of India’s select para commandos making the best of a disastrous landing in Jaffna, or a fascinating description of a rescue mission in Sierra Leone, the book does not at any point fail to deliver. It is impossible to put down. Moreover, interviews with participants and protagonists alike have been delicately interwoven into the narrative.

The book relates stories of the heroism of officers and soldiers who, at times, took impossible decisions and challenged or altogether ignored orders issued by those out of sync with ground realities. It also illustrates how senior officers — such as in Sierra Leone — understood that war and fighting are, in fact, an expression of politics. Such generals played the role of politicians — negotiating the complex labyrinth that is the UN system to attain both strategic permissions and military hardware from less-willing nations to rescue over 200 Indian soldiers and close to a dozen military observers from different parts of the world.

Equally, and apart from the gripping storylines that move between the soldiers’ eye-view of war and the generals’ estimation of war-making, Singh does not once shirk from honest reporting. The author shows how the fog of war can overwhelm the best of men. Stark accounts of civilian deaths in Jaffna at the hands of Indian soldiers underline the cruelty of war. Yet, these accounts also show how humane advances do not require great strategic thinking, but just ordinary actions of those on the frontline, such as making sure that the personal possessions of civilians in a war zone are respected. This matters as much as a grand political gesture to rebuild schools and hospitals.

In fact, it is the politics around war that remains largely unexplored. For instance, questions remain about political sagacity in cases where the prime minister closely observed operations as they unfolded, such as in Jaffna. Why was Rajiv Gandhi and his advisors unaware of the changing disposition of the LTTE, especially since, as the book makes clear, intelligence was handled by one of his key advisors? In the case of the Maldives, why was the information provided by intelligence agencies sketchy at best, leaving those on board a plane to rescue President Gayoom and his nation with postcards and coffee-table books on Male rather than military maps? This was, after all, as Gandhi often argued, areas in India’s sphere of influence.

The book ought to be read by those interested in history and strategy and certainly those in government and those determined to exercise the use of military force. If it makes one thing certain, it is that the cost of strategic ignorance is not only felt by those who lose their lives, but also a nation and its leaders who remain charred by histories easier to forget than understand. True “national interest”, if one can use this term at all, can only be served by an even more complete account of past operations. Singh goes a long way in bringing life to history in his non-fiction blockbuster. We now await the non-fiction political thriller to accompany this outstanding book.

(The writer is with the India Institute, King’s College, London.)