Open reviews Mission Overseas

Srinath Raghavan reviews Mission Overseas in Open magazine:

THE ‘SURGICAL STRIKES’ against Pakistani targets conducted last year touched off a discussion on the role of force in Indian foreign policy. While some commentators emphasised that such operations had been carried out in the past, others pointed to the scale and coordination of the latest strikes. Others still underscored the need to avoid overestimating the strategic — as different from operational — effects of such operations. Interestingly, much of this debate was conducted with scant reference to history. After all, this was hardly the first time India had used force outside of a regular war or insurgency.

Part of the problem is that Indian historians have seldom been interested in military matters. Worse, even scholars of strategic affairs have tended to refrain from serious historical work. On the flip side, our military too has only recently begun to make a proper attempt at documenting its involvement in various conflicts. The extent of our history deficit can be gauged from the fact that the story of India’s intervention in Maldives in November 1988 is being told in some detail for the first time in Sushant Singh’s Mission Overseas.

A former colonel in the Indian Army, Singh covers defence and strategic affairs for The Indian Express. His book is a fine account of three instances of force projection by India: Operation Cactus in Maldives; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka; and Operation Khukri in Sierra Leone. The choice of overseas operations is important because it throws into relief the peculiar challenges of using force in such contexts. Drawing on his own military experience as well as interviews and access to unpublished documents, Singh provides well-paced and readable narratives of these little known operations.

The operations in Sri Lanka have some purchase on our public memory owing to the fiasco in which they ended. Singh reminds us of the extraordinary optimism with which the political and military leadership authorised an attack on Jaffna University — a known stronghold of the LTTE. This overconfidence contributed to shoddy operational preparedness. The Sikh Light Infantry unit went in for the operation with civil maps of 1938 vintage. Senior commanders on the ground were also slow in adapting to the rapidly shifting operational context vis-à-vis the LTTE. The upshot was a costly debacle that prefigured the collapse of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka.

Singh suggests that this larger failure arose from an inability to fuse political and military considerations, plans and initiatives. In the case of Maldives, though, the same government did rather well. When President Gayoom appealed for Indian assistance in the wake of an attempted coup, New Delhi was quick off the blocks and sure-footed throughout. On this occasion, Singh writes, ‘Indian officials were able to swiftly put together a plan action.’ Indeed, it is striking that much of the coordination and preparation occurred at the level of the civilian and military officials even before the question of intervention was taken up by the political leadership. Singh provides a gripping account of the strategic deliberations that ensued. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi apparently took a close interest in operational details, including troop numbers, arms and aircraft. Clarity of strategic aims and military means along with careful coordination enabled Indian forces to shore-up the Maldivian government.

The operation in Sierra Leone had additional layers of complexity. The Indian forces taken captive by the rebels were operating under the UN umbrella. The international context was therefore a complicating factor. Britain and the United States were sympathetic to the plight of captured Indian soldiers, but urged India to exercise restraint. Diplomatic efforts to secure their release without recourse to force took place on several tracks. Fortunately, there wasn’t much coverage of the hostage crisis in the Indian media. So, the Government could take a well-thought out decision to attack the rebels and restore the credibility of the Indian force. Singh offers a crisp and informative account of the decision as well as the successful operation.

The brevity of these narratives, however, leaves you wanting to know more. To be fair, each of these crises deserves a book in its own right. Singh has uncovered a rich seam of recent Indian military history — one that is indispensable for any serious debate on the utility of force.