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Fetish to Make India ‘Great’

Atul Bhardwaj ( is an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military by Sushant Singh, New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017; pp 191, 299.

War is composed of many battles. Several specific missions form a battle. War is a large-scale mega event and battle is a small-scale event. Missions are micro-level operations limited in scale and scope. Wars and battles are normally announced prior to launch, missions are generally covert. However, the political impact of missions is not minuscule.

A Relish for Missions

The military leaders may not much like a full-fledged war but they relish crisis management, chase and rescue missions. Victory in mission and limited operations other than war provides ample room to display military skills. In addition, the mission-specific operations can give much greater glory than probably a prolonged war. The results of war are sometimes difficult to discern. However, missions provide more definitive results. Their impact sometimes can be as big as that of a war. For example, the Iran hostage crisis, a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States (US). Fifty-two Americans were held hostage from 4 November 1979 to 20 January 1981. The US launched mission “eagle claw” to rescue their diplomats and citizens. The mission involving US special forces and helicopters was an utter failure. It had a direct political impact in the US. It led to Jimmy Carter’s loss of the presidency in the 1980 election. An era of neo-liberalism started with the arrival of Ronald Regan to the White House. More recently, US SEALS (the navy’s elite “Sea, Air, and Land” team) carried out a more successful mission inside Pakistan. The success of the special mission is to a large extent dependent on the strength of the enemy and the local support that the covert missions receive. In the Iranian hostage crisis, US forces were in a hostile territory and pitted against the might of Iranian state. The result was a failed mission. The Pakistan operation was relatively easy because the SEALS were operating in a known and friendly environment against a tiny adversary.

India’s intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 was closer to the US military adventure inside Iran. Both were disastrous. India moved into a territory that was guarded by the well-armed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Indian forces went right into the LTTE den to dig out their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. A daring covert mission using helicopters in a well-guarded Jaffna University was ill-planned. The gripping saga of lack of coordination and cohesion among the Indian units undertaking the mission is lucidly narrated in warrior–journalist Sushant Singh’s book. Besides operation “Pawan,” the other two Indian missions that are vividly described in Mission Overseas are the 1988 Operation “Cactus” in Maldives and “Khukri” in Sierra Leone in 2000, operating under the United Nations (UN) flag.

Operation Cactus was a success. The Indian forces were able to thwart a coup attempt in Maldives. The icing on the cake was the Indian warships’ chase on the high seas to nab the escaping miscreants. The operation was a success because the locals were with the Indian forces and the opponent was a military lightweight.

In 1987 and 1988, the Indian gross domestic product was on the rise and the Indian elite’s penchant to play a more proactive role on global stage was soaring. In the 1980s, India acquired the second aircraft carrier and got a nuclear submarine on lease from the crumbling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The ambitions to be a regional power were on the rise. The foreign exchange crisis of the 1990s put paid to India’s plans.

India: The Great Power

Sushant Singh’s interest in the stories of Indian military valour is a natural outcome of his close professional and emotional association with the Indian Army. However, the reasons for his passion in tracing the history of the Indian armed forces’ special missions in foreign lands are to be understood in a broader context of his world view. The author’s motivation to undertake missions to narrate the history of Indian armed forces engagement in distant lands is simple. He believes that India has arrived on the world stage. It is a regional and global superpower and like all big powers it must utilise its military to influence events in its vicinity. In the introduction to the book, the author explicitly states “As India becomes a great power, especially in the neighborhood, that time is not far when the Indian military may have to operate overseas again” (p 12).

The Indian elite’s fetish to make India “great” through display of military might on foreign soil while the nation remains mired in poverty and deprivation is a point that needs greater debate. External projection of military power without adequate internal strength is problematic. Such approaches enhance the Indian military’s vulnerabilities to be used either to make or mar the political fortunes of a domestic leader or as a pawn to be exploited in the larger geopolitical games.



Updated On : 9th Oct, 2017


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