Military common sense

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The Defence Makeover: 10 Myths that Shape India's Image by Pravin Sawhney; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002; pages 460, Rs.695.

AS an army officer, Sawhney recounts in his introduction, he was often called upon to interact with media personnel and convey complex issues of defence planning and strategy to a less-than-receptive audience. It was never an attractive proposition for many of the journalists with an eye on the next day's headlines, to devote the time and attention that is required to digest these matters. In addition to this constraint, within the media there was always an attitude of deference towards the professional armed forces, that did not quite mesh with its mission of informing and analysing.

The belief that the armed forces know best, Sawhney observes, is no more than a temporary convenience. Over time, he argues, the armed forces get locked into an image that is created for them by an uncritical and indulgent media and they lose that element of public accountability that is so vital for defence preparedness.

Since leaving the Army to take up a career in journalism, Sawhney was able to study in some detail, many of the unstated premises of defence planning which have been propagated by the media and in turn been absorbed by the public. What he saw was not an edifying picture.

This book is an effort to correct certain common misperceptions that the author encountered in the course of his professional life on both sides of the divide. The ten myths listed are partly overlapping assumptions, comfortable nostrums regarding the defence of the realm that Sawhney is keen to rebut. But in going about this mission it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he begins on the wrong foot.

The first of the myths that Sawhney seeks to dispel is that China is not a military threat to India. This is followed by an effort to knock down the assumption that India's defence planning is adequate to counter the challenge that China poses.

Sawhney's narrative of India's border tensions with China is overwhelmingly influenced by the military calculus. He argues fervently for a quick resolution of the border disputes, but believes that this can only be achieved by mustering the requisite military muscle and by bargaining from a position of strength. Since the border war of 1962, he argues, there was only a brief interlude when India adopted a militarily sensible policy towards its giant neighbour. This was in 1980, when Indira Gandhi approved a plan submitted by the Chief of the Army Staff, General K.V. Krishna Rao, to upgrade dramatically the sporadic deployment of forces along the Line of Actual Control with China. No longer were these troops to be confined within isolated enclaves, vulnerable to arbitrary redefinitions of the line of control. Rather, they were to be organised into a heavy forward deployment and aligned all the way from Turtok in the Ladakh sector to the trijunction of India, China and Myanmar in the east. This forward movement was to be supported by massive infrastructure development in the rearguard areas. The two processes were to proceed in mutual harmony, so that there would never be the danger of overstretching the forward lines.

The analytical description of India's effort to challenge Chinese border claims in Sumdorong Chu in 1986 is well constructed. This operation took place in the sixth year of the plan for a mass buildup of forward positions. Since it broadly coincided with Operation Brasstacks - a show of military might and aggressive intent on the western front - it only seemed to expose glaring lacunae in India's military planning, actually endowing the nightmare scenario of a two-front war with fresh life. Realism dawned, and India chose in the following years to scale back its plans for a massive deployment on the China frontier. Also, budgetary constraints that began to pinch in the following years, made this scaling back a matter of great prudence.

However, Sawhney argues that this represented a major step back from India's point of view. This inference must seem rather implausible, since it seems to be derived from an exclusive focus on the military, as opposed to the political dimension of the border problem. Starting with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in 1988, there was a gradual process of rapprochement set under way, in which the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement was a landmark. Pressing hard on the contrarian theme, Sawhney argues that this agreement was in fact a setback, since it gave China ample scope for a dilatory approach on the border question. At the same time, China succeeded in keeping India strategically unbalanced by forging or strengthening military alliances with neighbouring states such as Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

This viewpoint feeds strongly off a 40-year-old streak of nationalist paranoia in India and is insufficiently attentive to the peaceful intentions that China has repeatedly manifested. For example, Sawhney's narrative elevates minor deviations by border patrols from established routes into seriously hostile actions. Sawhney does concede that there is no reason for India to fear the predatory territorial ambitions of China, which is neither an expansionist nor a colonial state. Yet he is unable to see that there is little political reward on either side for precipitate military action along the border. Sawhney argues that the only reason China withdrew from its incursions into India in 1962, was that it did not have the resources - logistical and strategic - to retain control. This goes against the growing understanding now that the incursion was only a punitive raid designed to send a signal to the Indian government, that it could not concurrently insist on a sacred notion of the nation's topography, while hosting elements that were openly hostile to the sovereignty of a neighbouring state.

The chapter that follows contrasts India's relatively poor state of defence planning with the Chinese example, where the military is an integral element in all strategic decisions. This of course is in part a consequence of the anomaly that was written into the organisation of India's armed forces shortly after Independence, when the three services were made attached offices, rather than integral components, of the Ministry of Defence. But there is another vital difference that is repeatedly hinted at in this chapter, though never quite explicated. The Indian armed forces were the bequest of a colonial regime and consequently took time adapting to the political ethos of a newly independent nation. The Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army, in contrast, was a vital element of the mass movement for liberation from the twin depredations of external colonialists and internal warlords. As such, it was able to claim for itself a pivotal role in strategic planning without at the same time threatening the political order that emerged from the Chinese Revolution.

Independent India cannot on either moral or political grounds, insist on its right to inherit all the imperial privileges that Britain enforced while ruling the subcontinent. Sawhney makes much of the unilateral abrogation by India of the rights that Britain enjoyed in the territory of Tibet till its precipitate retreat from empire into isolationism. He does not pause to ponder whether India ever had the moral right to enforce these rights. The rules of the game, in other words, had been rewritten by decolonisation. Far from being legatees of an oppressive old order, the newly independent states were obliged to rework their mutual relations, independent of the tutelage of the imperial powers. In missing this point, he makes a tacit case for India joining a global regime of strategic gamesmanship, which would pit it against its neighbourhood. In the current context, this would only mean signing up for a part in the American plans for the "congagement" - containment and engagement in uneasy balance - of China.

Elsewhere in the book, Sawhney makes a persuasive case against India's firmly held belief that the Kashmir dispute should be settled within the parameters of the 1972 Shimla agreement. With a subtle political analysis of the evolution of the Kashmir dispute, he argues that a resolution within the bilateral framework is today a practical impossibility. Since the mid-1990s, in its effort to conduct a jehad on the twin flanks of Afghanistan and Kashmir, Pakistan's military intelligence increasingly began getting its wires crossed. As a consequence, Kashmir saw incursions by hardened warriors schooled in the Taliban variety of religious fanaticism. Today, he says, the Taliban element - which has not by any means been vanquished by the destruction of their regime in Kandahar and Kabul - threatens to devour Pakistan itself. This has compelled big power intervention in the subcontinental matrix and opened up the Kashmir dispute to the possibility of international arbitration.

Similarly, there is a rather interesting effort in this book to take apart the notion that India won a decisive victory against Pakistan in the Kargil heights in 1999. Kargil, argues Sawhney, represented a shift in the centre of gravity of the Kashmir militancy from the Pakistani General Staff Headquarters in Rawalpindi to the Taliban's spiritual capital in Kandahar. The mujahideen, who in alliance with Pakistani Army regulars and infantry reservists launched the Kargil adventure, may have been forced to pull back under military pressure from India. But in the process, they gained ground within Pakistan. In quick order, the undermining of civilian credibility led to the military takeover and perhaps the final phase in the jehadi elements' battle for dominance in Pakistan. The final verdict on Kargil, Sawhney warns, must wait for the conclusion of that battle.

The book also deals with India's military preparedness on the western sector and the lessons offered by recent exercises in coercive diplomacy: India's Operation Brasstacks in 1986 and Pakistan's Zarb-e-Momin in 1990. There are chapters that deal with the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and the relative missile parities between India and its neighbours. For the lay reader who is often lost in the minutiae of army lore, there are accounts that are rich in descriptive detail of border manoeuvres, military assets and strategic compulsions. A number of carefully made graphs and maps provide clarity to the exposition. The final point or "bottom line" of the exercise is a plea for more rigorous strategic planning, in which the armed forces are given their proper role. No longer, says Sawhney, can the political leadership afford to leave the military top brass out of the process of strategic planning that now involves the nuclear and missile options. But together with the strengthening of military muscle, there should be a systematic political and diplomatic engagement in the neighbourhood to cool down burgeoning tensions. Despite the military focus that dominates the book, the conclusion is eminent common sense.