Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture

A couple of years ago, I was at a seminar where many eminent people from different walks of Indian life had gathered to share their thoughts on India’s Strategic Culture. The discussion, which began with great bonhomie, metamorphosed into an animated debate. There were those who eulogised all great Indians from Manu to Manmohan Singh. They recalled with reverence Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Rani Laxmibai and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. They spoke in praise of Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya; Mohanjodaro and Harappa; Nalanda and Takshila…. They were convinced that Chanakya and his Arthashatra were as great (read, “greater”) than Sun Tzu and his Art of War. They talked of the wars India has won against Pakistan including the surrender of 93,000 Pakistanis (1971). They skipped the Sino-India War (1962) and went gaga over India’s Space and Nuclear capabilities and its rich and varied culture and heritage…. “Wow! What a Strategic Culture!”

Chanakya

People on the opposite bench spoke of the so many times India has been invaded. They recalled some names with a lot of venom––Genghis Khan, Timur, Ghazni, Ghauri and the East India Company…. They argued that the Kashmir issue was poorly handled in 1947; we are still paying the cost of bad decisions. They held Prime Minister Nehru responsible for the debacle in 1962. They argued that the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 shouldn’t have been allowed to leave India; there was no question of releasing Masood Azhar. On the issue of the rescue of President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (Operation Cactus, November 1988), they were sure that India (like the US, the UK, and Pakistan etc.) shouldn’t have extended military assistance––the returns were not commensurate with the risk involved. For sure, India was the proverbial cat’s paw that pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for the Maldivians. In Kargil, India was caught napping…. “Does India have a Strategic Culture at all?”

In the Q&A hour, intellectuals raised doubts, asked questions and commented. I kept mum for I didn’t want to prove my ignorance. I felt relieved when the learned chair concluded that it was important to define the term “Strategic Culture” before one could talk about “India’s” Strategic Culture and there was no clear definition of that term. My relief knew no bounds when, during the high tea after the event I interacted with people and discovered that most of us (if not all) were sailing in the same boat.

Discussion, and the debate over, I consigned “Strategic Culture” to some far recesses of my mind for I had more pressing issues to turn to; we all have pressing issues, including children. Publication of my book was top on my list of priorities at that time.

Until Pulwama…

Rummaging Pulwama

Today everyone, literally everyone, is talking (on television, texting, tweeting, whatsapping…) about India’s Strategic Culture, or some such thing––the same debate and the same arguments have resurfaced. Only the discussants are more vociferous, more clamorous and very aggressive.

I wonder: “At this point in time, is a definition of Strategic Culture or a knowledge of India’s Strategic Culture important? Is it going to help in any way? Is this the time to think of doctrines, recall principles of war, military strategy––the theory?”

I am reminded of a young cricketer at the nets a day before a major game. Just when he hit the ball over the boundary, his coach came to him and said that that was not the way to hit the ball. He reprimanded him for his wrong technique and started teaching him the ‘textbook’ way of doing what he was doing.

“But where’s the ball, coach?” the player asked as he looked at the ball being recovered from the spectator stand.

In tune with what I said the other day, I add:“The time to learn theory has long gone; it is time to act. Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture will be an exercise in futility. Let those on the stage perform unhindered. Let others just W-A-T-C-H. Those of us who have performed our acts really well (when we were on the stage) will be approached for direction, if deemed necessary.”

Could the US have Faired Better in World War II?

I have a question, and the one suggested by the title of this post, is not it. Dear readers, please bear the necessary preamble. With prudence bestowed by hindsight, let alone what the US did in World War II, everything done in the past, could have been done better, much better, indeed. The answer to that rhetorical question about the US and WW II therefore, is obviously: “Yes.”

How?

There are many answers to that one-word question. For now, let’s focus on just one, to get a point––by setting aside its prejudice against its blacks. In the America of the 1940s––even after 75 years of enactment of the Civil Rights Act, which gave the blacks the right to American citizenship––the blacks were still less-among-equals. Even the patriotic fervour of the day could not bring the two Americas together.

Among others, Jim Crow Laws and racial discrimination were the hurdles that delayed the contribution of blacks to a national cause that needed the support of every able-bodied individual, man or woman, direly. The Red Cross segregated the blood supplies to allay fears that infusion of negro blood would result in development of undesirable characteristics among those infused with it. As a result of the race riots in Texas and Michigan, black workers left the cities temporarily, causing a loss of work hours adversely affecting defence production. As per War Production Board estimates, two million hours of work were lost in the first two days of rioting alone. In the summer of 1943, when the War in Europe and the Asia-Pacific was peaking, there were 242 major race fights in forty-seven cities across the US. There was definite setback to the war effort.

That much for my preamble.

Fast forward to TODAY and NOW. Wars are on in different parts of the world; countries are involved directly or are fighting proxies. Many countries are under sanctions either by the US or coalitions of like-minded countries. The affected countries are retaliating. India, and many other countries are caught in the crossfire. Each warring side is conveying in its own way: “Either you are with us or against us.” Even if India is not on one side, for it to manage affairs in a fragmented world is becoming increasingly difficult.

Escalation of crude oil price in the international market is one of the obvious fallouts affecting India. In the prevailing world order, to be able to buy Rafale from France, S-400 from Russia, Chinook from the US, oil from Iran and surveillance equipment from Israel requires statesmanship and diplomacy of a superior order. In addition, attending to the war being waged by the insurgents and terrorists inside the country and on the borders, requires sustained effort, undisturbed by domestic worries.

India is faced with many wars. And then, we have Sabrimala Crisis, the Bihari Exodus (from Gujrat) and the many agitations, which bring the country to standstills on regular basis.

And now about the question that I sought to ask right in the beginning: Can we Indians do better in these on-going wars, and possibly, win them too?

India's Many Wars

With that one hindsight from the American experience in WW II, my military sense suggests: “Of course, we can definitely fair better.”

How?

Again, there are many answers. But a simple one is: By involving everyone regardless of which part of the country one comes from; each one doing his bit (and a little more) and letting others do theirs (and a little more). Since it is “WAR” we are talking about, a little bit of self-imposed military discipline is the need of the day.

Think it over:    Most protest marches are a loss of invaluable man-hours. All candlelight vigils are a senseless waste of petroleum resources leading to depletion of ozone layer.

Australia Day & Operation Cactus

Malé. November 3, 1988. A band of Sri Lanka based Tamil terrorists led by a Maldivian businessman, Abdullah Luthufe, attempted to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives. The President went into hiding and flashed SOS messages to rescue him and restore peace in the island nation.

Operation Cactus was India’s gritty response to the Maldivian President’s call for militaryCactusTOI Cutting assistance. It is rated among the most daring military operations of the world––among the likes of Operation Eiche (Rescue of Mussolini by German Paratroopers, 1943) and Operation Jonathan (the rescue of 104 hostages by the Israeli Commandos from Entebbe Airport, 1976). The diplomatic corps also played a significant role in the success of the Operation. The President was rescued and Malé was secured. The Indian Navy chased the fleeing rebels and freed the hostages taken by them for bargaining later.

It is interesting how an event that took place miles away in Australia, 200 years ago, influenced one of the outcomes of Operation Cactus––the rescue of hostages (including a Maldivian Minister and his Swiss wife). Read on….

On January 26, 1788, the first fleet of British ships, carrying convicts from Britain, reached Australia. They were the first settlers of the continent. Their landing at Sydney Harbour was a historical event. The anniversary of that day is celebrated each year with fervour as Australia Day. The Bicentenary of the official National Day of Australia was celebrated with even greater pomp and show through 1988. Indian Navy (IN) was among the navies of the world invited to participate in over a month long celebrations in October 1988. Indian Naval Ship (INS) Godavari was returning to India––the crew were undergoing customs clearance in Port Blair––when the first shots were fired in Malé.

The ship was directed to intercept the rogue ship (the hijacked merchant vessel, Progress Light with the rebels and the hostages on board) on high seas before she could enter the Sri Lankan waters.

Rest is history.

 

Note: The author was on board the first IL-76 aircraft of the IAF that landed at Hulule on the fateful night of November 3/4, 1988.

Sifting the History of Pakistan Army’s Surrender (Dacca, 1971)

Strategists and thinkers assign different reasons to the surrender of the Pakistani Army in the eastern sector in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The views differ and depend on where one stands while looking at the question.

There can’t possibly be one reason for the surrender of 93,000 soldiers. Each service and each arm did its bit to bring the enemy to its knees.

It is rather difficult to say which proverbial straw broke the camels back?

But then these, among others, could have been some of the last straws that broke the camel’s back–the leaflets thrown over erstwhile Pakistan.  In essence, the message was:

“Officers and men of the Pakistan Army surrender! You have been surrounded. You have no choice. Your fate is sealed. Don’t you want to return to your family and children? There should be no shame in surrendering to the Indian Army. Indian Army will take care of you. Surrender before it is too late!”

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Copy courtesy AVM DK Dhingra (Late) who was a member of the team that planned and executed the Airborne Operation (Tangail, 1971).

The Maldives: Omen of Recovery

Operation Cactus: The Maldives, November 3, 1988.

The Indian Armed Forces had embarked on a seemingly impossible mission; a mission to rescue President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had been surrounded by armed men (cadres of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam) led by a Maldivian businessmCactusTOI Cuttingan, Abdullah Luthufee. I was a part of the team that landed at Hulule airport to respond to the SOS call of the Maldivian President.

The notice was short; and there was practically no intelligence. The odds were loaded heavily against us. Most strategists would have forecast a failure, nay a debacle, when we took off from Agra. And, although people have compared Operation Cactus with the Charge of the Light Brigade, albeit with a pleasant end, the Indian Armed Forces did not sleepwalk into the Maldives that November night. It was a fairly well planned and methodically executed Operation within the time and resources IMG_4034 2available on that day. The risks were calculated and catered for. The spirits were high. A determined Brigadier FFC Bulsara wrote the following message for me hours before we landed at Hulule: “We’ll secure the airstrip and the President by 1000h tomorrow.”

In a very well coordinated operation involving the three Services and the diplomatic corps, the IAF airlanded the Paratroopers at Hulule who rescued the President. The Indian Navy chased the fleeing rebels and rescued the hostages on board the rogue ship. Among the hostages were a Maldivian minister and his Swiss wife. There was no casualty on our side.

IMG_4033 2A Maldivian National Security Service (NSS) officer, Major Mohammed Zahir wrote a note on my scribble pad. The note speaks about the Maldivian sentiment at that time: “Your Governments kind assistance is very much appreciated by our Force. National Security Service.” He also presented me a cap badge and a formation sign of the NSS as souvenir.IMG_4031 2

That was 30 years ago. Time and tide has eroded the gratefulness.

China has taken over and occupied islands on lease in return for the infrastructure it has created for the Maldivians. Like Sri Lanka, IMG_4030 2the country is heavily in debt. The population seems ignorant; the leadership has fallen into a trap from which it would be difficult to escape. Needless to say, Chinese gains have been at India’s cost. The pro-China sentiment is expressed in a hoarding which was put on the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge when it was under construction: “Waves are gifts from God. Bridge is a gigt from CHINA!”

Cactus Malé Hulule under construction Thanks ChinaIf the recent elections are to go by, democracy is still alive and kicking in the archipelago. Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohammed Salih has defeated the present (pro-China) incumbent, Abdullah Yameen. The former President, Mohammed Nasheed has recommended a review of the agreements with China. For India, this might turn out to be an omen of recovery of ties with the Maldives. It is an opportunity to put back the relations with the Maldives on firm footing.

It will be naïve, to say that replacement a pro-China president will lead to slipping of Beijing’s grip on the Maldives (as a newspaper headline suggests). Change of guard does not necessarily mean change of ideology or policies. At best India can start afresh, regaining the confidence of the Maldivians. India has many advantages (over the Chinese), including that of proximity to the Maldives. There is a lot that India can do to restore the strategic balance in the region.

Today is the day, now is the time!

 

PHOTO-2017-11-30-06-01-45Author’s Note: “Operation Cactus: Anatomy of One of India’s Most Daring Military Operations” (Group Captain Ashok K Chordia, Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2018) is a seminal study of the operation launched by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to rescue President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (November 1988). The book is based on recollections of the protagonists and official unit records and histories.