Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the 72nd anniversary of our Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi generously lauded the contribution that India’s armed forces had been making not only for safeguarding its territorial sovereignty but also in aid of civil population. Actually, this recognition has come every year and from the same spot, by all his predecessors, two of whom were sitting in the audience. But this is more than about the patriotism and valour of our men in uniform. It is about what military power meant when India got its freedom in 1947 and what it means today, seven decades later.
All three wings of India’s armed forces saw combat in the two World Wars, albeit under the British flag. Within months of becoming a free nation, India had to cope with a Razakar (mainly Pakistan military men dressed as civilians) incursion in the Kashmir valley and it was a matter of touch-and-go before the situation was retrieved by our troops airlifted to Srinagar; however, the two militaries did not face each other directly. The next confrontation came on our northern borders in 1962. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy came to combat in these conflicts, the former only as a transporter. The Cabinet then decided to enhance the Army’s strength to 825,000 to cope with wars on both fronts and also approved enhancement in the force levels of the Air Force and the Navy.
Even as this process began, came the war with Pakistan in 1965. This was the first occasion when both land and air forces engaged in combat; the Navies remained peripheral. It was only in 1971 that all three wings of the two armed forces faced each other in a war with results which need no retelling. The Kargil operation in 1999 involved some Pakistan Army regulars but the Line of Control between the two countries was not crossed even as our Army, supported by the Air Force, retrieved the positions occupied by the adversary.
All military power has traditionally been about the readiness to fight wars and to quote Clausewitz, “War is continuation of policy by other means”. If one looks at our five conflicts in this context, all three of Pakistan’s misadventures in 1948, 1965 and 1999, stemmed from the belief that India would not respond militarily. The War of 1971 falls in a different context as it was not Pakistan that took the initiative but India that achieved its desired objectives merging policy and military power with finesse. As for the Chinese intervention in 1962, they followed up with military action after three years of deliberately created tension and succeeded in acquiring the territory claimed by them; in the process they also lowered India’s stature internationally.
Things have now changed substantially. All three countries are nuclear weapon powers. While the capabilities of each may vary, their ability to inflict unacceptable casualties on the others needs little emphasising. Further, objectives have transformed. China’s primary goal now is to seek parity with the USA and to become a global super power; this aspiration will certainly be set back decades should it engage in military conflict with us with no substantive benefit but with some inevitable penalties. India, itself, seeks to become one of three or four major world powers and this goal can only get compromised should it seek military confrontation with Pakistan. Also, for both countries, continuing economic progress is vital to achieving their core strategic objectives. This does not mean that use of military power as a continuation of policy is now a dated concept. But, yes, its meaning has undergone transformation since Clausewitz propounded it.
In the changed environment, military strength, in concert with diplomacy, is more suited to persuade rather than to punish with exceptions being one-sided scenarios such as those seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also, maritime power has come to be seen as more suited to a nation’s ability to further these goals since it provides the ‘reach’ that land and air power just cannot. China was the first to adjust course and has made rapid progress in that direction in the last two decades; India is just about starting but has still to shed its continental fixation. We must recognise that ability to operate credibly in the Indo-Pacific is vital to our interests. For this, military power of a different kind is needed in which prowess at sea has to become a major, if not prime, determinant.
The author has served as member of the National Security Advisory Board