India’s Geopolitical Posturing and Conflict Termination
Brig (Dr) Ashok Pathak
The Issue

A nation needs to assess her geo-political position in consonance with regional threat environment, aspirations of her people, economic growth and military power. Excessive aggression leads to instability. At the same time, indications of weak political will invites avoidable wars and aggressions from the neighbors. In this context, apparently, India’s approach to geo-political positioning has resulted in emitting signals of weakness to the prospective adversaries. This has resulted in India’s continuous involvement in conventional and proxy wars.

Geopolitical realities for a nation are functions of geographical aspects including physical and human factors, politics and international relations. The people and the leadership in the country interpret these realities. This helps in evolving the geo-political posture. It may be prudent to look at some cases around us. As Mao Tse Tung defeated the nationalist forces, the first announcement he made on 01 October 1949 was that capturing Tibet was to be the first task for the People Liberation Army (PLA) - a clear indication of what Chinese leadership thought of the extent of Chinese geographical limits. Again, when the US forces crossed the Yalu River into North Korea, the Chinese entered the fray challenging the military might of the Americans - one of the two super powers at that time. China exhibited the limit to which she could venture to assert her geo-political status as a nation. When the US thought that spread of communism to Vietnam would threaten her security, she fought a long war sacrificing thousands of troops and spending trillions of dollars. In response to 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the US Armed Forces entered Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1967, when a group of Arab nations attacked Israel, the Israeli forces not only repulsed the attacks but went deep inside the territories of attacking nations to assert that such attacks would not be taken lightly. When Israel felt that the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons was a threat, she launched cyber attack on Iranian uranium enrichment plant. Earlier, she had bombed the Syrian nuclear site for the same reason. These are some examples of countries backing their geo-political perception with military and economic might. There are also cases of too much ambition and too little capability. Pakistan thought that her armed forces could force a decision on India. Lessons of 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 have cut that ambition to size. Today Pakistan is on the verge of being identified as a failed state. Iraq thought of herself as a regional power and tinkered with Kuwait. The out come has been disastrous.

Incidentally, all countries want peace. None of the countries mentioned above are war-mongers. But they desire peace as per their geo-political understanding of likely threat to their existence and way of life. The conflict spectrum is peace-conflict-better peace. Hence after the conflicts are over, wisdom demands that the resultant peace must be better than the one which existed earlier. It is in this context that the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War was considered as the trigger for the next war. On the contrary, after the culmination of World War II Marshall’s plan in Germany was considered to be a stabilising factor. Thus strong militaries and appropriate political will in consonance with realistic geo-political posturing helps maintain sustained peace and harmony. Over-ambitious geo-political perception and bellicose nature result in misery for the people and disgrace for the state. The acid test of correct geo-political perception and its resultant strategies is achievement of sustained peace at an optimal cost.

India’s Geo-political Posturing

In the context of above discussion how has India fared in positioning herself and in formulating relevant strategies and action plans? On 15 August 1947 when India became a free nation, global security environment was fluid and turbulent. In China, Mao Zedong’s war against the Jiang Jieshi (Chang Kai-shek) regime was in its final stages. Tibet was a free state. The Second World War had just ended and the Cold War just begun. India had just gone through the trauma of partition. Middle East was in turmoil. Jews who had suffered the worst holocaust in the history of mankind were being settled in a part of Palestine which was to be named as Israel in 1948. A very large number of Indian soldiers who had fought as members of Indian National Army were being tried for their ‘mutinious’ act. The huge British Indian Army was disbanded in 1945 and the war veterans of were in the civilian streets. It was under this environment that Indian Army was called upon to fight their first war for independent India. This was the first opportunity to assert our geo-political status: as to what we thought of ourselves, how far we could go to assert ourselves in projecting our self -pride and esteem.

The First Indo Pak War, 1947-48

The mandate was clear. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was acceded to us by its erstwhile King Hari Singh. Hence the state was part of India. Lt Gen L.P. Sen who commanded the 161 Infantry Brigade in the 1948 War with Pakistan has mentioned in his book, ‘Slender Was the Thread’, that an additional brigade less a battalion (around 2000 troops) would have been adequate to evict all the Pakistan Forces – regular or otherwise, from the J&K. The Indian Army had achieved huge success in this war. The Indian Air Force (IAF) played an important part in this operation (3). A full-fledged victory in J &K in 1947-48 was well within our reach. Ironically, British officers were in command of the Indian and Pakistani forces during this war (2), and those on the Pakistani side were much more proactive than their Indian counterparts. The political establishment, instead of reinforcing military success, halted the armed forces in their tracks and referred the matter to the UN to seek a peaceful resolution. That resolution never came. Today we are fighting a two-pronged war in J&K - one against the Pakistan’s regular forces across the Line of Control and the other within our own territory against Pakistan supported insurgency. That was the first glimpse of our flawed geo-political positioning.

Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962

In August 1947, China was in the midst of a major insurgency led by Mao Zedong. Tibet, an important buffer between India in the South and China up North, was a free country with friendly relation with India. As mentioned earlier, after defeating the Guomintang forces, on 01 October 1949 Mao declared that capturing Tibet would be the first task for the PLA (4). Nevertheless, the PLA was drawn into the Korean War when US Forces under McArthur crossed the Yalu River to the North. The Korean War continued for four years and China could force a stalemate on the mighty US Army. Just after the Korean War the Chinese commenced their advance to Tibet. With their clearly hostile intentions and aggressive policies displayed in full public view by the Chinese, the Indian political leadership of the time expected to win over the Chinese leadership through foreign policy initiatives. We failed to back our foreign policy with military preparation. Even during the Chinese aggression in 1962, we did not employ the IAF which was superior to Chinese Air Force and was keen to join battle. All this resulted in a humiliating military defeat for India. Once again we allowed the world to note that Indians could not measure in matters of hard geo-politics.

Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar-Grand Slam, 1965

It was the defeat in 1962 which emboldened Pakistan to launch an audacious operation with complete military preparation and backing of the US and the UK. The Pakistani leadership never expected that the Indian Army would launch offensive across the International Borders. This was the first time when the Indian leadership asserted some sense of our geo-political positioning. They drew a line which if crossed would draw strong response. We need to note that besides the then Prime Minister (Late Shri Lal Bahadur Shastry), the credit must go to the Indian Armed Forces. One of the major lessons of this War was that in spite of their vintage weapon systems (Centurion and AMX-13 tanks, and Gnat, Hunter, Mystere, and Vampire fighter aircraft, the Indian Forces came out victorious against Pakistan’s Patton tanks and F 104 fighters which were the most modern systems of that era (5). In the context of geo-political strategy, one of the lessons we can draw is that if there is strong political will to safeguard our national pride, the Armed Forces can punch above their weight.

Liberation of East Pakistan, 1971

The initiative to start the war was with India. Indian Armed forces fought a concerted and decisive war resulting in Pakistan’s dismemberment. About 93,000 prisoners of war were captured (6). This time the Indian Army had Russian T-54, T-55, and French AMX– 13 tanks. The IAF flew the Hunters, Canberra, Dakotas, Mig 21s – the Migs had just been inducted. Besides, the IAF also used the Marut HF-24 in this war, an indigenous fighter developed by the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) with a German engine. The Pakistanis had Patton and Chaffee tanks, and F-86 Sabre Jet and F-104 Star Fighter aircrafts (7). These weapon systems imported from the US were considered to be far superior to those used by the Indian Armed Forces. Yet, Pakistan as a nation lost a major war most comprehensively. Pakistani losses in tanks and aircrafts were much higher than those of Indians in this war (8). The then Pakistani premier came to India begging for the return of prisoners of war. So far it was as per the strategic design. We had the initiative to start the war, which we did with complete preparation and synergy among the three services. Though the weapon systems with our Armed forces were at par or inferior to what the adversary had, our forces came out victorious. In fact, the Indian Armed Forces made history.

The conflict termination by the political leadership should have been to move to a ‘better state of peace’. This did not happen. As soon as the Pakistanis got the prisoners of war back, plans for revenge commenced. Once ready, Pakistan not only perpetrated a prolonged proxy war against India, but also dared to infiltrate into Kargil heights to trigger another confrontation.

Events Leading to Kargil 1999

Within a decade of 1971, Pakistan again commenced displaying open hostilities. In the 1980s, Pakistan supported the Khalistan insurgency. In 1992, Pakistan intensified insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir as also in the rest of India which continues till date. In 1999 we fought Pakistan at the Kargil heights (9). This was one of the most difficult operations fought by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force against all odds - physical (terrain and climate), and political (instructions not to cross the LOC). In spite of this the Armed Forces emerged victorious.

Attack on Indian Parliament, 2001

On the heels of Kargil victory came the now famous terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 that was followed by Operation Parakram by the Indian Armed Forces. The Indian Armed forces were mobilised to combat readiness positions. The forces remained there for well over a year. Nevertheless nothing changed. Terrorist activities continued. In 2008 an audacious terrorist attack was launched in Mumbai (Hotel Taj and Hotel Trident).

Winds of Change

There have been some more assertive geo-political posturing since May 2014:-

  • Indian Government stopped interacting with the Hurriyat Conference, which is a separatist cabal and is openly backed up by Pakistan.
  • Indian Army has launched surgical strikes inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir across a 250 km stretch of the Line Of Control, killing between 35 (as per Indian estimates) to 80 terrorists (as per Pakistan radio intercepts). The surgical strike was disclosed, contrary to the norms so far, and it was also hinted that more could be launched in case Pakistan did not stop promoting terrorist activities in India. A similar surgical strike was launched across Myanmar earlier to destroy a Naga insurgent base in Myanamar (10)

It is apparent that we had not been realistic and concerned with our geo-political positioning. The geo-graphical location, regional environment, indigenous caliber, people’s aspirations and professionalism of armed forces entailed India’s stronger response and objectives in the international order. Weak signals from us did encourage our adversaries to be brazenly adventurous. This has resulted in avoidable wars. When war was forced upon, our armed forces have given sterling examples of tenacity and professionalism. This has resulted in thwarting India’s enemies. But at the time of conflict termination our approach was too accommodative for a victorious nation. We nurtured misplaced hopes and expectations from nations who had always given the opposite signals. We need not be war-mongers; have never been. But when a conflict is thrust on us our response must be befitting our strength and position. Too much caution against imaginary risks permits inimical forces to perpetrate instability and continuous violence, which is more expensive and destructive than right culmination of war.

When Israel crossed the international border in response to Syrian attack on the Golan Heights and chased the Syrian forces right up to Damascus, she made it amply clear to the adversaries to expect strong retaliation. This resulted in absence of conventional strikes against Israel. So the short, punitive war bought sustained peace. When in the Korean War Chinese forces reacted strongly to US advance North of Yalu River, the American understood the Chinese resolve, even when that was a conflict between nuclear America and non-nuclear China. That was a clear indication of how far the Chinese can go when it was a matter of their national pride.

Resolute political will and strong military action in maintaining peace and prosperity in the region would pay in the long run,. Both Israel and China backed their political will with economic growth and military power. We hope that India corrects her geo-political positioning and displays commensurate political will, economic growth and military power.

  1. Sen LP (Lt Gen), ‘Slender Was the Thread’, Orient Longman ISBN 0861316924.
  2. Prasad S N Operations in Jammu and Kashmir 1947-48, Ministry of Defense History Division, Natraj Publication P 24903.
  3. Bharat Kumar, (Air Marshal PVSM, AVSM), ‘An Incredible War IAF in Kashmir War 1947-48’, Knowledge World Publication (2007).
  4. Sandhu P J S 1962, ‘A View from Other Side of the Hill’,USI Study (2015) ISBN 978- 93-84464-76-9.
  5. Singh Lachhman (PVSM, Vr. C), ,Missed Opportunities Indo Pak War 1965,, Natraj Publishers (2005) ISBN 8181580052.
  6. Jagan Mohan P V S and Chopra Samir, ‘The India Pakistan Air War of 1965’, Lordson Publishers Pvt Limited ISBN 81-7304-641-7.
  7. Mankekar D R, ‘Pakistan Cut to Size’, Indian Book Company, New Delhi 1972.
  8. Raghvan Srinath, ‘1971 A Global History of Creation of Bangladesh’, Permanent Black Publishers, 2013, ISBN 81-7824-380-6.
  9. Puri Mohinder (Lt Gen), ‘Kargil: Turning the Tide’, Lancer Publisher and Distributors, 2016, ISBN 13-978-81-7062-312-0.
  10. Gokhale A Nitin, ‘The Inside Story of India’s 2016 Surgical Strikes’,–story-of-india’s-2016-surgical -strikes.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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