Independent India's history, and to a large extent the present, have been defined by four lines: The Line of Control (LoC), the Durand Line, the McMahon Line and the Line of Actual Control (LoAC). This was the strategically confined-post World War II geographic and geopolitical reality which the British bequeathed to India, and a dewy eyed India not only accepted it, but has chosen to live with it ever since.
Bequeathing freedom and strategic confinement, in one go
The British also bequeathed to Independent India a highly professional, and a battle ready, Army. What started with the Madras Fusiliers in 1748, was fortified by regiments raised across the country, which won battle honours in theaters as diverse as Eastern Arabia (Beni Boo Ali) and Afghanistan in the pre-World Wars era to Flanders and Gallipolli in World War I and Northern Africa in World War II. Yes, Indians fought under British command and under the British flag, but this was still the Army which the British left behind - one with exactly two hundred years of battle experience.
What the British did not leave behind was the apparatus to make strategic decisions. Those decisions were always taken in London and the country born on the 15th of August 1947, the one professional well functioning organ that the British left behind - the Army, was also vivisected along with the nation. The nation had no experience of using her Army to pursue strategic ends and over the decades India never focused on building that capability either.
India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was not only quite the statesman, he was also a unique blend of undefined policies and posturings in an increasingly "Cold Warred" world. He held deeply socialist views for the country, while holding grander visions of an "Asian Civilization" and Non-Alignment as the pillars of India's foreign policy. This was quite the folly, Asia had never been one civilization and has always, historically, been large enough to house up to three civilizations - all at their zenith. This was and is the essential truth of the Asian continent - natural barriers and consequently natural spheres of influence. India, not only failed to identify these, but rather willfully chose to ignore incursions into her own sphere of influence.
"The defense budget is the price you pay for your foreign policy"
Nowhere are these repudiated responsibilities more visible than India's Eastern theater - the McMahon Line and the Line of Actual Control. The McMahon line was drawn by the British to demarcate British India's territorial borders with Tibet. India only bothered about the physical boundary, on the ground, intermittently. Mostly reactive in her actions, India failed to realize that the Himalayas in Tibet formed a natural barrier, as they have for millennia, and it was much easier for her - from the Southern side, to control Tibet and thus thwart any subsequent invasion plans. India willfully looked the other way when the Tibetan uprising in 1959 failed, which only provided impetus to China to carry out further misadventures, and led to the devastating and morale-sapping defeat in 1962, and the cowardice ever since.
Over on the North Western frontier, a country scarred by the Partition had to defend herself against tribal aggressors backed by a sovereign state. That has been the reality since. One would assume 67 years, and four wars, would lead to a solution, but India's inability to use the military for strategic ends is laid bare every decade. The time when India had a larger conventional force, and hence, a clear advantage to force a solution, are over. The new reality is that the only nuclear armed Islamic state shares a 2000 mile border with her and those nuclear weapons in Pakistan are always pointed East. An uncalled for line - the Line of Control, which India had no obligation to honor or be confined by has created the strategic confinement on the Western front. It is self imposed and after 6 decades of self-flagellation, it has become the status quo. By not using the military as a means to a strategic end, the Defense budget has never been the price India pays for her foreign policy, it is simply a waste.
"You may do one Mumbai, but you will lose Balochistan" – Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor and a former head of the Intelligence Bureau
Using the fourth
The fourth line, the Durand, always held an alluring solution to smash through this confine on India's Western border through means of encirclement, but with typical short-sightedness India never used it.
The Great Game, fought by the Russian and the British over a hundred years, in the barren mountains of Persia (modern day Iran) and Afghanistan culminated in the drawing of the Durand Line, a 2250 mile border between Afghanistan and modern day - Pakistan. Afghanistan, a historical buffer West of the Indus, falls very much under India’s sphere of influence, and India has every right to stake a rightful claim, not a territorial one, just a rightful claim to influence policy and security debates in South Asia. When sovereign states use terrorism and proxy war as state policy, there is only so much you can achieve through negotiations. When the sovereign state is also nuclear armed, and proponents of this proxy war are at the negotiating table a similar insidious proxy war may perhaps be the only solution. If a state can identify “good” and “bad” terrorists, perhaps a neighbour can bet on a horse too, no?
India’s current Prime Minister’s trips to Central Asia are largely seen as a waste, beyond the obvious advantages of energy security. What Central Asia also offers is a chance to encircle an enemy state which doesn’t have the resources to fight a two pronged battle, militarily or economically. So, when India proposed a Yoga institute in Ashgabat, and the Turkmen president responded by saying that his government will grant land if the institute also taught Indian medicine, India didn’t hesitate. An Ayurveda teacher flew from Turkmenistan even before Modi finished his five-nation Central Asian tour — proof of how seriously New Delhi was conducting its charm offensive.
Few people know that India’s first and only operational foreign air base is in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. The Research and Analysis Wing set up an airbase in Farkhor to supply the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 1997, years before the US knew that the Northern Alliance would be the horse that they would bet on.
In essence, the Great Game in Afghanistan never stopped, the actors playing it changed, and for just reason. In a massive coup, Afghanistan’s first President post the US invasion not only leaned towards India, but his eyes would moisten when he recalled his days as a youngster in Simla. India used this to her advantage and became the largest foreign benefactor of Afghanistan. That is soft power that no amount of money or a gun can buy, and India already has it, and by using it to improve a sovereign nation’s current state along with engaging an enemy state in a two front battle India is sending out the right message – Indian sponsored proxy wars might very well be reactive, but they will eat you before yours even touch us.
"India Conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border" - Hu Shih, Chinese philosopher, essayist and diplomat
The Indian Ocean, by contrast, is not a colonial gift to India. It is named the India Ocean after all, but its’ use and protection do need an upgrade. India, by virtue of geographic position, holds the strategic upper hand in the Greater India Ocean and this has worried China no end. No nation-state fears anything more than “encirclement” and China has been very proactive to counter India natural advantages.
India again, through years of neglect, has allowed China to construct a “string of pearls” around India. While experts disagree on the extent of this concept’s utility, it is a flagrant violation of all spaces that should be under New Delhi’s dominion. Now that this string of pearls is real, with Chinese ports ranging from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka to Pakistan, the only facet that can make it any worse for India is an overland route connecting these ports to Chinese cities (thereby encircling India). This Chinese plan is already in motion and is called OBOR – One Belt, One Road. China already has the Belt in place through the Maritime Silk Route, which has become a dominating feature of the Greater Indian Ocean and by connecting the Gwadar port in Pakistan to Chinese cities, the OBOR would be taken to fruition.
Experts, even the Economist, point out that these ports are commercial and the shipping lines of communication being set up and protected, are commercial, but what they fail to see is that maritime strength isn’t an either or proposition between the merchant fleet and the naval fleet. They come as a pair, a bundle and for better or worse, they can’t be decoupled. That is how the great sea faring nations of the world, the British and the Dutch, the Spanish and the Portuguese, rolled.
Many Indians raise the demand that the Indian government handle Chinese submarines docking in nearby Colombo more sternly. The Indian government responds by lodging a “strong vocal protest” and the Indian population sees it as an inadequate response. However, Naval experts don’t lose sleep over single submarines – rouge or not, nuclear armed or not, like Hollywood movies would have us believe. Submarines can, at best, protect narrow straits, but not a rough ocean like the Indian. Submarines aren’t the Para-Commandos of the Navy, and they never will be. Naval warfare is a fleet game and submarines are best deployed as an advance party, but never in isolation. India knows this now, and hence the measured response. However India also knows that the line between merchant ships and naval ships is continuing to blur. The new form of power and the old form of power, after all, are economic.
Speed dating the world powers?
The Indian Prime Minister has spent 54 days of his first year in office on foreign visits. He has been to 5 continents and 18 countries. However, he spent more than half of those days (28) visiting 12 Asian countries. The biggest catch of these Asian visits perhaps went unreported. India got to pluck a pearl off the string.
India signed an MoU with Bangladesh allowing her to dock cargo vessels at the Chinese backed Chittagong and Mongla ports. The Prime Minister also signed an agreement for another first – a country specific Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for Indian companies in Bangladesh. While many in India would like to see Indian Naval ships dock in Chittagong, it is going to be a long process and no Bangladeshi leader would make the mistake of kowtowing the New Delhi line that evidently. However, as China envisions a more global role for both its’ Army and Navy, India can only start gathering all the allies it can in reclaiming her rightful sphere of influence.
The Indian Navy will conduct its’ first joint operations with both the United States and the Japanese Navy since 2007 – Exercise Malabar. While Australia hasn’t returned to the Malabar Exercises since 2007 for fear of alienating China (its’ largest trade partner), Japan under Prime Minster Abe has shed such reservations. More than Prime Minister Modi speed-dating the world superpowers, it increasingly looks like the Prime Minster knows which buttons to push and which powers to partner, and that after decades of stagnation, it is a big step.
An even bigger step is finally putting the Defense Budget to use, beyond her borders.
The National Identity IV - The day the Indian military nearly went rogue
The National Identity III - The Cold Start
The National Identity II - Look outwards, close by