India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy: An Inside View of Decision Making
By General V.P. Malik (Retired)
HarperCollins Publishers, India
After his important debut book on the Kargil conflict, which he had personally overseen as chief of the Indian Army, General VP Malik has now opened another small window into the functioning of government with what he titles an “inside view of decision making” during several strategic crises. Malik personally played a role in each incident that he describes, having occupied key appointments in the military operations directorate during his long and distinguished military career. In describing these events, he provides useful primary source inputs for historians and sets an example for high government officials who are too often held back from documenting events by out-dated notions of secrecy.
Malik’s book provides vignettes into India’s misconceived intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, which eventually took more than a thousand soldiers’ lives; the more successful intervention in the Maldives in 1988, when Indian paratroopers were landed in Male to neutralize an attempted coup; and the multinational operation led by Indian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone in 2000 to rescue comrades who had been held hostage by armed rebels. A long and interesting chapter adds fresh detail and insights to Malik’s earlier book on the Kargil conflict of 1999.
The author writes in the simple, straightforward prose of a professional soldier, without obfuscation or rhetorical flourishes. There is none of the self-obsession that permeated the recent book by another army chief, General VK Singh. The author simply recounts events as they happened without disassociating himself from setbacks, or suggesting that he was the driving force behind every success.
The exception to this is when the author apportions responsibility for the glaring intelligence failure at Kargil, which left the door open for hundreds of Pakistani soldiers to cross the Line of Control (LoC) and occupy Indian defences overlooking Kargil, Dras and Batalik that had been vacated for the winter. Malik notes that the civilian intelligence agencies had provided no warning, but he glosses over the fact that this was, first and foremost, a military intelligence and operational failure. This will disappoint the many who believe that the army should have apportioned blame all the way up to the corps commander in Srinagar, rather than merely making a scapegoat of the local brigade commander at Kargil.
Malik is characteristically restrained while recounting his few disagreements with his civilian masters. At the height of the fighting in Kargil, when India accepted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s offer to send his foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, to New Delhi, Malik worried that a mixed message might go out to his soldiers, who were engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting in Kargil. His solution was to send out a cable to all the formations involved in the fighting, which is a case study for his clarity on the military and political dimensions of the conflict. Clausewitz would have approved.
Malik conveys a sense of the army’s frustration, when the Pakistan Army flatly denied that its soldiers had crossed the Line of Control, even as the Indian Army was recovering identity cards and documents from Pakistani bodies in Kargil, which clearly identified them as soldiers, not militants. Bizarrely, after the Pakistani director general of military operations (DGMO) refused to accept this in his phone conversations with his counterpart, the Indian DGMO, General Nirmal Vij, eventually took his fax number and faxed the documents to him.
Interestingly, Malik makes a powerful case that Nawaz Sharif was not the dupe that he has successfully portrayed since then, but was fully aware of Operation Badr, as General Musharraf codenamed the Kargil plan.
Operation Cactus, India’s intervention in the Maldives after Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries attempted a coup against President Abdul Gayoom, is often hailed as a case study for the notion of Indian power projection. However, Malik’s gung-ho eyewitness account --- he travelled to Male with the paratroopers --- does not evoke the impression of a highly professional national reserve force responding to a crisis. The Agra-based parachute brigade had no Rapid Response Force that the could quickly deploy (a shortcoming that has been rectified since), as a result of which Indian paratroopers landed in Male a full 14 hours after President Gayoom’s early-morning SOS.
Fortunately, the operation went off flawlessly. Even as order was restored in Male, an Indian warship, INS Godavari, rescued that country’s education minister, Ahmed Mujuthaba, his Swiss wife and his mother-in-law from the Tamil mercenaries who had taken them hostage. Malik recounts that Rajiv Gandhi, after being informed about the success, congratulated the naval chief, Admiral JG Nadkarni, with the quip, “Good job, Admiral, but I doubt if Ahmed Mujuthaba will forgive the Indian Navy for rescuing his mother-in-law!”
Like service chiefs before him, Malik highlights the disconnect between military leaders and the national political leadership, particularly in the realm of nuclear weaponry and strategy. Noting that “the military tends to be excluded from the nuclear decision-making process”, Malik prescribes the early appointment of a chief of defence staff or tri-service chief.
In this consistently interesting book, the reader’s interest flags only in the longish sections on diplomacy, and on relations with neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Nepal. Nevertheless, Malik has conveyed important lessons, albeit in short story style, that our defence planners must heed.