In December 1991, I wrote an article lamenting the absence of any commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Indian Army's victory in the Bangladesh liberation war. For at least a thousand years, the article argued, the history of India had been an interminable saga of humiliation and capitulation. The surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka was our first real victory.
This robust assertion drew considerable flak from many liberal intellectuals, including my friend, historian Ramachandra Guha. He berated me for an unseemly show of jingoism and, by implication, argued that the great successes of a country are best left understated.
The magnitude of last week's special operation on the Indo-Myanmar border may be lesser but the debate in its aftermath is very reminiscent of the issue I had raised 23 years ago: why are India's intellectuals so squeamish about celebrating military success?
The gunning down of 18 soldiers of 6 Dogra Regiment on June 4 by Naga rebels based in camps inside Myanmar quite understandably provoked national outrage. Apart from the usual charges of laxity, the Prime Minister was taunted with charges of being a papier mache lion. Whatever happened, sniggered the critics, to the fabled 56-inch chest?
Conventional wisdom deems that it is injudicious to address national security concerns by responding to public opinion. Feelings tend to run high in the aftermath of any incident where there are high casualties, civilian or uniformed. In such situations, the government has to demonstrate resilience, take a deep breath and often play a longer-term game. The problem with India is that at least in the recent past resilience has been equated with a do-nothing approach. Terror attacks that are part of a proxy war don't often lend themselves to non-diplomatic responses since the real masterminds are hidden behind multiple layers of deniability. This, however, may not be the case with attacks by Maoist insurgents located in dense jungles or rebels operating along some of our more inhospitable international borders. There is, in short, no one-size-fits-all approach to the different challenges that confront India. A flexible approach that factors in both the state's retaliatory capabilities and political will is the key.
What occasioned surprise over the events of the past week was not that there was military retaliation across an international border, but that it happened with such remarkable promptness. The operation revealed three facets of our present approach to national security. First, it suggested that intelligence and military capabilities were in a state of readiness which is reassuring. Secondly, there was coordination between the diplomatic, military and political organs of the State. And finally, it revealed that the political leadership was willing to exercise a hard but high-risk option that would ruffle feathers.
In the aftermath of the operation, what is being questioned is not the act of taking the battle to the rebel hideout in Myanmar. The critics of the Narendra Modi government have questioned the wisdom of making the military action public and the resulting triumphalism in the social media. They would rather the whole thing was managed in silence, minus the #56inchRocks.
It is not that this approach is bereft of merit. Israel — a country exposed to a multitude of threats to its very existence — has a fine record of successful special operations. However, not all of them end with the sounding of trumpets. Could this operation in Myanmar have been left understated?
If the sole objective of the mission was simply to give the NSCN(K) a bloody nose and force it to the negotiating table, media silence would have been understandable. However, it was also aimed at telling hostile elements throughout the neighbourhood that India's approach to national security has undergone a shift. The terse message was: India too can inflict serious pain to those who trouble it. It was a policy approach that needed to be broadcast loudly, not least as deterrence. Judging from the hysterical responses across the western border, the message has been delivered and, hopefully, digested.
For too long, India has loftily internalised being a punching bag. Now it is time to show it has teeth as well. If this offends a thousand years of servility masquerading as civility, so be it.