India has long aspired to be a regional hegemon in South Asia. While poor trade ties with its South Asian neighbors hampers this ambition, it is still considered a powerful actor with immense military power. In 1991, India opened its economic trade routes and amassed substantial economic and military strength. However, since then it has seldom used its military prowess for interventions. What explains this reluctance?
Military Interventions during the Cold War
Indian military intervention during the Cold War period was internecine but significant. Apart from Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars, India helped launch insurgents in Bangladesh in 1971, armed the LTTE in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, quelled a rebellion in the Maldives in 1988. Additionally, it also sent in peace keeping forces to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s which eventually engaged in a counter insurgency operation with the LTTE from 1987 to 1990.
During this time, India was not considered a global power of any sort. It was only the fall of the USSR and India’s economic liberalization coupled with its push towards the United States, that saw India strengthen its relations with different blocs such as ASEAN, the Gulf nations and Israel among others.
Consequently, India’s military and naval powers have grown exponentially since then as has its standing in the global sphere. Yet, it declined various opportunities to participate in military interventions such as in Iraq in the 2000s as well as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives in 2018 despite some calls by various leaders due to domestic instability and turmoil. A slew of reasons can explain this caution on the part of India.
A Subdued India
Firstly, India’s experience in Sri Lanka in 1987 was less than satisfactory with more than 1200 Indian deaths as well as allegations regarding Indian forces’ human rights abuse in parts of Sri Lanka. Given that it incurred these costs fighting the very force that it had armed in the first place was considered as one of India’s failure. Moreover, the assassination of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, which was a direct consequence of its actions in Sri Lanka, also left India with a bad taste in its mouth.
Secondly, India’s engagements in various countries are also connected with terrorist groups’ usage of these interventions as recruitment tools. Indeed, Indian involvement in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan has pushed many terrorist groups to directly call for attacks against Indian targets in parts of India such as in West Bengal as well as in Kashmir. Groups like the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh as well as Lashkar E Taiba are among those that have capitalized on India’s foreign policy to ramp up its own activities.
Thirdly, India has pursued development and trade ties with countries like Afghanistan where it enjoys some goodwill among the local population. A boots on the ground approach is likely to destroy all of these efforts and bring down India’s credibility in those countries as was demonstrated during the Sri Lankan episode.
Foreign Policy Maneuvers
India has learned lessons from the United States’ defeats or impasses in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria among others. Not only did the costly US interventions fail to bring down insurgent groups, its presence led to a mushrooming of new groups in the countries as well as attacks on its homeland, making it more unsafe in the process. This also comes with implications for the limitations of America’s power, a consequence that Indian strategic thinkers would happily want to avoid.
Importantly, showing restraint and preventing itself from taking sharp positions has been a mainstay of Indian foreign policy in many parts of the world. For instance, India has avoided siding with any one side on various conflicts in West Asia, such as in the Palestine-Israel, Israel-Iran, Iran-Saudi and Saudi-Qatar dynamics, while simultaneously cultivating better relations with each of these nations. In 2019, the Maldives swung back to a pro-India stance and Sri Lanka, where anti-India sentiment once lingered, also bounced back to India’s sphere of influence proving that India’s neutrality (regardless of its reasons) was a good strategy. If India advanced military interventions in both these nations, it would have only raised more problems than benefits.
It is also important to state here that, China which has considerable investments in all these nations, has cautioned India against knee jerk military reactions to domestic events in South Asia. While India has gone toe-to-toe with China on a few occasions, the sheer size and military strength of China would deter any country from antagonizing it in such situations.
Ultimately, Indian strategic thinkers would do well to remember that to err on the side of caution is better than to err in hasty actions. As the geopolitical tumults of 2018 have displayed, India’s aspirations for hegemony is seriously contended by China. However, its sheer proximity to South Asian countries provides it with influence at some level in all neighboring countries. In most cases then, taking military action would only be to the detriment of India’s coffers, soldiers, image and power projection.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. His research focuses on insurgency, civil war, and terrorism in Yemen and India.