Untold Stories of Indian Soldiers on a ‘Mission Overseas’

In Mission Overseas, Sushant Singh provides a rare window into the organisational challenges of mid-sized military operations, and reveals the tortuous political and diplomatic constraints of UN missions.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military, much like its publisher Juggernaut, is in itself an intriguing concept. It comprises three accounts of actions undertaken by the Indian military outside India. Each account has already been released, independently, on the Juggernaut mobile app. Each one is quite short – the three put together, plus an introduction, make up a printed volume of less than 200 pages. But even within those limits, it tells three good stories, and tells them well.

The book covers Operation Cactus, the almost unimaginably quick reaction 1988 operation to quell an attempted coup in the Maldives; the opening encounter of Operation Pawan, a painful 1987 battle to take control of Jaffna University in Sri Lanka, and Operation Khukri, a hostage rescue operation in Sierra Leone in 2000, technically under the UN flag, but in practice almost entirely an Indian venture.

Operation Cactus seems almost forgotten, which is surprising as it was an unequivocal Indian military success – and more deserving of being called “surgical” than more recent ventures. The coup, against an elected government in a tiny island country 2,000 kilometres from the Indian mainland, of which the assault forces did not even have military maps, was so unexpected that the Indian high commissioner was actually in India at the time. This turned out to be fortuitous, as he was able to provide vital guidance and intelligence to the assault force.

While the adversary had no great military capability, it remains an accomplishment that the assault force was on the ground in their objective area within a mere 16 hours of the call for help. Indian troops rolled up the coup overnight, though a handful of plotters escaped by hijacking a merchant ship from the harbour. The icing on the cake was that Indian maritime reconnaissance aircraft located the escape ship, and Indian navy warships cornered her a day later.

Sushant Singh

Sushant Singh

This operation certainly benefited from some luck, but so did the Osama bin Laden raid, and virtually every other successful military operation.

The Operation Pawan story makes for the hardest read among the three. However, it is arguably the one that thoughtful people need to understand the most. Indian troops, drawn from an elite para-commando unit as well as a less-elite but still distinguished infantry unit, went into Jaffna University expecting to swiftly capture “lungi wale” opponents – and lost the infantry unit almost to the last man. The para-commando unit, with a combination of luck, initiative and good leadership, held out for the night and fought its way out.

The account describes this initial setback, but does not mention that the Indian Peace Keeping Force went on to militarily accomplish its objectives in Jaffna over the next two weeks. They were mentally tough enough to rally, despite the initial debacle, and to win, at least in a narrow tactical sense. The Indian establishment’s angst over the Sri Lanka experience needs to be tempered by a more nuanced understanding of where the Indian military went wrong – and where it did, in fact, do well.

The Operation Khukri chapter sets out an admirably successful, and respectably-sized, operation of the messy, unpredictable type that occurs in modern civil wars. It took tactical smarts, and sometimes tactful, sometimes Nelsonian manoeuvres by the Force Commander, to secure UN approval for preparatory steps – or, occasionally, just to ensure that it wasn’t explicitly prohibited. The account reveals the tortuous political and diplomatic constraints of UN missions, which the Indian armed forces have had to deal with in difficult situations around the world.

Sushant Singh Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military Juggernaut, 2017

Sushant Singh
Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military
Juggernaut, 2017

India makes much of its contribution to UN military operations (as do Bangladesh and Pakistan). But those who commit the Indian armed forces to win us this type of credit must remember that in the countries that still set the global communications agenda, UN military operations are not regarded with particular respect. Failures of such operations, particularly in Africa, are reported almost with relish in the West. “The British army should send a company of squaddies to show them how it’s done”, or “The US Embassy should introduce them to the 82nd Airborne”, are examples of the special orientalism that the Western media reserves for UN military operations not involving the P5. Indian diplomats should be realistic about the extent to which India’s willingness to participate, and the undoubted courage of the Indian jawans who settle the debts of those North Block decisions, buy us credit with the rest of the world.

All three accounts in Mission Overseas are well written and a very useful reading for anyone remotely interested in Indian foreign policy, the Indian military or India’s place in the real world. Sushant Singh writes in a matter-of-fact way – keeping the narrative moving (presumably thanks to his journalistic experience) but without any forced drama (probably thanks to his own 20 years of service in the army). He does not descend to the clichés about the military that many other writers seem unable to avoid.

These accounts all give a sense, which other writings often miss, of the massive logistics and organisational challenges of even such mid-sized operations. There is a seemingly infinite chain of minuscule things that need to go right – ammunition arriving at the same time as the firearms, equipment loading and unloading sequences and so on. From the outside, at the time, the Maldives story sounded like a smoothly-running machine. This account makes clear, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, what a “damned close-run thing” it was.

The Jaffna chapter in particular helps to counter some narratives of military sins. A couple of harrowing civilian casualties are described, but they were inflicted in the heat of the moment, and their unflinching inclusion adds credibility to the Indian army’s transparency on the subject. In modern urban war, civilian casualties are difficult to avoid; the Indian military approach, though accused of being conservative, at least tries to reduce them. For those who admire the US military approach, the Indian army’s lighter-armoured ways can be a healthy corrective, and should be at least considered more widely.

On the larger topic of India’s evolving place in the world’s view, Singh writes in the Maldives chapter that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi particularly wanted Time magazine’s correspondent included in the press contingent and was pleased when Time did a cover story on India’s rise as a military power soon after. In fact, that issue lent only a few paragraphs to the Maldives operation, while expending a two-page spread on Sri Lanka, headlined ‘Case Study of a Disaster’.

The April 3, 1989 edition of Time magazine recognised India's overseas missions and capability, much to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's pleasure.

The April 3, 1989 edition of Time magazine recognised India’s overseas missions and capability, much to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s pleasure.

However, publicisation of the Indian military’s exploits should not be based on appeals such as this book’s cover blurbs: “As India becomes a regional and global superpower…” Our claims to superpower-hood need better governance, health and education, as much as special operations (though this is not a call to transfer funds from the defence budget to social spending). That said, capable soldiering and calm peace-keeping, particularly by the large numbers of jawans from small-town India, does more for our standing than is often realised.

A few niggling slip-ups could irritate military obsessives. Some terms are used incorrectly, and the cover picture shows a completely unrelated Indian navy Kamov Ka-25 helicopter (and some unlikely-looking uniforms), rather than an Mi-8 or Mi-17, which would have accurately represented all three operations. The reading public doesn’t know the difference, I hear Juggernaut’s art department shrug off this cavil; but a serious effort to publish non-fiction should lead, rather than follow, public perception. And an author with Singh’s military background might have been expected to holler. Nevertheless, Mission Overseas is an eminently worthwhile book and one hopes only the first of many in its genre.

Juggernaut’s publishing model has a claim to genuine innovation, but it was easy to assume it would be limited to short commercial fiction for the Twitter generation. Mission Overseas proves how, on this medium, even non-fiction on serious themes might be made to fly.

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