The Myth of Indian Strategic Restraint

June 18, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: IndiaStrategyNational SecurityChinaPakistan

The Myth of Indian Strategic Restraint

Indian security policy is guided more by pragmatism than by moralism.

Despite these normative elements, Nehru’s opposition to nuclear weapons had an important practical component. India could ill-afford to pursue a nuclear weapons capability given a host of other compelling developmental priorities. Furthermore, promoting nuclear disarmament could limit the ability of competitors such as China to acquire nuclear weapons, thereby making them less threatening and enhancing Indian security.

In the decades ahead, India maintained a rhetorical opposition to nuclear weapons. In practice, however, its nuclear policy remained decidedly pragmatic, privileging security over normative concerns. For example, in the wake of its disastrous 1962 border war with China and China’s nuclear test in 1964, Nehru’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, started a nuclear explosions project. His successor, Indira Gandhi, continued the program, eventually detonating a “peaceful” nuclear device in 1974 even as she reiterated India’s commitment to a nuclear-free world.

In the aftermath of its 1974 nuclear explosion, India was faced with a raft of international sanctions. The sanctions hobbled but did not stop India’s nuclear program. Gandhi’s successors continued to deploy moral rhetoric, with her son Rajiv Gandhi even proposing a plan for universal nuclear disarmament in 1988. Meanwhile, however, Indian leaders adamantly refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and ensured that progress on India’s nuclear weapons program proceeded apace. By the early 1990s, India had become an “opaque” nuclear power; India had not tested nuclear weapons and did not maintain a working nuclear arsenal, but could have developed a weapons capability in short order if the need had arisen.

Had India wished to limit its reliance on nuclear weapons, it might have forgone overt nuclear testing and maintained its opaque status. In fact, however, India proved unwilling to exercise such restraint. As Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee made clear in a letter to President Bill Clinton, India felt the need to protect itself against China, which had defeated India in a bloody 1962 border war, with which territorial disputes remained unresolved and which had extensively supported Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. India also anticipated pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prior to the United Nations’ target date of September 1998. India, therefore, conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998. It was now an overt nuclear weapons power.

Following the tests, India again deployed moral-sounding rhetoric while taking pragmatic steps to enhance its nuclear capabilities. Vowing not to repeat the dangerous and wasteful mistakes of the superpowers during the Cold War, India committed itself in a 1999 doctrinal statement to a “minimal” nuclear program and a posture of no nuclear first use. Despite this purported commitment to minimalism, however, India quantitatively and qualitatively augmented its nuclear weapons program in the years that followed. For example, India continued to produce fissile material, enabling it to expand its inventory of nuclear warheads; developed a diverse arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles; and pursued a full nuclear triad, including sea-based weapons. India also diluted its professed commitment to a no-first-use posture with caveats that could make nuclear first use possible in a number of circumstances, including chemical or biological-weapons attacks against Indian forces on foreign soil. Whatever India’s normative concerns regarding nuclear weapons, then, they have not prevented India’s development of a highly robust nuclear weapons program.

A SECOND theme of the strategic restraint argument is that India does not consistently defend itself, even against attacks on its own territory. India has been attacked first by another state only three times—by China in 1962, by Pakistan in 1965, and by Pakistan in 1999. In each case, India responded quickly and aggressively.

In October 1962, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a series of concerted attacks in disputed areas along the eastern end of the Sino-Indian border, in the vicinity of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and along the western end of the border in the vicinity of Aksai Chin. The Chinese had previously sought a negotiated settlement to the border dispute, and even suggested splitting the territories in question, with China keeping Aksai Chin and India taking NEFA. Prime Minister Nehru had adamantly refused to negotiate, however. Instead, India adopted an aggressive military posture known as the “Forward Policy.” This posture combined the establishment of Indian outposts in disputed territory with active forward patrolling, which the Indians believed would lead the Chinese to back down. In truth, the Forward Policy saddled outnumbered and poorly equipped Indian forces with long lines of communication and badly exposed flanks, in positions generally chosen not by local field commanders, but by staff officers in distant headquarters.

As recounted by Srinath Raghavan in A Military History of India and South Asia, Indian and Chinese forces began encountering one another in the Aksai Chin and the NEFA sectors. Nehru publicly ordered the Indian army to repel the Chinese. China then launched an all-out attack on Indian positions on October 20, 1962. Indian forces fought back vigorously, but the Chinese quickly overran them. Within several days, China had fully captured Aksai Chin and pushed deep into the NEFA. Three weeks later, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew to its prewar positions, leaving approximately 1,400 Indian soldiers dead, and the Sino-Indian border disputes unresolved.

India lost its border war with China for a number of reasons, including dysfunctional civil-military relations, shoddy equipment and an underestimation of Chinese resolve. Excessive restraint did not play a role, however. In fact, Indian policy, characterized particularly by its refusal to negotiate and its aggressive forward deployments, was overly confrontational. A less assertive, more tactically sound approach might have enabled India to avoid war. But even if it did not, such an approach could have resulted in a better outcome for India, avoiding the total rout that befell Indian forces. In the Sino-Indian war, more Indian restraint, rather than less, would have been useful to India.

It is also worth noting that India responded to its loss to China with increasingly competitive policies. In the conflict’s aftermath, India increased its defense spending by nearly 2.5 percent of GNP. This funded a range of military improvements, including the creation of new mountain divisions equipped and trained for high-altitude warfare, a million-man army, and a forty-five-squadron air force with supersonic aircraft. These improvements enhanced India’s ability to counter China, and other potential opponents, not through retrenchment, but through the more effective deployment of hard military power.

India was attacked for the second time in 1965, as part of Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to wrest the territory of Kashmir from Indian control. A confluence of developments, including the outbreak of religious unrest in the Kashmir region, the death of Prime Minister Nehru, a warming of Sino-Pakistani relations, and India’s failure to respond to Pakistani military probes in another disputed area called the Rann of Kutch, had convinced the Pakistanis that an attempt to seize Kashmir could be successful.

The Pakistani offensive, called Operation Gibraltar, employed Islamist militants recruited and trained for the operation and led by Pakistan Army officers. The Pakistanis planned to infiltrate the militants into Indian Kashmir, where they would trigger an uprising, leading local Kashmiris to rebel against Indian authorities. The Pakistan Army would then follow up with a military operation called Grand Slam, separating Kashmir from India proper and facilitating complete Pakistani annexation of the territory.

The initial phase of Operation Gibraltar went according to plan, with the militants successfully infiltrating Indian territory. But then, contrary to Pakistani expectations, the Kashmiris failed to rebel, and instead turned the infiltrators over to Indian authorities. The Indians, for their part, reacted aggressively to the intrusions, immediately deploying forces to Kashmir to engage the militants and prevent further infiltrations.

Faced with the impending failure of Operation Gibraltar, the Pakistanis launched Operation Grand Slam, attacking the Bhimbar-Chhamb area of Indian Kashmir and then advancing on the town of Akhnur. The Indians again responded aggressively; they drove forces across the international border into Pakistani territory, advancing on Lahore and Sialkot and forcing the surprised Pakistanis to abandon Akhnur. Indian forces stalled upon reaching an array of irrigation canals on the outskirts of Lahore, and the war eventually ended in a stalemate, with both sides returning to the status quo ante after signing a Soviet-sponsored peace agreement in 1966.

Like the China war, the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War belies the notion of Indian timidity in the face of attacks on its territory. The Indians twice reacted aggressively to Pakistani attacks, engaging enemy forces and sealing off Kashmir in response to Operation Gibraltar, and launching large-scale offensives into Pakistan proper in response to Operation Grand Slam. It is true that India did not decisively defeat Pakistan, and settled for a return to the status quo at the end of the conflict. This was in keeping with its prewar aims, however; India fought the war to preserve its position in Kashmir and maintain the status quo, not to change it. Thus the outcome of the 1965 conflict should not be understood as a sign of Indian timidity and failure, but rather of Indian strategic success.

In early 1999, India discovered that it had been attacked for the third time. Several months earlier, Pakistani forces had crossed the Line of Control (LOC) separating Indian from Pakistani Kashmir in an area called Kargil, occupying ground eight to twelve kilometers inside Indian territory. Although the incursions occurred in a remote area, the Pakistanis’ positions enabled them to threaten a major Indian line of communication to Northern Kashmir.