Surgical Strikes-Avoidable Debate

In the ongoing elections for the Indian Parliament, “Surgical Strikes” have become a bone of contention. Modi government used the surgical strikes carried out by Indian Army in September 2016 and Indian Air Force (IAF) in February 2019 to create a hysteria of nationalism by telling the nation that “we” (Indian Forces) entered Pakistan territory to punish the terrorists who were responsible for attacking our troops inside our territory. “Ghus ke Maara” (penetrated into their territory and killed) was the phrase often used. Sensing that the party was driving mileage out of it, Congress not willing to be left behind also fielded ex-PM Manmohan Singh who claimed that six surgical strikes were also carried out during his tenure and BJP was unnecessarily taking credit for the 2016 and 2019 strikes and thus politicising the nation’s armed forces. Many retired generals and other senior officers also jumped in to add their penny either supporting or opposing the rival claims. A controversy has thus been created.
No one for once denies the claim of either party. Credit deserves to be given for every daring action inside enemy territory irrespective of the scale and magnitude of the operation because it requires steely grit and raw courage to execute such operations. However, there is a difference in what type of operations were undertaken during the tenure of Manmohan government and the present government. The difference is such that the two cannot be equated and this is the major bone of contention and the fundamental cause of the ongoing debate.
Modi government has also been blamed for politicisation of the Armed Forces. Politicisation is an evil which a democratic nation like India can ill afford. But can eulogising the Armed Forces of the nation or appreciating the valour of Indian soldiers or highlighting those achievements of Indian Armed Forces which have contributed to achieving national objectives be termed as politicisation of the Armed Forces? The whole nation should be proud of these achievements and mince no words in praising the Armed Forces irrespective of their political affiliations. To my mind it is not the politicisation but the projection of our armed forces which is the responsibility of the government of the day. Politicisation would mean that the serving members of the armed forces start participating actively in the political activities because Defence Services Regulations (DSR) prohibit the same. However, the military always operates under the directions of the ruling party of the day since in our system the civil control over the army is supreme. Indian Armed Forces are apolitical and will always remain so. But in a democracy, they cannot be kept divorced from the government of the day. A fine line has to be drawn between being politically aware and being politically active, which the Indian soldier respects. However, the politicians also have to understand the same so that they do not tarnish the image of the military by dragging it into avoidable controversies.
In the United States each member of the Armed Forces is also a card holder of the either of the two political organisations. Does it imply that the US Army is politicised? US Department of Defence (DOD) has exhaustive and strict rules to govern political activities of active-duty members. In fact, the veterans in the USA contribute a lot in nation building and governance by occupying many high offices in the government. More than 50% of the nation’s Presidents have been veterans.
Alas, in our democracy, the talent of the veterans is not recognised and is wasted because of the unquestioned supremacy enjoyed by the bureaucrats in the garb of civil control. The reluctance of vast majority of veterans to participate in the nation’s political milieu under the garb of remaining apolitical further compounds the problem. The civil-military tensions have always been there ever since independence. Indian bureaucrats have been able to create a scare among the politicians about “a likely military takeover”, quoting the example of Pakistan. The rot is so deep that politico-Babu combine does not trust the generals and prefers to keep them at arm’s length. The high headedness of the bureaucracy creates a distaste for the existing political system among the soldiers and officers alike. This cannot go on forever. For the change to happen and to reduce the widening civil-military rift, the veterans will have to shed their inhibitions and participate actively in nation’s politics so that the armed forces also have a sizeable say in the corridors of power. They can also then educate their fellow politicians to not to cross the “Laxman Rekha” that can be termed as politicisation of the military.
If India desires to be a global power, it has to give due recognition to its military power and military leadership which forms an important part of national power. National Power is the ability or capability of a nation to secure the goals and objectives of its national interests in relation with other nations. It involves the capacity to use force or threat of use of force or influence over others for securing the goals of national interest. National Power can also be defined as “the ability to control the behaviour of other states in accordance with one’s own will.” National Power is the currency of international relations.
In the context of national power, the term nation stands for the group of decision makers, statesmen and diplomats who exercises power on behalf of the nation for the purpose of securing national goals. Hence, when we speak of national power in international politics, we really refer to the power of decision-makers of a nation in terms of their ability to secure the national interest of their nation. Power is the capability of national leadership to use national resources in such a way to affect the behaviour of other nations. It could be through persuasion, influence, threat of use of force or use of physical force. There are many elements of national power like geography, economy, military, population, political structure, national culture, ideology, mineral wealth, diplomacy, leadership and research and development.
What needs to be understood is that national power is not merely the sum of all its elements (capabilities). The will and capability of its leadership to secure national interests and a national strategy are the factors that multiply the effect of other components. Conversely, the lack of national will and national strategy can considerably weaken the national power. Thus the overbearing role of national leadership in determining the national power of a country stands out clearly.
It is in context of the above analogy that the issue of surgical strikes should be understood. While the pre-2016 cross border operations undertaken by the units can best be termed as stand-alone operations conducted with the approval of local military hierarchy to gain local moral ascendancy over the enemy in order to dominate the line of control (LOC). There was no involvement of national leadership and nor were they conducted as part of a national strategy. Hence, they did not project the national power and were mere localised military offensive actions. These actions had no international ramifications nor did they in any way achieve the strategic purpose of conveying a subtle warning to the adversary nation. That is why there was no need for the nation to know about them and they remained confined to the war books of the unit and formation involved. These did not contribute to changing nation’s image as a ‘soft nation.’
Now compare these with the operations conducted in 2016 and 2019. They had a definite strategic purpose, involvement of national leadership which took the decision to launch these operations and certainly contributed in changing nation’s image which was no longer tagged as a “soft nation.” It sent ripples across the international community and projected India as a power willing to take the terrorists head on without hesitating to strike at their bases well inside the territory of the sponsor nation. India rightfully used its national power to secure the national interests. It was possible due to the strong leadership at the nation’s helms of affairs. Manmohan Singh had a similar opportunity after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks but that time’s national leadership dithered and failed to project the national power to send a strong message to Pakistan, perpetrator of cross-border terror in India.
The readers can draw their own judgement. Is there a difference between the pre-2016 cross border strikes and the post 2016 surgical strikes? Is Modi government justified to take credit for the successful conduct of post 2016 strikes and projection of national power to force Pakistan to change its behaviour even temporarily? India’s actions were universally recognised as correct and Pakistan was isolated. India also successfully exposed Pakistan’s frequently touted nuclear blackmail. It is once again emphasised that the valour of the soldiers and commanders who participated in either of the operations is unquestionable and not the subject of discussion. It is the purpose and end effect that needs to be understood.
If the difference between pre and post 2016 strikes as highlighted is understood clearly, one can say with certainty that the ongoing debate is avoidable and the reality should be accepted by one and all shedding party loyalties and keeping the national interest supreme.
(The author is a Jammu based political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst. The views expressed are entirely personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])



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Brig Anil Gupta

A featured contributor with The Dispatch, Brig Gupta is a security and strategic affairs analyst based in Jammu. One of the well recognized faces on the Indian Television debates, Gupta writes on a range of issues.