1971 war: 50 years on, has India emerged a leader?

1971 war: 50 years on, has India emerged a leader?

As India has just celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its greatest military victory against its arch-rival Pakistan, how does its periphery look from New Delhi?

A soldier stands guard during the sound and light show to celebrate 'Swarnim Vijay Parv', the 50th anniversary of the 1971 war victory, near India Gate in New Delhi. Credit: PTI File Photo

India this year celebrated with much fanfare the Golden Jubilee of its landmark victory over Pakistan in 1971. It was indeed an occasion worth celebrating. India’s decisive victory in 1971 had come less than a decade after it had suffered humiliation in the conflict with China in 1962 and just six years after its 1965 war with Pakistan had ended in a stalemate. So, when Lt Gen A A K Niazi, the commander of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, surrendered to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian Army at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, India had emerged as a true leader of South Asia, cutting to size its arch rival Pakistan and tilting the balance of power in the region to its favour. It had brought to an end the barbaric genocide the Pakistan Army and the militias affiliated to it had unleashed on the people of East Pakistan. It had liberated East Pakistan into the new-born nation of Bangladesh.

With this, India had indeed sent out a strong message of power projection in its neighbourhood with this victory against Pakistan. And, with an emboldened Indira Gandhi in the office of the Prime Minister, New Delhi had continued to signal its willingness to do whatever it would take to secure its periphery, if necessary even by making attempts to impose or thwart changes in its neighbourhood, as dictated by its own national security interests, be it along India’s disputed boundary with China, or in Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka. It of course had significant political influence in Nepal, Bhutan and even Afghanistan.

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But, half-a-century later, as India has just celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its greatest military victory against its arch-rival Pakistan, how does its periphery look from New Delhi? Just a year after it had decisively won the war against Pakistan, India had asserted its sovereignty over North Eastern Frontier Agency by renaming it Arunachal Pradesh and elevating it to a separate Union Territory, raising hackles in Beijing. Sikkim had also merged with India in May 1975, notwithstanding strong protest by China.

Years 2020 and 2021, however, saw China again emerging as a major security threat to India. The soldiers of the Indian Army are engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. Though the two sides mutually withdrew frontline troops from Pangong Tso and Gogra Post in February and August this year, they could not yet resolve the stand-off at other locations along the LAC. China’s continued build-up beyond the western sector and all along the disputed boundary with India fuelled speculation about the tension spreading to the middle and eastern sectors too.

India had not only helped Anerood Jugnauth come to power in Mauritius in 1982, but had even engaged its external intelligence agency to help him remain in the office of the Prime Minister despite strong challenges posed by his Finance Minister Paul Berenger in 1983. New Delhi had even prepared to launch a military intervention, codenamed ‘Operation Lal Dora’, which would have been activated in the event of a coup against the government in Port Louis. Though the ‘Operation Lal Dora’ had never been actually activated, India had in 1986 indeed carried out “Operation Flowers are Blooming” and helped foil a coup against President France-Albert René’s government in another Indian Ocean island nation – Seychelles.

‘India out’

But, over three decades later, New Delhi is now competing with Beijing in both Mauritius and Seychelles. China is trying to scuttle India’s projects to develop Agalega Island in Mauritius and Assumption Island in Seychelles, prompting local political parties and civil society organisations to launch protests, alleging that both the islands are, in fact, being turned into remote bases for the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990 had not gone well. But its “Operation Cactus” had successfully thwarted a coup against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government in Maldives in 1988 and had earned it accolades even from the United States and the United Kingdom.

Gayoom’s half-brother and former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is now leading an “India Out” campaign in Maldives, opposing his successor President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s “India First” campaign. China’s debt-trap diplomacy already succeeded in making Sri Lanka give it Hambantota Port on a lease for 99 years. New Delhi remains concerned over the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, which could end up allowing China to virtually establish a colony in Sri Lanka – not far from the southern tip of India. New Delhi’s response to the new constitution of Nepal in 2015 triggered strong reactions against India. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of imposing an unofficial economic blockade, choking supply of essentials from India to Nepal. The territorial row between India and Nepal also escalated over the past few months. Thimphu stood by New Delhi all through the 74-day-long stand-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in Doklam in western Bhutan in 2017. But Bhutan of late agreed with China on a roadmap to resolve bilateral territorial disputes – a move, which caused unease in India.

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The year 2021 not only saw India celebrating 50th anniversary of its victory against Pakistan but ironically, it also saw Pakistan gaining a strategic edge against India in Afghanistan, where its proxy Taliban on August 15 last returned to power after two decades. India had never sent troops to Afghanistan. But it had over the past 20 years contributed over $3 billion to support reconstruction of infrastructure in the war-ravaged nation. The investment now appears to be at risk, although New Delhi is exploring its options to open up a channel of communication with the Taliban, while continuing to lend its voice to the call for an inclusive government in Kabul.

India’s strategic rivalry with China and its security concerns stopped it from joining the western nations to criticise the military junta, which had taken over power in Myanmar on February 1 this year, overthrowing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Its cautious approach irked the pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, just as it did during earlier incarceration of Suu Kyi. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, however, recently visited Nay Pyi Taw and reiterated New Delhi’s call for early release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners as well as return of democracy in Myanmar.

India’s engagements with most of its neighbours remained largely benign since the 1990s, with subsequent governments focussing mainly on projection of soft power. The Modi government too stuck to this policy since 2014, except, of course, sending out politico-military messages, by launching strikes on terrorist infrastructures inside Pakistan in September 2016 and February 2019 and then making its military actions public.

The 20-month-long stand-off along its disputed boundary with China, however, prompted India to renew its focus on repositioning itself as a net security provider for South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

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