India Flexes Its Muscle

Behind New Delhi's Assertive Foreign Policy

The Indo-Myanmar border bridge at the border town of Moreh, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, January 2012.  Rupak De Chowdhuri / Courtesy Reuters

On June 9, Indian special forces walked several miles into Myanmar (also called Burma) and destroyed two rebel camps, an act of retaliation for a bloody ambush of Indian soldiers by three separatist groups the previous week. The cross-border raid sparked interest and concern within India and across South Asia. The conventional wisdom is that India is averse to flexing its military muscles. Just a month ago, a retired Indian military officer and veteran analyst, Gurmeet Kanwal, wrote in the southern Indian newspaper the Deccan Herald that India’s is “a pacifist strategic culture steeped in Gandhian non-violence.” In their book on India’s military, Brookings’ Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta have highlighted India’s “ideological rejection of the use of armed force.” Such assumptions are deep-rooted and commonplace.

Indian soldiers during an anti-terrorist exercise in the north eastern Indian state of Mizoram near the boder of Myanmar, September 2004 Jayanta Shaw / Courtesy Reuters
Now India appears to be flexing. In lots of ways, the Myanmar raid was like the many others India has conducted over the past 30 years across its insurgency-wracked northeastern borders. This time, however, was different in two ways: the speed of the response and the fact that Myanmar’s forces, although notified, sat out the raids.

The Indian government quickly spun these differences into a simple narrative: unlike its pusillanimous Congress-led predecessors, the administration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would avenge the lives of Indian soldiers and send a powerful message to the country’s adversaries. After the raid, one junior Indian minister delivered a particularly bombastic series of messages on Twitter and in interviews, announcing that India had gone “deep into another country,” declaring the episode “a message for all countries, including Pakistan,” and comparing Modi to Indira Gandhi during the 1971 India–Pakistan War, from which India emerged triumphant. India’s loquacious Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, added that “zero tolerance is the only solution,” and suggested that the operation “has changed the national security scenario.” Some Indians found this message welcome and overdue, others jingoistic and crass. Pakistanis found it menacing. The Myanmar authorities were embarrassed, and forced to claim, implausibly,

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