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, that India never crossed the border at all.

The conventional wisdom is that India is averse to flexing its military muscles. Now, however, India is flexing.
But the raid was as much a statement of Indian diplomacy as it was of Indian hard power. It was not carried out within a hostile state, but conducted with the permission of the Myanmar government, building on over a decade of diligent bilateral cooperation between New Delhi and Naypyidaw. As early as the 1980s, India and Myanmar conducted joint raids against militants in their restive border areas, one of the largest in 1995. With an eye toward dampening China’s influence in the region, India began supplying a range of weaponry to Myanmar generals in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2010, Myanmar agreed that India could cross the border with permission from the local army commander. In May 2014, the two states signed a border cooperation memorandum allowing for joint border patrols. India’s Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, raised the issue once more in August. It is clear that Myanmar OK-ed last week’s operation, even if the Myanmar military did not take part in it, despite Indian officials’ best efforts to play up its unilateral nature. Even under these favorable circumstances, the Indian Express reports that India may have killed only a small number of insurgents who were unconnected to the previous ambush. Without this web of diplomacy and history of border cooperation, India’s task would have been so militarily challenging and diplomatically sensitive that it is questionable whether even a self-assured government would have carried it out.

Needless to say, there is no such history of cooperation when it comes to India’s relationship with Pakistan. India cut off dialogue with Islamabad last summer over Pakistani contacts with Indian separatists, and the India–Pakistan border is heavily militarized and much better defended than is its border with Myanmar. India has occasionally conducted minor cross-border raids into Pakistan, but they have been limited and highly localized. India understands its dilemma: Small attacks will do little to stop Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups, but larger, more meaningful attacks—whether by airpower or ground forces—would be dangerous and could provoke rapid escalation. This is not to say that India would remain passive if Pakistan-sponsored attacks, such as the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, recur. Still, New Delhi would not be likely to retaliate in Pakistan the way it did in Myanmar. There, Indian deterrence seems more likely to take the form of covert operations: Support for separatist insurgents within Pakistan, sabotage of Pakistani facilities, or assassination of terrorist leaders are all options that have been considered. But India appears to have dismantled much of its capabilities for such operations in the 1990s, and it could take years before they can be rebuilt—even if we take at face value Manohar Parrikar’s warning in May that India could “neutralize terrorist through terrorist,” something that has been vetoed at the prime ministerial level more than once in the past fifteen years.

Indian army soldiers patrol near the Line of Control, a ceasefire line dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, August 2013.
Mukesh Gupta / Courtesy Reuters

India is clearly entering a more confident, assertive period in its foreign policy. The Modi government is likely delighted with the success of the operation and its reception in India. But now a precedent has been established, and it presents both opportunities and risks for New Delhi. On the one hand, the raid will have deterrent value, particularly to the plethora of rebel groups that operate in India’s northeast. On the other, the Indian press and public will now clamor for similar action at the next provocation, a “something must be done” phenomenon with which Western politicians are closely acquainted. Although India’s leadership may understand perfectly well that “Pakistan is not Myanmar,” as Pakistan’s interior minister warned after the raid, their handling of this episode has blurred that message, forcing them, potentially, to run greater risks in the future than they would otherwise prefer.

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  • SHASHANK JOSHI is Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government, Harvard University.
  • More By Shashank Joshi