Coercion is something alien to Indian statecraft but there have been times when decisive military action has yielded rich strategic dividends

Forceful persuasion is a concept developed by the eminent political scientist Alexander George, who, in a monograph written in 1991, argued that it was very close to what is commonly called coercive diplomacy. Simply put, when deterrence fails, forceful persuasion or coercive diplomacy is an important defensive strategic tool to control escalation. While the threat to use force is the essence of forceful persuasion or coercive diplomacy, George argues that an “exemplary use of limited force to persuade an adversary to back down” is also part of a strategy to “demonstrate resoluteness to protect one’s interests, and to establish the credibility of one’s determination to use more force if necessary.” Though essentially tailored to calibrate inter-state conflicts in the Cold War era and validated by him in the study of seven confrontations between the United States and its adversaries during the period 1941-1991, it has, in recent times, seen application in sub-conventional conflict and proxy war situations in the Indian subcontinent. While India has often been accused of being a “soft state” by strategic commentators, its citizens also need to know that within the overarching determinants of responsibility and restraint, which dictate the use of force as a tool of statecraft by India, there are many instances of decisive and not so decisive military action, which have demonstrated India’s coercive intent and capability.

In Hyderabad

The first example in modern Indian history of the state attempting coercion to resolve a dispute was in the Hyderabad police action of 1948 where a mere show of force indicated to the Nizam of Hyderabad that if he continued with his secessionist attitude, India would not hesitate to use greater force. Subsequent to that, the successful armed action in 1961 to liberate Goa from centuries of Portuguese rule involved limited application of force by the Indian Armed Forces for barely 36 hours, demonstrating coercive intent with “responsibility.” Some years later, India attempted to coerce both the LTTE and Sri Lanka to resolve the ethnic strife that was threatening to destabilise the southern part of India. It was, however, hampered by inadequate intelligence and a sense of overconfidence on the part of the Indian strategic establishment.

Air power has often been used in recent times as a tool for successful coercion, primarily due to its ability to deliver strategic “effects” without needless engagement by surface forces. What is not widely known, though is that India too employed air power as a tool of “forceful persuasion” during Op Parakram, the 11-month “face-off” with Pakistan after the terrorist attack on Parliament in December 2001. Replying in writing to a question in Parliament in November 2002, four months after the incident, the Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes, categorically stated that Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters had been used to evict intruders from Point 3260 in the Machil-Neelam-Gurez Sector.

The Neelam and Gurez sector in the Northern parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir is dominated by the Kishenganga river, the beautiful Neelam valley and a series of ridges that run almost parallel to the Line of Control (LoC) between the State of J&K and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The town of Kel in PoK is a cantonment from where an audacious operation was said to have been launched by the Pakistani Special Services Group (SSG) in tandem with Mujahids to occupy a positions on a ridge line that was, according to the written statement from Mr. Fernandes, about 800 metres inside Indian territory. This would have allowed continuous observation of Indian positions in what had become an area for what is commonly called “aggressive patrolling.” In an operation that was typically reminiscent of the methodology adopted by Pakistan during the Kargil operation, it is widely believed that the occupation of the vantage position was done stealthily in the darkness with even temporary bunkers or “Sangars” as they are colloquially known, being built to provide shelter to troops.

Joint operations during Kargil

Unlike Kargil though, the Indian Army detected the intrusion early enough towards late July 2002, and after it was clear that the intrusion was well inside Indian territory, it was decided that it had to be dealt with firmly. In an exemplary display of joint operations, the Indian Army, while continuing to plan an assault on the position, asked the Indian Air Force to attack the positions prior to a ground assault. In early August, four Mirage-2000s armed with laser guided and conventional bombs attacked the position, destroying the Sangars, and causing an immediate withdrawal by the SSG and Mujahid force from the position. It is not clear what the attrition caused was, but a mopping-up operation by the Indian Army later that evening and the next day reported no presence amid the destroyed Sangars at the location. One only wonders that had the initial intrusions in Kargil in 1999 been met with a concentrated application of air power, we may not have had to fight the Kargil war with the same intensity as we did. What needs to be highlighted here is that the limited military action taken by India involving air power in a small localised action was decisive, forceful, legitimate and highlighted that India’s territorial sovereignty would be protected at all costs. It also re-enforced the utility of air power in coercion. Considered by many to be an escalatory tool of statecraft, air power in this case turned out to be a de-escalatory factor because it conveyed to the adversary that India meant “business.”

(Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a serving officer of the IAF and PhD from the University of Madras. The views expressed are his own.)

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