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The official history of the 1962 India-China war has not been declassified so far. That’s also the fate of the official account of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations against the LTTE in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. While these two campaigns may have been failures for the army, even a successful overseas military operation like the one in Maldives in 1988, doesn’t have an official account so far. Because the Indian government and its security establishment have traditionally been rather guarded in putting their version of events out in the public domain, Nitin Gokhale’s Securing India The Modi Way comes as a pleasant surprise.
Published almost two-thirds into the BJP government’s tenure, the book benefits from insider accounts — the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, former and serving service chiefs, army commanders and other top officials are quoted on record on various events — and access to information which has hitherto not been in the public domain. The maps depicting the location of surgical strikes inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), sketches and photographs of the Pathankot operations, photographs of Chinese army officer who fell on the Indian side during the 2014 Chumar standoff, and of the recent standoff between Indian and Chinese armies in Doklam, are highlights of the book.
Gokhale’s biggest revelations can be found in a full account of the surgical strikes, conducted by the Special Forces on terror launch pads inside PoK on September 29 last year, to avenge the killing of 19 Indian soldiers at Uri army base by terrorists on September 18. During a late evening briefing in the Operations Room on September 23, five days after the terror strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the go-ahead for the surgical strikes. He asked why precision strikes by the air force were not being used but eventually agreed that trans-LoC raids by Special Forces was the best option. The book quotes the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar as saying that the government was “prepared for the possibility of a short, swift skirmish, if not a conflict, once it had been decided to order a retaliatory strike”. Certain types of ammunition, Parrikar says, were only available for two days of war fighting. Although Gokhale doesn’t mention it, it is now known that India had to fly a C-17 aircraft to get a particular type of tank ammunition from Russia on an extreme emergency basis during the period.
The army, however, had been prepared for the strikes since union minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, himself a former army officer, had claimed after a raid on the NSCN-M camp in Myanmar in 2015 that India could do the same inside PoK. Lt General DS Hooda, who was the northern army commander, tasked the Special Forces to identify the targets and plan for any eventuality. The army was thus able to move at short notice and execute the operation after the then army chief, Gen Dalbir Singh, while being fully involved, let Lt Gen Hooda run the show. On the night of 29 September, the Special Forces went for three targets inside PoK — Gokhale has the sketches of two of the terror camps in the book — which were at varying depths inside enemy territory, and staggered in time and distance across the LoC. Although there was no body count, the COs of two Special Forces units Gokhale spoke to estimate that 75-80 terrorists were killed during the surgical strikes. Only one Indian soldier lost his leg in a mine blast close to the LoC, while exfiltrating after the raid.
As Pakistan did not even acknowledge that the strikes took place, there was no question of a Pakistani retaliation, which India had feared. But Gokhale concedes that Pakistan will not necessarily retaliate to a similar Indian action in the future, or that India should resort to another surgical strike in case of another outrageous terrorist attack.
Equally engrossing is the chapter on China, where the book explores in great detail the Chinese military incursion of Chumar — the extensive military buildup by the two sides, while Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad in September 2014. Gokhale also provides a detailed fact-sheet on the recent Doklam standoff, which would be of great interest to strategic thinkers and analysts. The book has equally detailed chapters, with quotes from top officials, on the Pathankot air force base terror attack and the raid inside Myanmar, besides internal security, space and cybersecurity issues. A chapter on the engagement with the Middle East, including a top secret trip by Doval to Dubai, provides insight into the workings of the government.
The book, nevertheless, suffers from a few drawbacks. It is narrated from the point of view of the officials Gokhale had access to, and he doesn’t question or critically analyse their claims. It is also silent on some of the more controversial issues — such as the ISI team being invited to the Pathankot air base, the efficacy of surgical strikes in reducing terrorist attacks or altering Pakistani behaviour on the LoC, or on other terror incidents during this government’s tenure. Besides the successes, it would have been equally interesting to learn of what the government considers its failures, which are missing from the narrative. None of these, however, take away from the worth of the book, which remains invaluable as a quasi-authorised version of the government on its national security record in the past 40 months.