When one thinks of nations that have projected substantial military force on faraway islands countries like the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union are likely to come to mind. Less common is for one to mention India.
But some fascinating new research about the planning for an aborted 1983 military intervention in Mauritius suggests that India is capable of thinking big about expeditionary operations, and that New Delhi will be far from a passive player in the contested Indian Ocean theatre.
Nobody yet knows how an increasingly powerful India will behave in the looming Indo-Pacific era. But it would be foolish to assume that its security and foreign policy instincts will always be opposed to power projection and intervention.
In fact, to India’s mixed record of foreign adventures, actual and contemplated – from Sri Lanka and East Pakistan, to Seychelles and the Maldives – must now be added the story of Operation Lal Dora.
According to the groundbreaking new research by Australian scholar David Brewster and former Indian Director of Naval Intelligence Ranjit Rai, Indira Gandhi’s government began serious planning for an armed intervention to prevent a feared coup to against India-friendly Anerood Jugnauth government in Mauritius.
In those Cold War days, Mauritius was torn by serious tensions along ideological and ethnic lines, and India had no doubts over whether this strategically-located Indian Ocean state was in its rightful sphere of interest. Another consideration was the welfare of the Indian-majority population on the island.
According to Brewster and Rai’s intriguing paper, an army battalion was actually mobilized and moved from Hyderabad to Mumbai, though never embarked; inconveniently, the navy had not been told to expect them.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s final decision not to deploy these forces was influenced by a fundamental clash of advice between the navy – which was reportedly in favor of the operation – and the army, which warned that India didn’t possess the necessary capabilities.
It is hard to imagine the Indian Navy being able to smoothly deploy a large army contingent all the way to Mauritius on what would essentially have been a task force of destroyers – it had no amphibious lift to speak of. But the intention was there and who can be certain that in its tradition of jugaad (improvisation) India would not have found a way?
What has changed since 1983?
More than ever, India is determined to define the Indian Ocean as its nautical backyard. There is little doubt that the Indian national interest and popular perceptions both demand that India strive to be the most powerful nation in these waters.
Today, it is potential Chinese influence— not American or Soviet— that preoccupies Indian strategic thinking. India’s maritime security interests are now also entwined with a critical dependence on seaborne energy supplies. Moreover, the growing presence of Indian economic entities and Indian nationals in sometimes unstable foreign lands, combined with the influential Indian media’s outrage whenever an Indian national gets into strife overseas, means that pressures will only grow for the Indian government to deploy all the means at its disposal to protect Indian interests and honor abroad.
Gradually India is building a credible amphibious capability, as well as workable security partnerships with a widening range of nations. So next time an Indian leader just might get a response when he or she asks the military brass for options to protect interests beyond the subcontinent.