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Hold Your Horses, Defence Minister Mr Parrikar

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar (with MoS for defence Rao Inderjit Singh and Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh) addresses the media after paying homage at Amar Jawan Jyoti on the anniversary of 'Vijay Diwas' in New Delhi on Wednesday.  Credit: PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore

When Manohar Parrikar declared on Wednesday right after returning from an official trip to Washington that India would be willing to fight the Islamic State militarily – “if there is a UN resolution and if there is UN flag and a UN mission, then as per India’s policy to operate under UN flag” – we assumed that it was yet another instance of the defence minister doing what he does so often, putting his foot in his mouth.

However, the government took no chances. Very quickly, it had the official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs clarify that (1) this was a hypothetical situation, (2) as of now there was no UN resolution authorising force against the IS,  (3) it is not as if India has been part of every UN-led mission,  and (4) if the situation so warranted at some future date, India would take the call at that time.

So what is it with BJP ministers that an official visit to the United States persuades them that there is virtue in playing deputy sheriff to Uncle Sam?

Advani and another bad American idea

In 2003, L.K. Advani, then deputy prime minister, wanted to send Indian troops to fight alongside the US in Iraq. Insiders say that during his June visit, Advani virtually acceded to the US request for forces, but was forced to retract after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee demurred and subsequently got the cabinet to formally nix the idea. As is well known, the UN did not mandate any peacekeeping or peace-making forces following the US invasion of Iraq, but it did say, after Saddam was overthrown, that member states could “contribute to stability and security in Iraq by contributing personnel, equipment and other resources…”

The issue is not that Indian forces cannot operate abroad with or without the UN authorisation. After all, we went into East Pakistan without any UN resolution and did so in Sri Lanka on the basis of a bilateral agreement. The point was whether it was in India’s national interest to do so and clearly, Vajpayee felt that it wasn’t. Given the fiasco that the US-led invasion has proved to be, India should thank its lucky stars that it did  not get involved. In rejecting the US request for forces, the then foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha noted, “our longer term national interest, our concern for the people of Iraq, our long-standing ties with the gulf region as a whole… have been key elements in this consideration.”

Here we should take note of another malware that the US strategic community has introduced in India – the idea that we can be a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean.

The facts are that as of now and well into the near term, the US will remain the principal security actor in the Indian Ocean. It alone has the military capacity to keep the sea lanes open and, on occasion, to make war on littoral states who are viewed as threatening. Indian officials seem to relish the idea without thinking through the consequences.  As of now, India can barely police its own coastline, and our experience as a security provider in Sri Lanka in 1987 does not generate much confidence for a future Indian role as some kind of an Indian Ocean big brother.

Parrikar has accurately expressed what could be termed as a consensus Indian view on military missions abroad viz. that they should  ideally be under the authorisation of the UN. However, as the Defence Minister, he should know that if India’s vital interests are threatened anywhere, it is the job of his ministry to be prepared to intervene, regardless of what the UN or the US has to say.

Indian participation in collaborative missions, whether or not authorised by the United Nations, must meet the test of whether they serve Indian interests and long-term ties with the countries involved.  If  our oil supply lines or  citizens working in the Gulf are threatened,  or hundreds and thousands of Indians are being radicalised by the Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, India should certainly consider intervention, with, and if it has the gumption, without, UN authorisation. In such matters there is no need to be squeamish and so, if the operation requires collaboration with the US or Russia or any other country, we should go ahead and act.

But when it comes to the Islamic State, or Daesh as it is also called, there is very little evidence that India is affected in any way. There are just a handful of Indians known to be in territory the group controls. As for the oil, it goes north to Turkey. When it comes to radicalisation of Indian Muslims, the evidence is even thinner. Twenty Indians are alleged to be fighting with Daesh, but whether they are fighting or doing menial work for the IS forces is a moot point. The one self-confessed recruit we have – Areeb Majeed from Kalyan in Maharashtra – has given conflicting reports of alleged jihadi activities by Indians.

India’s stakes

Some individuals have been  deported to India and some restrained from traveling to Syria.  Indian intelligence agencies and the police are busy raising scare stories relating to Daesh  and Al Qaeda in India. But the authorities have yet to take a single case to court to prove that the person involved is guilty of seditious or terrorist activity.

The latest soap opera involves the arrest of the alleged “Al Qaeda chief” in India. It is more likely that this person is typical of a species of jihadis whose contact with militancy is confined to the Internet. As of now, visiting internet sites is not yet a crime in this country. And even the police does not claim that the alleged cell they have busted has actually carried out a terrorist act.

Sure, the intelligence agencies need to maintain their surveillance and prevent attacks on India. But little will be gained by the periodic scare stories that appear in the media, almost all arising from background briefings by intelligence and police personnel.

Yes, Daesh is a big threat, but to its immediate neighbours and to Europe from where hundreds of young Muslims have journeyed to IS-controlled territory to live, work and fight in the Caliphate. The situation is murky because Daesh is getting indirect assistance from the Turks who appear to be more afraid of Kurdish consolidation. Gulf Arab funds have also played a crucial role in the rise of the IS, which some GCC rulers view as a bulwark against Shia Iran. For them it is a Shia-versus-Sunni issue, not one of supporting an outfit that has made terror its key instrumentality. Even the American ambiguity has come to the fore with the realisation that it had studiously avoided bombing the thousands of trucks that were ferrying oil from Daesh-controlled oil fields to Turkey.

Obviously, if the IS does appear to become a threat to India there will be need to respond. But as of now, there does not seem to be much point in worrying about an eventuality that is quite remote. With its Paris terrorist attacks, Daesh has provoked sufficient opposition to ensure that it will be kept busy fighting for its own survival in the coming period. Sure, it will react by trying to carry out terrorist attacks, but those are more likely to target European countries, rather than India. For the present, let us hold off our dogs of war, Mr Minister.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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