National security situations that have impacted Indian political thinking on war – both limited and otherwise – and even other security-related challenges need not just an unbiased retelling of what happened but must also be insightful and courageous enough to express reflections that are not obfuscated by mere political alliances. The book that I have just read through is ample proof that Manish Tewari in his ’10 Flashpoints 20 Years’ has turned every observation not just readable but his thoughts are battleworthy and not just notional.

Book review - 10 flashpoints 20 years - Manish Tewari - Rupa Publications
Book review – 10 flashpoints 20 years – Manish Tewari – Rupa Publications

For the lay reader’s perspective, let me begin by emphasizing that the ten chapters in the book read like ten tales well told and are forceful enough to make them sit up and wonder why they remained unaware of so many military factoids so far. The expert, of course, is going to find the book a veritable goldmine of references and quotes that help the narrative be strategically cohesive without being much bothered by political insinuations. And yes, one can pick and choose a chapter and read without being fearful of having joined in late though, for instance, what happened as a consequence of the limited war in 1999 or any of the shallow cross-border actions will need said and unsaid relationship management with that dormant volcano that Kashmir is or the challenges we faced during the Chumar-Doklam-Galwan skirmishes. Every war-like situation, war, skirmish, overt and covert military action, or even a surgical strike remains intrinsically connected by both strategic thoughts as well as tactical implementation techniques. So, the chapters are both connected and disconnected from each other and have the ability to please the lay reader as much as any expert on National security.

Each of the flashpoints goes into the why from every possible angle and though the text obviously is not about a blow-by-blow account of, for instance, how the Kargil War was fought, the narrative brings us closer to the political and strategic impulses that caused it. The Kargil incursion, to cite an example, happened because of Pakistan’s belief that ‘it could unilaterally alter the status quo on the LoC by using stealth and surprise without inviting any significant counter-retaliation’ and this had its premise on India’s illusory restraint. Manish points out a few interesting developments that came into existence because of this conflict. The war not just ‘exposed Pakistan for embarking on a dangerous adventure using semi-state actors, backed by elements of its regular armed forces’ and a part of the credit goes to Vajpayee government’s permissive attitude in having the conflict televised live, but, as the KRC or Kargil Review Committee mentioned in its report, there had been negligible ‘critical appraisal for over five decades (from 1947 to 1999) in India’s security philosophy and thinking’. This brought the political, military, and bureaucratic machinery sit back and reason. We realised that some action was need on areas like ‘institutional inertia, inter-service rivalry, generalized bureaucracy that exercised superintendence over the defence establishment and infrastructure.’ KRC obviously made ‘a scathing indictment of all-round intelligence failure’ though even more than two decades later, ‘India’s higher defence management is more or less similar to what it was between 1947 and 1999’. Decades after the limited war of 1999, questions still remain. The author believes that India’s security environment still remains somewhat similar to what it was in the past despite the fact that the battlefield is no longer earthbound and is multidimensional and means of warfare now has a larger horizon and includes financial warfare, drug warfare, international law warfare and more.

A similar vein of inquisition persists throughout the book. By the time these strikes happened, the country had woken up to the significance of putting forth the government’s point of view through the national and global media and the people in power knew that surgical strikes ‘had to be vivid enough to satiate both spiraling media passions and the genuine sense of outrage of an ordinary Indian citizen’… and this is not just about attitude but also aptitude. The country took no time in letting people know and understand that the ‘shallow cross-border action’ had its strategic ideation coming from the Myanmar border operation of June 2015 and that the primary aim was to destroy terror launch pads rather than provide fodder to a full-fledged war. Thus, the operation was tactically distinctive, because even during the Kargil War, the army had been asked to remain on our side of the LoC. Such actions made it clear to our belligerent neighbours that we had no intention unleash ‘kinetic action to engage any force as we well knew that a warring impulse cannot be a permanent state of play. The book points out time and again that restraint was still the dominant force in decision-making and that giving a long rope to Pakistan.

In yet another chapter dealing with Operation Parakaram, the author, while discussing the genesis and the execution of strategic and tactical efforts, points out the relevance of the Cold Start doctrine that, in a nutshell, is ‘the army’s attempt to develop a useable, conventional, retaliatory operation without blowing the trumpet of war.’ Thus, the reader is unambiguously informed that such a strategy was essential because the Pakistan doctrine of ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’ needed to be brought out and laid bare for the Western political and military thinkers, and the media there. This strategy attempts to achieve ‘limited objectives on short notice’ and though the author believes that it still remains a ‘whispered ghost,’ I would not completely agree. Though the author isn’t pleased about the strategic outcome of Operation Parakram because it just ‘ended up blunting the sword arm of India’s coercive diplomacy template,’ there are other opinions that are convinced that such an approach does sharpen and strengthen the will to our neighbour being subversive willy-nilly.

The strength of the book is in its being able to turn tomes of spread-out analytical narratives into readable chunks of texts without compromising with the authentic documentation of how things have happened. It is easy to assume that every strategic action that seems appropriate today could have been adopted decades earlier… but then the country has its sights set on achieving a host of other socially and economically relevant actions. We need to understand that even military maturity happens as other elements of governance reach a certain level. There are still a lot of issues specific to our country that must get attention without compromising with countering the threats that we face on our borders. This book definitely succeeds in making these critical flashpoints clear for the discerning reader and, as I have expressed for a few other books, deserves to read again and again. This book transforms the complexity of National security into a rather charmingly readable narrative without compromising on the truth as has already been revealed.

Book details:

Title: 10 Flashpoints, 20 Years
Author: Manish Tewari
Publisher: Rupa Publications
ISBN: 978-93-5520-091-4

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Arvind Passey
13 July 2022