Military Interventions in South Asia

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MILITARY INTERVENTIONS IN SOUTH ASIA From the standpoint of small South Asian states, the "India factor" in their security has both negative and positive connotations. India's large size and huge military power are considered the fundamental sources of their perception of potential danger. At the same time, India's centrality in the region, coupled with its capability to respond swiftly to an urgent call for assistance, is a positive feature. India has indeed rendered military assistance to Myanmar (then Burma), Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, even though some of these countries have at times perceived India as a threat. India's security interests are integrated with those of the entire region; its neighbors' interests are closely linked to its own. If friendship with India is considered important for the security of its small neighbors, their internal political stability and independence remain vital factors in Indian security.

Indian military assistance has been rendered only upon the request of beleaguered South Asian states facing rebellion, insurrection, insurgency, or a coup d'état. States that sought Indian military assistance have been inherently weak, lacking sufficient military strength to defend their national interests. Decisions to commit Indian forces for security duties abroad were all taken by Indian Congress Party governments headed by three powerful prime ministers—Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi—who belonged to the same family and pursued much the same foreign policy, with modifications to suit the changing international or regional situations. Nehru intended to make India the leader of Afro-Asia's third world; his daughter and grandson strove more to project India as the leader of South Asia. In this context they used the military as an instrument of diplomacy, projecting Indian power over South Asia. Though India readily extended military assistance during the cold war period, it has since grown more reluctant to undertake a security role. In 2000, for example, India did not consider Sri Lanka's request for military help. It also declined to accept a combat role against the Maoist insurgents in Nepal.

Early Instances of Military Involvement


Burma (now Myanmar) was the first to seek limited Indian military help in 1949, when the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League government was threatened by a series of combined rebellions launched by the Communists and the Karen National Defense Organization, as well as by mutinies in the army. For Burma's Communists, who were excluded from power, the newly won "independence" seemed false, because Burma remained within the sphere of British power and influence. They wanted to create a Communist state through armed struggle. At the same time, the Karen ethnic group revolted against discriminatory treatment. Aggrieved over the denial of their right to secede from the union, which had been extended to the Shan and Kayah states, and the government's refusal to accept their boundary demands for a new Karen state, the Karens launched an armed secessionist movement. Simultaneously, other disgruntled minorities also revolted. The orgy of violence by the rebels pushed the entire nation into chaos. The Karen military rebels undermined the government so severely that it could control only the capital, Rangoon, and a few other cities. Burma badly needed external support to prevent its disintegration.


In Nepal the level and intensity of rebel threat was much lower. Militant activities by K. I. Singh, a dissident Nepali Congress leader, helped by several criminal groups from 1951 to 1953, had caused political instability and lawlessness. Singh had mobilized Nepal's disgruntled Mukti Sena members against the Congress government's decision to share power with the autocratic Ranas, launching a nationwide reign of terror in 1951. In the same year, the separatist Kirantis living along Nepal's border with Tibet also refused to recognize the government's authority over the Eastern Hills. Singh, who was briefly jailed, escaped from prison on 11 July 1951 and declared himself local governor, seizing a government treasury. After his second escape from prison on 23 January 1952, he launched an attack on the capital, Kathmandu, with the help of 1,200 rebel soldiers, capturing the treasury, arsenal, broadcasting station, and airport. Nepal's communication links with India were disrupted. That revolt was crushed, but in April 1953, some 700 Nepalese rebels, led by Bhim Dutt Pant, attacked police stations and looted private property in Nepal's Western Terai region. Unable to crush the menace, the Kathmandu government sought Indian military assistance. India sent one battalion of its army and a constabulary force from Uttar Pradesh.

Sri Lanka

Insurrection and ethnic conflict had necessitated India's involvement in Sri Lanka twice, in 1971 and from 1987 to 1990. In April 1971, Sri Lanka faced a threat to the integrity of its polity when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP; the People's Liberation Front), a Sinhalese Buddhist youth movement with a strong ideological commitment to Marxism, launched an abortive insurrection to capture state power. It planned attacks on police stations and army camps, and hoped to abduct or kill the prime minister and capture the capital, Colombo. However, it was successful only in capturing a large number of police stations. The government lost control of over fifty major towns. To regain control and end the insurrection, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike requested military assistance from many countries, including India. The second time, the need for military support arose in July 1987, when India and Sri Lanka signed a peace accord to end Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil conflict. The accord itself made provision for India's military role. At the request of Sri Lankan president J. R. Jayewardene, Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sent a contingent of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), some 70,000 troops, to implement the accord. In fulfilling its obligations, India was obliged to wage a war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist militant group that rejected the autonomy solution offered by the accord.


The Maldives were threatened by external mercenaries in November 1988, when a group of about 400 men, allegedly recruited by some disgruntled expatriate Maldivians, invaded the capital, Male, with the aim of overthrowing the regime headed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. They stormed the presidential palace and easily took control of the government secretariat as well as radio and television stations. President Gayoom and some of his senior ministers took refuge at the headquarters of the National Security Service (a paramilitary force of 350 men in 1988, now increased to over 1,500); from there he appealed to India for military assistance. India sent three warships and some 1,600 paratroopers to secure the capital. Fortunately for the president, the mercenaries could not disrupt the atoll island nation's vital communication links, and India's timely intervention saved the Gayoom regime.

Motives and Results

Clearly, a combination of factors motivated India to undertake military roles in its neighborhood. In protecting the national interests of its distressed neighbors, India sought to promote regional stability, considering such political turmoil in neighboring states a threat to regional peace. In India's view, violence by the rebels in all these countries threatened democracy, whose maintenance has been a cardinal principle of India's South Asian policy. India has also remained opposed to the involvement of any extraregional powers in South Asia. By rendering military assistance to Burma and Nepal, India hoped to prevent Chinese intervention. Similarly, its unprecedented military role in Sri Lanka in the 1980s was designed to thwart President Jayewardene's attempts to become a strategic ally of the West (by, for instance, providing naval base facilities to the United States) and to prevent any further inroads by Pakistan and China. The 1987 peace accord also enforced India's dominant influence in matters of Sri Lanka's security.

As in Sri Lanka, where Indian military involvement was guided by its obligations under the accord, the Indo-Nepalese peace and friendship treaty of 1950 imposed specific obligations on India to protect Nepalese security. India's friendship with troubled neighboring regimes remained an important motivating factor. Leaders who were at the helm of affairs at the time of crisis in each country—Prime Minister U Nu (Burma), King Tribhuvan and Prime Minister Koirala (Nepal), Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka), and President Gayoom (Maldives)—all maintained friendly relations with the Indian leadership.

In some cases, India feared that violent developments among its neighbors would cause adverse effects on its own society and economy. For instance, the success of a Communist revolt in Nepal or the Karen ethnic movement in Burma might encourage or strengthen secessionist ethnic movements in northeast India. Prime Minister Nehru felt that Burma's disintegration would not only affect India's economic interests but would also endanger the lives of about 700,000 Indians living there.

Whatever little gains India's military interventions won, in most cases the benefits did not endure. After the rebellion in Burma, India was viewed as a trusted friend for some years, and on 7 July 1951, the two countries signed a friendship treaty valid for five years. Similarly, Nepal became openly pro-Indian for some years, and its leaders acknowledged India's importance to Nepal's economic development and security. Simultaneously, however, there existed a growing sense of discontent over India's frequent military involvement, which some opposition parties used to create a strong anti-Indian feeling. The Nepalese government leaders were condemned as puppets of India, and the opposition soon overthrew them. In Maldives, however, India's military help left a durable imprint of friendship. Expressing his government's deep appreciation and gratitude for Indian support, President Gayoom disagreed with others' descriptions of India as a regional "hegemonic" power.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the IPKF operations eventually turned into a costly politico-military affair, and by mid-1989, the presence of so many Indian troops became a divisive issue in bilateral relations. Sri Lanka demanded their withdrawal long before the assigned task of implementing the accord was achieved. In economic and military terms, India paid a heavy price: about 1,200 soldiers dead and 2,500 were injured, at a cost to India of about U.S.$180 million. Dismayed at the shabby treatment given their troops by the Sri Lankan government, the Indian government withdrew its forces in early 1990. Soon after, in March 1990, External Affairs Minister (later prime minister) I. K. Gujral declared that India would never again send troops to any neighboring country. Despite many changes in Delhi's government and leadership, this position has remained unchanged.

Ponmoni Sahadevan

See alsoBurma ; Maldives and Bhutan, Relations with ; Nepal, Relations with ; Sri Lanka, Relations with


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Military Interventions in South Asia

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