India-US defence ties date back to Rajiv days

India-US defence ties date back to Rajiv days

By SHUBHABRATA BHA... | 11 June, 2016
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the US Congress in Washington, on Wednesday. REUTERS
Partnership cemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was germinated in 1986.

Washington accepting India as a “Major Defence Partner” during the bilateral visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is culmination of the effort germinated three decades ago. The brief India-US defence bonhomie post the 1962 China war was short-lived: assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and the death of Jawaharlal Nehru six months later aborted the emerging tie-up. The US stance in the 1965 and 1971 wars created a chasm. The India-Soviet Treaty empowered India to ignore the presence of the US Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal and create a new nation, Bangladesh. The 1970s also saw India voicing concern over the setting up of an US base in Diego Garcia. After the Modi-Obama agreement the same Diego Garcia facility will now be available to India’s armed forces for refuelling and strategic halts. A lot has flown through both Yamuna and Potomac.

The paradigm shift of June 2016 will now allow India licence-free access to dual use technology in defence. This is the culmination of a long journey. In 1965 a delegation of defence engineers from India was touring the US Arsenals with a view to have tie-ups for arms production in India. The US Department of Defense, then headed by Secretary Robert McNamara, had opened its doors. Then suddenly Pakistan put into motion its failed “Operation Gibraltar”. The outbreak of war saw US standing by its SEATO and CENTO ally, Pakistan. The Indian delegation was asked to withdraw from the US Arsenals and cool its heels in the Indian embassy in Washington DC. They returned empty handed after the ceasefire was declared.

This experience left a bitter taste. In 1978, when the pyro-propellant plant at Itarsi was envisaged, the best technology on offer was from Olins of the US. Deputy PM and Defence Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram, recalling the 1965 experience, preferred the next best technology, from France. He cited the possibility of the US supplier letting down India in case there be hostilities with Pakistan. Given this background, Narendra Modi overcoming the “hesitations of history” and settling for “a new level of comfort and candour” is laudable.

India cannot expect the US to abandon  Pakistan. But Washington’s refusal to supply F-16s coupled with according India ‘Major Defence Partner’ status opens up a new kind of “non-alignment”.

India cannot expect the US to abandon its long standing ally, Pakistan. But Washington’s refusal to supply F-16s coupled with according India “Major Defence Partner” status perhaps opens up a new kind of “non-alignment”. New Delhi has to view its ties with Washington with an omnibus, secular (all-engulfing) spirit. India continues to procure defence hardware from Russia, France, UK, Israel and a host of other sources. India’s diversification will have to engulf the commitments which the US has with Pakistan.  Since Rajiv Gandhi’s days, India has had an unobtrusive defence tie-up with the US. In September 1986, I was invited by the United States Information Service to visit the US for a month. Thanks to the then USIS chief in Delhi, Tony Jesudasan, I also knew some key American diplomats, including Colonel Mussels, the defence attaché (he had an Indian wife). While firming up my itinerary I requested a visit to the Pentagon. Col Mussels put in a word and one fine morning I crossed the Potomac and reached the underground tube station of the Pentagon. After a guided tour I was introduced to an officer who dealt with India. “We don’t have any defence ties with you, so what do you look after?” I asked. The Pentagon functionary winced. Then he told me that India and the US were cooperating in non-lethal areas, like training. “You are good at mountain warfare; we have the expertise in rapid deployment, for example,” he disclosed.

The import of this revelation dawned on me on the morning of 3 November 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi sent in airborne troops to quell a pirate-takeover of the Maldives. “Operation Cactus”, which was carried out with precision, was immediately hailed by the US; other powers followed suit. India’s rapid deployment capability had been showcased. The deployment of IPKF in Sri Lanka a year earlier is subject of many a debate. But that decision coupled with the Maldives success embedded India’s footprint in the strategic map of the Indian Ocean. Now it has been extended to the India-Pacific region by the Modi-Obama pact.

Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, slowly but surely built the steps which helped Narendra Modi reach the summit. The 10-year Framework of Cooperation agreed upon between New Delhi and Washington DC in 2005 has now blossomed, with the US acknowledging India’s strategic sinews during Narendra Modi’s bilateral visit.

Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former editor of Sunday and of National Herald.


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