Does India lack Strategic Culture?
Of late there has begun a lively debate on Indian strategic culture or lack of it. Some have referred to the “Panipat Syndrome’ while some others have harked back to Chanankya.
Indian civilisation is peculiar in some ways. Its view on life as endless cycle has influenced it to neglect history. When one attempts to reconstruct Indian past, one has no choice but to look at works of Al Barauni, Ibna Batuta, Toynbee Hue Enet Sung etc. The situation is worse when it comes to military history. In India we have treatises on philosophy, religion, science, mathematics and even sexology, but none on warfare! There is no Indian Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. For this neglect of the military dimension India paid a heavy price, it is no wonder that Indian history can also be described as a chronicle of military disasters.
This issue ought to engage the attention of strategic community in India in light of the recent revelations by the Pakistani terrorist David Hadley in his recent testimony to the Indian court. While most of what he has disclosed was already known about the terror attacks on India, the importance of his testimony is that it gives an authentic glimpse into the mindset and thinking of the ruling elite in Pakistan. The picture is that of a state that has made destruction of India its sole mission. It should serve as a wake- up call for all those who assumed rationality and non-zero sum game relationship with that country.
There is no doubt that India has so far not found an effective answer to the Pakistani challenge. Where does the fault lie? A dispassionate discussion on India’s strategic culture or lack of it is mandatory if we are to face up to the reality.
In July 1993 Prof. George Tanham, Vice president of RAND Corp. shared with me his paper on India’s strategic culture. The sum total of Prof Tanham’s conclusion was that India lacked strategic culture. He based his conclusions on reading of ancient and recent military history of India with a heavy North Indian bias. We had a lively debate and I shared with him my limited knowledge of Indian history, particularly the Maratha Epoch that I had studied.
Many actions of Shivaji the Great, show an acute understanding of strategy. Shivaji, born on the Peninsular India, in later years shifted his capital to coastal areas of Konkan. The hilly terrain interspersed with narrow valleys was ideal for guerrilla war and unsuitable for move of large forces and heavy artillery. This was a deliberate choice in view of the fact that he expected the full might of the Mughal Empire would soon be used against him. As a corollary to this shift of centre of his kingdom to coast, he also began to build a Navy. In 1664, he laid the keel of his first big ship and within four years built a formidable navy with 200 large ships (multi mast) and over 1000 small boats. This ‘brown water’ navy was to prove a thorn the flesh of the British for next 90 years. In anticipation of Mughal attack, he also built an alternative capital at Jinji, South of Chennai, nearly 1000 kms away from his domain in Maharashtra.
It is these farsighted moves that ensured that when after his death Aurengzeb invaded Maharashtra, Shivaji’s kingdom not only survived but after 1707 pushed back Mughal power from Central India. Unfortunately for Indians, Shivaji’s capital at Fort Raigad was captured by the Mughals in 1690 and the entire records of Maratha government were burnt. The documents that could throw light on the Maratha strategy to defeat Mughals were lost. Whatever knowledge one has is gleamed from diverse sources like writings of Jesuit Priests, English Ambassador Norris’s diary and Portuguese records.
We also know very little about the maritime empire of Pallavas, Cholas and the Pandyas of Tamil Nadu. The archeological finds in Indonesia, Malaya, Cambodia and Vietnam of Hindu temples, stone tablets and living traditions all point to this interaction. But again, not much research has been done in this area
But these above exceptions notwithstanding, it can be said with some degree of certainty that the heart of Indian civilization in North Indian plains does show a distinct lack of strategic culture. Why did this situation arise? How come a country that withstood the Greek invasions in 4th century BC and Hun invaders in 5th century (under Emperor Samdragupata) later succumbed to invaders from Central Asia?
Late Dr. SN Prasad, a doyen of military history in India as well as this author, has searched for an answer to this perennial Indian weakness. Prasad’s analysis of what is wrong with Indian thinking on defence is of great relevance in this day and age when we seem incapable of stopping the terror attacks on our country.
In an introduction to a book “Historical Perspectives of Warfare in India” (Vol. X Part 3 of ‘History, Science, Philosophy & Culture” project under Prof D. P. Chattopadhayay) Dr. Prasad points out the ideological weakness of Indians. (paraphrased by the author). According to him
“The most potent and deep acting source of military weakness is the unique Hindu ethos itself. Rooted in the attitude of anti-predatory universalism, contemplative passivity and inherent moderation, the Indian psyche presents an anti-thesis to ‘total war’. This placed the Indian at a decisive disadvantage vis-a-vis the alien invader.
The invader fought to win. The Hindus fought to gain glory. The invaders were concerned with only the ‘end’: the defenders only with the ‘means’. The invader wanted change and had taken the initiative, risking his life by choice. The defender was compelled to risk his life and had the static and negative war aim of preservation of status quo. The initiative- of deciding the time, place, route etc of the attack always lay with the invader and the defender had to play to his tune.
Essentially the Indians never understood the concept of ‘total war’, which in any case was against the Indian philosophical ideal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakm’ (Whole Earth is one family), after all transcends all differences of race, religion, region and genus. The killer instinct simply cannot survive in an ambiance of Vasudheva Kutumbakam. In fact, who wins or loses a war then becomes inconsequential. The Indians achieved universalism and transcendental cognition thousands of years before the world was ready for it: the Indian has paid the price for thousands of years. It has lost battles and wars yet survived. But in an altered scenario this time may end in a nuclear holocaust for India.”
For sheer survival we have no option but to understand our weakness and change our mindset.