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Does India lack Strategic Culture?
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Col Anil Athale | Date:17 Feb , 2016 4 Comments
Col Anil Athale
former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Does India lack Strategic Culture?

  1. Being a Pakistani Muslim,my comments will be taken with a pinch of salt but let me say that the underlying entire tone of the article reflects a Hindu Indian and not from an Indian.Although the title saiys that India lacks astrategic culture,the sum total is that Hindus lacked it.Aurangzeb was a thrroghbred Indian,majority of his Corps Commanders were Hindu Rajputs.He did fight with Shiva jee for recapturing of terrotories lost but you cannot call it an invasion by him.Invasion is always from outside.Babur invaded India but fought with a Muslim with the help of Hindu chieftans.
    By the way,David Hadley is an American politician currently serving in the California State Assembly. He is a Republican representing the 66th district, encompassing parts of the South Bay.Probably the author is referring to David Coleman Headley , an American of Pakistani origin, and a spy of Drug Enforecement Agency of USA,the alleged conspirator of Mumbai attack.

    • Let me be first clear about what Hindu means – It means native of Hindustan – irrespective of religion.
      Here the author is mainly referring to “Strategy” and attack from “Outsiders”. Its not about Hindus and Muslims. I understand that being a Pakistani your point of view will be more biased towards Muslims and towards how “Indian Muslim” is not getting enough credit that he deserves.
      And yes you are right about “David Headley”. The author is referring to “David Coleman Headley”. The only addition that I would like to make is that he is not an “alleged” conspirator but a “confirmed” one. Plus he is an ISI spy and not a spy of Drug Enforcement Agency of USA .

  2. Those who forget the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat. Just re-reading history is of no use unless lessons are learnt well & “in-flight” adjustments are made and objective delivered with precision. There seems to be a steady design to keep Indian psyche suppressed by alien & during past 7 decades supposedly native leadership. Undue importance to Budh over Yudh or to Gandhi over Savarkar has led to this monumental downfall of India’s strategic culture. ‘Jaane de” & “Chalta hai” attitudes very graciously imbibed within Indian philosophy have led to the slow death of strategic culture. Indians view everything in terms of “benefits” and not returns. Benefits in terms of non-adoption of aerospace engrs out of job from erstwhile USSR in 1990s or military award wapasi with OROP as reason. Some “duties” are absolute. A soldier is meant to risk his life for his Nation – no reason throwing that point up every now and then. Political party, even in Ambedkar’s democratic India, is supposed to put Nation’s interests above everything. NO perks, NO Suisse accounts – not even doles of foreign trips or overseas scholarships to their kids. People who miss out on this singular aspect can never shoulder “strategy” in interests of their Nation. Period. These folks will continue to broadcast “US/ PRC/ Russia will think thus… Why unleash IAF in 1962 ? Op Vijay ?” These folks will continue to beat the pillow, not the bush mind you, for they will fear what lies hidden therein and what might fly out. It is naive even to expect any sense of strategy from such people – irrespective of the habits they wear – fatigues or khadi. Can effective Strategy be formed by those unsure of their survival beyond 5 years or even 5 Parl sessions? Strategy will fail if not supported by field tactics, revised, retested and reimplemented. Pakistan seems to have learnt it well with a single tip from the Chinese premier. India refuses to learn the lessons presented even after class spanking of 1962.

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