“The world is a gymnasium where nations come to make themselves strong.” — Swami Vivekananda
Ancient Indian identity was forged by distinct geographical reality that insulated India from outside influences. Indian subcontinent is surrounded by the vast Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal Sea, by the Patkai Bum mountains in the east, the Himalaya in the north and the Thar Desert and Hindu Kush in the west and north-west. This unique geography made the Indian subcontinent virtually into an “island on land”. It gave a sense of security to the population. Alongwith this, the “island” was abundantly bestowed by nature with fertile lands, perennial rivers, unique climate and abundant natural resources. Consequently, the people lived a higher quality of life relative to the rest of the world. The early Indians had risen up the Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ earlier than other people. They developed spirituality and abstract thought. It was the only global society that placed thinkers, priests and ‘gurus’ at the apex of society above rulers, warriors and the rich resulting in a unique civilisation.
India is situated in the one of the most geopolitically prime pivotal locations in the world; in between East Asia, Central Asia and West Asia and astride the vital sea lines of communications traversing the oceans between the fading powers and rising powers of the world. This together with India’s resilient economy and population has set the stage for India to be instrumental for Asian security and economy. Lord George Curzon, the British Viceroy of India observed, way back in 1909, that – “It is obvious…. that India, must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and therefore, it may be added, in the world. The central position of India, its magnificent resources, its teeming multitude of men, its great trading harbours, its reserve of military strength, supplying an army always in a high state of efficiency and capable of being hurled at a moment’s notice upon any given point either of Asia and Africa – all these are assets of precious value.”
The leadership had put its faith in the newly created United Nations to justly resolve the matter. The faith was misplaced. The Machiavellian scheming of the British and the Americans in the UN Security Council resulted in making it a territorial dispute and exonerated Pakistan for its aggression – that was United Nations convoluted justice!
A hundred and eleven years back Lord Curzon could feel the enormous pulsating potential of this country and visualised it forging ahead in the strategic domain in a future time frame. However, that has not happened. Did India miss the bus? Did India’s ‘island’ syndrome make its leadership complacent? Did the trademark of the “Non-Violence” tag restrict India’s strategic options? Is India inward looking and overly obsessed with its myriad internal issues and unsavoury divisive politics of appeasement to care about long term strategic national goals and national power issues? And as is often asked, does India have a “strategic culture”?
True that the British left India to manage the humongous task of integrating the 578 Princely States into a Union, to handle the huge movement of Hindu and Sikh refugees from the newly carved out state of East and West Pakistan. The war in J&K launched by Pakistan to annex the state, with more than just moral support from the outgoing British colonialists, resulted in fragmenting the state of J&K. The leadership had put its faith in the newly created United Nations to justly resolve the matter. The faith was misplaced. The Machiavellian scheming of the British and the Americans in the UN Security Council resulted in making it a territorial dispute and exonerated Pakistan for its aggression – that was United Nations convoluted justice! However, it still did not shake the leadership enough to refocus on protecting the territorial integrity by military means because of the daunting internal tasks of forming new states, setting up an industrial base, instituting land reforms to protect the small farmers and tackling the debilitating poverty. The leadership had its priorities chalked out for them. Internalising was topmost on their agenda. There was no time for grand strategies and regional or global ambitions. Therefore, India sought a peaceful external environment and chose to befriend, through appeasement, even those who were not so friendly. It actually wanted to be left alone. But that, probably, is not how the global system operates.
Soon after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ousted the Kuomintang in the civil war in China and established the newly formed Peoples Republic of China (PRC) it was rearing to go and take revenge for the “century of humiliation”. Flush with its successes, CCP went about consolidating its territories to the maximum limits that had ever existed in its historical past under the numerous dynasties that ruled China. No one has ever questioned as to why China did not opt for a China when it had shrunk to its smallest size around the “middle kingdom”!! However, in this irredentist quest for the maximum, China usurped Tibet and created an unprecedented dilemma for India. India had continued to seek rapprochement through dialogue but China’s bellicosity only increased. In its policy of support of the ‘proletariat’ internationally, China supported the Naga insurgency, in north-east India, in the 1950’s-60’s. The Bandung Conference in 1955 was a major success for the then Indian Prime Minister, wherein it formalised the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and through his initiative, the process for forming Non-Aligned Nations (NAM) grouping was initiated. NAM as a grouping, finally took shape in 1961. This was seen a major step in the “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.” India took it that it had finally secured peace. However, the 1962 India-China war came as a severe jolt to the Indian leadership and they were now compelled to review the policies to ensure the nations security, because now India had a new ‘enemy’ at its doorstep. It did not take long for Pakistan to reach out to China. The old maxim ‘an enemy’s enemy is a friend’ was being played out in 1963 and over the years has become a strong bond between the China and Pakistan developed against India.
The culture of presenting the ‘other cheek’ has been inhibiting in many ways. Peace at all costs has been at the cost of the country’s image – making it a soft state. This affected the military mind too!! For decades after the 1962 debacle, India did not want to develop infrastructure in the border regions under the refrain that “Chinese will use it”!! It was this defeatist mindset that prevailed for too long.
The culture of presenting the ‘other cheek’ has been inhibiting in many ways. Peace at all costs has been at the cost of the country’s image – making it a soft state. This affected the military mind too!! For decades after the 1962 debacle, India did not want to develop infrastructure in the border regions under the refrain that “Chinese will use it”!! It was this defeatist mindset that prevailed for too long. The 1971 war did change the defensive thinking of the military but to have returned 90,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War without ensuring the final settlement of J&K issue is, undoubtedly, a gargantuan strategic blunder and there can be no compelling reasoning to support the decision that will absolve the leadership of this strategic disaster. Pusillanimity in strategic decision making, in the long term, will invariably be detrimental to the security of the nation and well being of its people. The Indian political leadership has generally seen military force as an inappropriate instrument of politics, and military spending as an unnecessary burden in the context of threats.
Every nation faces threats, be they military, social or natural. Threats challenge a nation’s power and disrupt its well-being. One of the core responsibilities of national security is identifying potential danger and readying the right response. National security entails that national governments work autonomously to protect its citizens from these threats. On the other hand, global security involves a coalition of nations working together to ensure that each of them may enjoy peace and stability. India has been averse to being allied to any group or coalition because it seeks to protect its strategic autonomy and sovereign authority. Such a policy is suitable for a country which has a strong military industrial base and an equally robust economy. If a country isolates itself from contributing its bit for global security that country should not expect help when its own security is threatened. On its own no country can protect itself from the diverse range of threats that have emerged – territory is just one such threat. Allying and bandwagoning of ideologically likeminded nations would not undermine the autonomy and sovereignty of a powerful nation. So building capabilities and capacities generates comprehensive strength which will automatically give the country a leadership role and would thus not be doing anyone else’s bidding.
In the last two decades the global environment is changing at a rapid pace. To apply the same tried and tested assumptions to newer dynamic situations may be bureaucratically convenient but not strategically prudent. To quote the present Indian Foreign Minister – “doing the same thing over and over again – and expecting different results or to do the same thing in different situations – and then expect the same results” is being grossly dim-witted, and continuing “it is important to recognize at a moment in world politics when many of our long-held assumptions no longer hold true. If the world is different, we need to think, talk and engage accordingly. Falling back on the past is unlikely to help with the future.”
India has been suspicious of taking the military on board in the national decision making process. It stems from a worms eye view of civilian control of the military. It is accepted that military and civilians see international situations differently. When no national security doctrine exists the military tend to assume worst-case scenarios and every threat as an aggressive intention for which requisite capabilities are required in order to be best prepared for such potential threats and respond adequately when whimsically told to “throw them out”. When called upon to act, they often prefer solutions that enable them to take the offensive – in the process, these preferences shape security strategy in ways that reflect these institutional biases toward action and confrontation.
When no national security doctrine exists the military tend to assume worst-case scenarios and every threat as an aggressive intention for which requisite capabilities are required in order to be best prepared for such potential threats and respond adequately when whimsically told to “throw them out”.
In the past, strategic restraint has been wasteful and dangerous. Without political guidance, the armed forces had been left to themselves to figure out what they must do. There is an imbalance among the services, and limited integration of strategic planning, and operational coordination. The Indian armed forces have long maintained that strategic restraint is poor policy, but have largely been overruled and marginalized in Indian interpretation of civilian control over the military. These preferences, as fallaciously believed, will result in an overly assertive foreign policy. On the contrary, civilian solutions sans military input tend to be appeasement oriented.
The 1998 tests and subsequent economic growth had raised expectations of an end to India’s strategic restraint based on two kinds of arguments: the realist theory of how affluence or threat will bring India to reject strategic restraint, and a cultural rationale of how a new conservative nationalism has pushed India toward a more ambitious consensus on use-of-force issues.
The Indian Prime Minister delivered the keynote address at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2018. Started in 2002, the Shangri-La Dialogue is a “Track One” inter-governmental security forum held annually by an independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is attended by defence ministers, permanent heads of ministries and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states. The summit serves to cultivate a sense of community among the most important policymakers in the defence and security community in the region. As is the Standard Operating Procedure of the Indian governmental system dictated by the bureaucracy, no Service Chief of any of the three Services was there at the forum, nor did the PM’s entourage include any senior military officer.
The same is noticeable at the India-China Annual Defence and Security Dialogue headed by the Defence Secretary. His counter-part, a military officer of the rank of Lieutenant General is the Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission. The photo line up say it all, it is of PLA Officers in uniform sitting across the table facing the Defence Secretary and Civilian Government Officials from the Indian Ministry of Defence. This stark contrast was also evident when the Minister of Defence with his entourage met the Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Defence Ministers Summit on September 4, 2020. The majority of the Chinese delegation comprised uniformed PLA officials while the entire Indian contingent comprised Civilian Government Officials accompanying the Defence Minister.
Such myopic procedures undermine the credibility of the military in the eyes of foreign militaries and lower its image. Fortunately, there has been a bold decision taken by the Government recently when the Foreign Secretary and Chief of Army Staff together visited Myanmar. Another such initiative was by the National Security Adviser to include the Chief of Defence Staff and the Military Adviser to the National Security Council Secretariat in his meeting with Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation. This is a mature and positive step to actively integrate the military in the national security decision making process and reflects the confidence of the national leadership.
As is the Standard Operating Procedure of the Indian governmental system dictated by the bureaucracy, no Service Chief of any of the three Services was there at the forum, nor did the PM’s entourage include any senior military officer.
The year 2020 has been a testing one for India. The prolonged lockdown due to Covid19 pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown, mass migration of the migrant labour and their subsequent return to the economic hubs and the unexplained aggression by China in Ladakh brought along with them a host of related issues. The Government had to dig deep into its pockets to restore the economy, provide food grain to the poor, and help the self-employed and those in the unorganised sector (which forms the bulk of the Indian work force).
The Chinese aggression in Ladakh brought to fore the callous neglect of the modernisation of the armed forces for over a decade. Five Rafale fighters don’t make an Air Force. There has been a flurry of activity in the corridors of power to reach out to a number of friendly foreign countries for the procurement of military hardware. A demand of 72,400 Assault rifles and precision ammunition for the 155 mm Howitzers from USA, 16,000 Light Machine Guns and Anti-Tank missiles from Israel, S-400 air defence systems and probably light tanks, as also 21xMig-29’s and 12xSU-30MKI’s from Russia. The fact is that announcement of import of this hardware is mere tokenism. None of these pieces of equipment can be picked off a shelf. The Original Equipment Manufacturers will begin production only after the price negotiations have been finalised by the Ministry of Defence Officials. This will not happen in overnight, the ‘bargaining’ will drag on, probably, for over a year. Ironically, while all this flurry of activity was going on in the Ministry of Defence, the entire work force of the Ordinance Factories were on tools down strike protesting against the government’s decision of corporatising the Ordinance Factories!!
The tendency of reacting only in an emergency has been the hallmark of all the dispensations at the Centre. The political leadership is compelled, by the prevailing democratic system in the country, to devote a lot of time and energy in building its image as it has to face elections in some state or the other throughout the year and every year of its tenure in the Centre. As a consequence the bureaucracy runs the show of governance with little accountability. Due to the socialist creed adopted by India in the 1950’s, there has been a tendency of the Centre to handout doles and this persists even after the liberalising process which began in the 1990’s. It has been always considered easier by government to hand out doles than strive to create a conducive environment for long term overall development and growth of entrepreneurship in the country. The biggest casualty of this system is the modernisation of the military.
In the recent past there have been a range of foreign policy developments which indicate that India is ready to step out of the shadows and make its strategic presence felt. The tough stand in Ladakh against the unsavoury attempt by China to bully India; the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the four Quad members; inviting Australia to join the “Malabar” naval exercise; and the 2+2 Dialogue with the US. A powerful India will be able to take a leadership role in regional and global matters. Its strategic autonomy will not be diminished but, if fact, be enhanced. Its interests will be secure in such a role. India needs to shed its reticence and reluctance to engage with all countries with across the full spectrum of its comprehensive power.
India has a strange neighbourhood. One of India’s two belligerent neighbours has a military that owes its allegiance to the Party ruling the country for seven decades and the military is sworn to protect this Party and secure the Party’s empire for the future. The other is an army that ‘has a country’ which it exploits to the hilt for its own agendas! India’s military, on the other hand, owes its allegiance to the Constitution and the Government, irrespective of the Party. It is one of the elements of national power along with diplomacy and economy. There is need to exercise the synergy of these elements of power assertively and confidently in pursuance of the country’s national interests. The government that cannot do so, for the well-being of its citizens, has no right to continue to be there.