Military & Aerospace

Indian Defence Philosophy: A 'no-win' Concept
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Issue Vol. 13.2 April-June 1998 | Date : 09 May , 2015

Panipat Syndrome. In times past, an Indian ruler met an invading army not at the frontiers of his kingdom but close to the seat of power. He remained well entrenched with his army within a fort or a fortified location. The enemy had a free run of the rest of the territory, winning half the battle without firing a single shot. He then reached the seat of governance.

Here, either he was met by the king’s army on the outskirts. In the alternative, he laid siege of the fort. Expecting a long siege, the fortifications of the defending king were well stocked. Meanwhile, the enemy looted and plundered the surroundings for sustenance, labour, riches and pleasures. The few exceptions in this sanctified war philosophy were the Gupta dynasty, the heydays of Mughal rule and the British period.

Also, the Indian king confronted the enemy mounted on elephants (mobile forts) around which the rest of his forces were structured. The structure was ceremonial no doubt, but was fatally ponderous. It was such war philosophy that enabled Babur’s highly mobile cavalry to win against the cumbersome local ruler’s army.

The irrational defensive defence policy, which simply is the sum total of Indian civilizational belief that peace at all costs is vital, allows the enemy to keep nibbling the territory at the frontiers.

Underlying the entire edifice of such war philosophy was the craving of Indians for peace at any cost. The Indians simply abhorred use of force, and viewed it in utterly disparaging terms. Diplomacy continued to search, even in a critical situation, for alternatives that enabled bypassing the need for use of force. The end result was that Indian rulers invariably blinked first!

Independent India. On independence, instead of taking a realistic and rigorous look at the reasons for the country’s history of subjugation, the leadership again naively delinked the military component from its foreign policy.

There was no way that the political leadership, fed and brought up on defensive defence characteristics, and the modern Indian military, trained on the universal concept of offensive defence capabilities, could see eye to eye. A persistent belief that since an Indian desires peace and the rest of the world will act according to our role model, has invariably let us down.

In the 1947-48 conflict, despite India’s superior ratio of 2:1, Pakistan’s invasion to grab Kashmir was localised and absorbed within Kashmir. No doubt, in the difficult mountainous terrain a herculean effort was required to counter-attack. But if the political leadership had pushed an offensive into Pakistan through Punjab or Rajasthan, simultaneously, the results could have been dramatic.

Despite sound military advice in 1962, the Indian army was ordered to throw the Chinese “out of every square inch of the Indian territory”. This was neither here nor there! A general from the Army Supply Corps was thrust as Corps Commander. He almost literally followed the instruction to hold every square inch of land by thinning out troops in a forward policy. (The police in Delhi may be observed even today resorting to this forward policy in crises by deploying two constables on each road to no effect). And the Air Force was not brought in which could have tilted the scales.

The political leadership surprised the military top brass in the 1965 conflict by agreeing to the strategy of opening new fronts as counter-pressure points instead of allowing the enemy to retain the initiative in his place of choosing, i.e., Rann of Kutch. But here too, the failure was in not building up a tri-service effort to break the will of the enemy. This was rectified to some extent in 1971 when the political and military leadership moved in a rare synergy to launch a quick offensive to create a new nation in a single stroke.

The Fallout. The irrational defensive defence policy, which simply is the sum total of Indian civilizational belief that peace at all costs is vital, allows the enemy to keep nibbling the territory at the frontiers. Low-intensity conflict in the last ten years in Kashmir is the current example. This policy has multiple negative ramifications. Some of them are listed below:

…the Indian outlook ensures that the frontiers are left at the mercy of the enemy. The riches of India attracted Babur and the British, and they had a field day.

  • By refusing to meet the enemy on the frontiers, the initiative is lost. In modern terms, protecting the borders implies assessment of the other side and appropriate initiative to neutralize the developing threat across the border through diplomacy, economic activity, military action and international alignments.
  • By allowing the enemy access to the seat of power, the ruler exhibits a lack of vision and daring. This gets translated to every aspect of life, producing people with defensive orientation, whether in sports, education, business and trade or in the art of governance itself.
  • Power and prosperity are two sides of the same coin – both require a will to power. Where the ruler is Content to fight from his fort or fortification – as does the Indian-demonstrating absence of the will to power, he stands very little chance of attaining either power or prosperity.
  • The Indian ruler’s fort or seat of power is logistically well catered for and his entire outlook, even in the present times, is to survive a long siege. Ancient India was characterised by the abject neglect and poverty in surrounding areas, which his majesty deigned to visit once in a while. Even today poverty outside the main townships remains extreme. Especially, the states touching the international borders and under insurgency need to be economically developed on a war footing.
  • A fallout of this defensive defence philosophy, not entirely negative, is the harking on self-reliance. The king ensured that he had adequate supplies to sit out the siege. He was, in a way, self-reliant. But on the negative side, he was unable to form alliances and collaborations with the enemy’s enemy in activity of mutual benefit. In the present context, India’s isolation diplomatically is the key result. A modification to achieve balance in this respect is a necessity.

The Danger. Clausewitz held that war is a rational instrument which a ruler resorts to in pursuit of “political discourse by other means”. The world, too, subscribes to that axiom. Naturally, therefore, if the enemy slaps you once, it is his fault; if he slaps you again, it is your fault. In reversal of all strategic norms our defence philosophy continues to offer the other cheek. Result: Heads, we lose. And tails, you win!

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While American policies are aggressively designed world-wide to ensure peace and prosperity at home, the Indian outlook ensures that the frontiers are left at the mercy of the enemy. The riches of India attracted Babur and the British, and they had a field day.

A far greater danger for India than any asymmetry in weapon systems lies in its asymmetry in mental thinking vis-a-vis the rest of the world. The king, his men and the people, if they cannot bring themselves to shift to offensive defence postures, are likely to have a great fall.

This article was first published in IDR Vol. 13.2 April-June 1998.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Bharat Verma

A former Cavalry Officer and former Editor, Indian Defence Review (IDR), and author of the books, India Under Fire: Essays on National Security, Fault Lines and Indian Armed Forces.

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7 thoughts on “Indian Defence Philosophy: A ‘no-win’ Concept

  1. This was the tactic even in contemporary Europe. Read about the consolidation of power by pope Alexander by defeating Italian city states?

    The third battle Panipat was not fought by rulers of Delhi and it was not for the defence of Delhi. It was fought by the Maratha confederate forces on what then was as close to India’s border as was possible in those days. Kings had very small standing armies and borders were not guarded as they are now. During war peasants and others were mobilized as temporary army. Eve the Afghans in 20 the century did I not fight the Russia’s at the border nor did the Vietcong fight the coalition (US) forces at the border.

    However, Porus faught Alexander at the border of his kingdom, the river Jhelum. So, a lot depended on the situation, possibilities, etc. There is a constant tendency to rely on CBSE’s emasculated Indian history eve by writers in idr. It is most painful to read such misrepresentations of Indian history.

  2. i beg to disagree on generalsiation, Sam Manekshaw has demonstrated we can open annother front while dealing with east pakistan. it is the political decision making process which has resulted in this situation. the constitutional supermacy of Elected rep over defence establishment has to be kept in mind. the great indian elctor decides which donkey rules us.

  3. A most perceptive and incisive piece of writing. I wish to thank B Verma for his perspective. One thing that should be pointed out is that even the most dull student finally passes the exam eventually. In the end other nations have their own unique weaknesses which we do not have such as greed, occupying others territory for no reason other than just to be in control of it. Faith based on hatreds and the like. Most of our invaders were not able to sustain the profits of their looting. Bharat as a civilization nation entity is still here thousands of years later. Who knows where the borders will be in another thousand years. We have to accept that we are no longer going to sit idly by and watch evil doers try to take away from our children and us our peace and prosperity. We have to put and end to this nibbling at our frontiers. I am convinced that in the end we shall prevail as the one nation with our motto of satyemev jayete.

  4. The rulers at Delhi met the invaders at Panipat, as they felt their supply lines were shortened and they could deploy the bulk of their forces with ease. Most of the invaders were invited by rulers/ governors of Border states; therefore meeting the invaders on the frontiers was not considered wise.( We may call it the ground of own choosing!)The use of elephants was of course unpardonable as it had repeatedly proved unreliable in battle. Babur used artillery ( canons) against Lodhi. It was a major factor in his victory. It was for the first time used in India!

  5. I can understand the Panipat analogy being used here, but I don’t think this can happen today. The only recent complete invasion of India was during European occupation and too because the incumbent political system (read Mughal ) was in decay. Certainly, since the early 90s, India too has been politically weak with vested multi-party coalitions.
    But ironically, that too has created conditions that has made it unrealistic for any power to subjugate India – and I don’t say it with bravado.

    Look at the realities facing any aggressor in relation to India:

    Let’s take your theoretical Panipat analogy. If China annexes India with no military resistance, what then, I ask?
    At the very least, with India’s grinding poverty and social complexities, it would be too expensive and complex for a politically-uncomplicated country like China (or others) to manage, probably bankrupting Beijing, rendering them vulnerable to a takeover themselves.

    Only West Germany in recent times, with their enormous economic strength, unified the East because there was no war or attendant defence costs involved in the process.

    Unlike Germany, the reality would be the opposite for China. Beijing would have to wage a very expensive and protracted conventional war with India to annexe it.

    If China took the fast option of nuking India into submission, it would trigger a “mutually assured destructive” response from Russia and the US at the very least.

    These grim scenarios notwithstanding, I would still strengthen, modernise and smarten India’s defences – without fear, given the above realities.

    I would rapidly improve border demarcation with electronic surveillance and GPS tracking so that incursions can be independently verified for India to prosecute legitimately.

    But, I fear this UPA outfit is bereft of vision and purpose to pursue this, and it survives because there is no one else showing visionary leadership.

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