Military & Aerospace

Misreading India's Strategic Culture
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Issue Book Excerpts: Kurukshetra to Kargil | Date : 24 May , 2014

Use of military terms in non-military fields, particularly after the Second World War, has been quite in vogue. The usage of military expressions like art of war, strategy, leadership, battlefield motivation and so on, is not a matter of semantics alone but even their principal military import and application find wide circulation in disciplines like business, training, technology and others.

The word ‘strategy’, as per the dictionary, relates to the art of war, employment of armies and war-like resources into favourable positions in a campaign, though it is also usable to convey a plan of action in politics or business. Simply put, it is the ability of the people of the nation to generate power, and to have the will and preparedness for a full and effective use of its potential. According to an elaborate definition, it is “that set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and mode of behaviour, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives( both oral and written), that shape collective identity and relationship to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.”

Imagine if, in place of Nehru, it was Patel or Subhash Chandra Bose or Abul Kalam Azad or Jaiprakash Narayan at the helm of affairs, the nations responses to security-related issues would perhaps have been more realistic and far-sighted.

It is relevant here to understand the distinction between culture and civilisation. Some identify culture with customs, tradition and convention, while others define it as a code of conduct of social behaviour, or the way of life of a people. Nehru called it ‘the some total of the peoples’ endeavours in different fields of life’. The nearest Sanskrit equivalent for culture is Sanskriti, which literally means purification. Amury de Reincourt qualifies the distinction, “Culture is the pulsating organism endowed with immense flexibility and vitality, in a state of constant irrepressible growth. Civilisation, on the other hand, is the rigid crystallisation of a peculiar society; Culture lays emphasis on the original and the unique, civilisation on the common and general.”

The confusion begins when some use the expression ‘strategic culture’ to convey the intrinsic military mind or the way of warfighting, and others try to encompass in it the entire way of life. Simply put, the strategic culture of a people is their general approach to defence-related issues, which symbolise the nation’s ability to conceptualise, plan and effectively fulfil its security imperatives.

A Misconception

Some lament that ‘India does not have strategic culture’; and in its justification, quote some Medieval Age or post-Independence incidents of the nation’s security having been messed up, which is inherently a flawed inference. One, the nation’s inborn strategic culture or military thought is its natural collective sensibility and responses to the security challenges down the ages. A few incidents, based on the failings of an individual or a group, cannot throw overboard the inherent strategic staying power of the nation.

A self-evident truism is that strategic decision-making is the function of the executive head of the state, aided by a coterie of advisers. Therefore, the individual quality of heart and head of the state’s top leadership can make or mar its performance in the face of an external or internal challenge. Plus, the peculiar conditions of foreign oppression that India went through for about thousand years were not conducive to nurturing a national spirit or strategic culture. Just because the Indian political leadership misread the nation’s security challenges on the eve of partition, or later in the post-Independence wars, it let the military gains go waste at the negotiating table, does not justify running down India’s inherent strength.

The primary determinant of a peoples strategic culture is how much they love their country or the precedence they accord to it over other factors of life

Imagine if, in place of Nehru, it was Patel or Subhash Chandra Bose or Abul Kalam Azad or Jaiprakash Narayan at the helm of affairs, the nation’s responses to security-related issues would perhaps have been more realistic and far-sighted. Even in the much maligned and one-sided portrayal of the Medieval Age, there were enough flashes throughout radiating the glow of patriotic and undying military resistance regardless of the temporary downslide India had to undergo.

Outlining India’s True Strategic Culture

If the Ramayana and the Mahabharata characterise India’s veritable military psyche, it does not take long to see how even a situational underdog party shrewdly set its strategic objectives, and fought resolutely to win the day. In the Epics, good is demonstrated by acts of exemplary heroism, personal morality and good governance, where resorting to force is the natural recourse to triumph over the evil.

The primary determinant of a people’s strategic culture is how much they love their country or the precedence they accord to it over other factors of life. In the Ramayana, after the hard-fought victory over the Lankan forces, when the victorious Vanar forces looked forward to celebrating the triumph along with their supreme leader Rama, the latter declined King Vibheeshan’s plea of staying on for some days at Lanka. Instead, Rama expressed his desire for immediate return to Ayodhya, with the remarks, “The Motherland is dearer and more alluring than even heaven.” The Epics leave little doubt in the reader’s mind that India’s strategic culture then was a model for others to emulate.

Dr Radhakrishnan observes, “India through centuries venerated the sage against the statesman, a learned man instead of a warrior. That is why India has failed to give political expression to its ideals. The importance of wealth and power though theoretically recognised was practically not realised. India had to suffer for this negligence.” From all sane commentaries on the subject, what is unmistakable is that a forward-looking military mind and its continuous updating are sine qua non for the very survival of the Indian civilisation.

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A drift of pacifism obscured India’s vision for some time, when Ahimsa rose as a religious creed. However, often the fact is overlooked that India rejected non-violence when it refused to follow Buddha. One cannot do better than quote an apt observation of K.M.Panikkar on India’s inherent military thinking, “It is not for Ahimsa and pacifism that Ramchandra stands in Indian religion; it is for active assertion of what is morally right. Nor does Krishna stand for nonviolence. Indian freedom can be upheld only by firmly deciding to shoulder our share at all costs in the active defence of the areas necessary for our security.”

In the course of its long history, India has had many distressful periods of being ravaged by fire and sword yet the past shows that it had a far more orderly and warless existence than Europe ever had. In this context, Nehru makes an apt observation, “The notion that the Pax Britanica brought peace and order for the first time to India is one of the most extraordinary of delusions.” India’s medieval history has been largely a victim of misrepresentation.

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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.

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Brig K Kuldip Singh

Brig K Kuldip Singh

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2 thoughts on “Misreading India’s Strategic Culture

  1. Does anybody know who was the one that started nuclear program in india which is today not only pride for a lot of people but also the catalyst for india’s peaceful space programs and satisfaction for the overwhelming electricity needs? Go and get the answer yourself.
    (hint: the one who is the chairman of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the one who passed some “nobody today cares about” resolution and setup DAE on August 3, 1954 under the direct charge of the Prime Minister through a Presidential Order.
    one more hint: the same guy with whose efforts CIRUS was brought in india for electricity and assoc peaceful research
    endorsed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre,
    still do not remember, leave to comment before reading all facets of history). Thanks.

  2. Thanks for weaving in learnings into learnings.. hats off for setting such an elaborate (and necessary) stage before presenting your thoughts across.. definition of strategy “that set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and mode of behaviour, … objectives.” never understood strategy as broad / big as this..
    And “Culture is the pulsating organism.. Civilisation, on the other hand.. Culture lays emphasis on the original and the unique, civilisation on the common and general.” never realised that my understanding of civilisation and culture was so nebulous. Did not learn until now how at the end of the day a single head and heart determines our strategy.. and finally the courage and conviction with which you talk about Ahimsa. It never occurred to me that our national leaders of 19th and early 20th century have selectively dropped important things that makes up our national character – including Arthasastra a contemporary of the Chinese Art of War and Purananuru a grand fater of all War lessons belonging to Sangam Age (1000-300 BC) which discusses extensively about invasion of the enemy’s territory, transcience and change, the fragility of human life against the backdrop of war, attacking the fort, defence of the fort or territory, the frenzy of battle and as you have explained through Ramayana what makes Victory.. Thanks a lot.

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