India’s Strategic Culture and Security Challenges

  • General V. P. Malik

Delivering the 30th Bhimsen Sachar Memorial Lecture for 2009 in New Delhi, the former Chief of the Army Staff highlights the flaws in India's strategic thinking and stresses the need for a more focused and clearly defined vision for the future.

Soon after the terrorists’ attack on Akshardham Temple, the editorial in India Today stated, “As a nation of forgetting and forgiving, ever ready to bleed and wail, India is unique.” This quote continues to haunt me because since then, we have had many terrorist attacks on our political, economic, educational and cultural establishments; more
importantly, on our innocent citizens whose security is the primary responsibility of the state.
Why are we such a unique nation, ‘of forgetting and forgiving, ever ready to bleed and wail?’ Why are we so passive and reactive in our security, foreign relations, and other related policies? What is our problem that so often leads us to strategic in-decisions, or inactions, and makes our future not more, but less insecure? Perhaps, it has something to do with our strategic culture.
Strategic culture has been defined as the ‘ability of the people and the society to generate power; and to have the social will and ability for a full and effective use of that power’. Let us look at India’s strategic culture through our history. India was a powerful and rich nation during the Maurya dynasty (305 BC) and Gupta dynasty (400-600 AD). Indian scholars and seers went to several countries in Asia–on land and by sea–for trade and spreading the message of spirituality. We were a strong nation, with strong economy and a glorious culture. Friendly Asian
countries feted our people and honored them. When the King of Thailand inaugurated the new Bangkok Airport called ‘Suvarnabhumi’, I believe he told an Indian journalist, “That is the footprint of your ancestors, a legacy of your forefathers who spread out and impressed other people, with the power and the strength of knowledge and character.”
Next time, India became a powerful nation was when the Mughals from Central Asia conquered India (1526-1761 AD) and then got absorbed here. They
spread their power and Indo-Mughal culture in the whole of India and in Afghanistan. The Mughals were followed by the British who ruled us for the next 200 years or so. They used our resources to become rich; and even to fight World Wars I and II. These outsiders were able to conquer and rule us because Indian society had lost the ability to generate power, and the will and the ability to make use of that power. We did not think strategically, or consider ourselves as a nation. We were a house divided, fighting among ourselves.
Also, because we had acquired, and accepted, an image of being an accommodative and a forgiving society, full of piety and ahimsa: one, which believed more in God-given destiny than making our own destiny. Out of spirituality, pacifism and nonviolence, many of our 20th century political leaders conjured up the idea of a morally superior India, professing peace and harmony, in a world where nations indulge in cut-throat competition for their national interests. We talked of Vasudeva
Kudumbakam, when India itself could not live like a family. In foreign relations, our leaders professed, and practiced, morally superior value-based politics, but which does not reflect the international realism.
One cannot blame those leaders altogether because during centuries of slavery and colonialism, the Indian leadership had forgotten all about Chanakya’s Arthshastra. The British never permitted Indian political leaders and civil servants to deal with strategic issues. Strategic thinking, planning and
organizational affairs of the armed forces were kept away from public scrutiny. We gained Independence after a long struggle, but without fighting the British. We tackled the British non-violently, although the Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent killed each other in lakhs.
Many Indians blame Gandhiji’s strategy of nonviolence for our ‘passive’ and ‘inactive’ strategic culture. That is not correct. Gandhiji functioned at two levels. He was a hard realist. He adopted a proactive, non-violence strategy against the British because at that time we did not, and could not, possess the force of arms to fight them. In September 1947, he said, “If there was no other way of securing justice from Pakistan, if Pakistan persistently refused to see its proven error and continued to minimize it, war would be the only alternative left to the Government.”
He maintained that violence was better than cowardice. He gave his blessings to Brigadier L. P. Sen and his troops when they were flown to Kashmir to fight Pakistani raiders and soldiers in October 1947. In matters of national security, Gandhiji was conscious of the compulsions and complexities of international power play. And for that reason, he was
against India taking the issue of Kashmir, even as a complainant, to the UN: a strategic error for which we continue to repent till date.
Despite Gandhiji’s realism, strategic thinking was missing; with one exception of the integration of over 600 states within the Indian union which included the use of military in Hyderabad, Junagadh.
Tragically, several successive events approaching the UN Security Council on the J & K issue when we were winning that war, granting ‘suzerainty’ to China over Tibet in the 1950s without a quid pro quo (like the Indo-Pakistan dispute over J & K), provocative forward deployment policy on the Sino-Indian border without military preparedness in 1962, return of the strategically important Haji Pir Pass to Pakistan after the 1965 war, return of over 90,000 prisoners after the 1971 war without making Pakistan agree to a
permanent solution of J & K and dithering for 24 years between testing of a nuclear device in 1974 and of the nuclear weapons in 1998 reflect on our inexperience and neglect of a strategic mindset.
In 1999, we prepared a draft nuclear doctrine but introduced a clause of No First Use: We shall not use our weapons till the enemy bombs us! In 2002, we kept the armed forces deployed on the border for 10 months. But we were not clear as to what we wished to achieve from that.
Our political parties keep criticizing each other daily over important national security policies. But they will not sit together to work out a consensus on any long-term national security and national interest policies. Long term strategic thinking and the sociopolitical will and determination to set things right, I submit, continues to delude us.
Our weakness in strategic culture stems from our inability to learn from our history. There is too much of political infighting, too less of political consensus. Age-old weaknesses in our attitude to national security and interests are finding their echo in the lack of decision-making or wrong decision-making. We remain internalized, fixing each other rather than
fixing the outsiders.

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