Saturday, 2 June 2012

Defending India’s Strategic Culture

A popular strand in India’s strategic thinking has it that India does not have a strategic culture. India does not understand power and its uses and does not know how to create and employ power. Given this, India is disinclined to view force as an instrument of policy. It consequently has a predisposition for accommodation. This is taken as the weakness that incentivises the security challenges India faces, both internally and externally.

The prescription for India is to create the sinews of power, acquire the hardware for its exercise and the software in terms of doctrine. The resulting felicity with employment of power and the instrumental use of force is both necessary for India’s rise and the best indicator of such rise. This critique of India’s engagement with power is a motivated one. India has instead not been found wanting in the use of force. The examples of India’s use of force for furthering its national interest are several and worth recounting to prove that the assumption that India lacks a will to use power is not correct.

Let us begin with Independence. India employed its military speedily in response to a call from the Maharaja in 1947. It used coercive action in Junagarh. It resorted to police action to integrate Hyderabad. It threw out the Portuguese from Goa sixty years ago. It adopted a forward policy against China, one later found to be wrong headed but one that can certainly not be called deferential or cringing. It opened up the Punjab front in the 1965 War. It dissected Pakistan in 1971. It sent its troops for peace enforcement action to Sri Lanka. On the internal security front it has deployed troops in Nagaland in 1955. It has militarily tackled insurgencies in Punjab, North East and Kashmir. In terms of creating power capabilities, it is poised to gain a nuclear triad by mid decade and a credible deterrent by end decade.

These instances prove that India has used force with resolve. It is true that such use of force with resolve has also witnessed the exercise of restraint. Such restraint cannot be taken as weakness, but of sensible strategy that takes into account vulnerabilities, limitations and relative strengths. India’s exercise of power has been with ‘resolve and restraint’. Resolve and restraint are the necessary ingredients of exercise of power. To believe that elements of restraint are a weakness is mistaken. The instances of restraint that are usually cited as signs of weakness form an equally long list. In fact, it cannot but be so since each case of exercise of power must also be conditioned by restraint. This implies India knows adequately well how to use power. Let me dwell on this list for a minute. The list would include stopping short of Muzaffarabad in 1948. This had the very sensible intent of stopping along an ethno-linguistic divide over which negotiations for a trade off could well have taken place. At the end of the 1965 War, yet again India created the conditions for a long term settlement of the Kashmir issue by demonstrating its goodwill. In the 1971 War it returned the prisoners of war as it was duty bound to do under the Geneva Conventions. The idea that these PWs could have been held hostage to Pakistani concessions is ridiculous. It did not overstay its invitation in Sri Lanka. It has been a reluctant nuclear power, but not one neglectful of nuclear and missile delivery technology that has proceeded apace under considerable international pressure. It has used military means to beat back the militant challenge internally but has been circumspect in using force, for instance, by avoiding use of air force and area weapons.

The advantages for India to embed the military instrument appropriately in its repertoire of power have been many. Firstly, it has relegated the military to a position in which civil-military relations in India have been different than from the rest of the developing world. This was not without utility when India’s democracy was emerging and fragile. It is another matter that this advantage has since been perverted somewhat. Secondly, despite its GDP figures of late, India continues to be a developing country. It is premature to think that the guns and butter issue is passé. India’s development indicators are not very much above those of sub-Saharan Africa in certain respects. While the defence sector could do with greater attention, it must not be at the cost of distorting the balance between the sectors. Thirdly, strategically, India does not face any existential threats. This means India has adequate strength for its purposes. It does not need to create and exert power to extents as to constitute a threat for its neighbours. The ‘security dilemma’ that will then exist all-round can only create all round insecurity. Lastly, salience of the military instrument is not required beyond a point to make India a great power. India’s record in terms of democracy, autonomy, responsible diplomacy, management of its diversity and economic growth with equity are more significant for India’s potential as a great power. In face of these advantages of India’s strategic culture of restraint, what has the more popular critique to offer?

The argument here is that critique is a motivated one. The criticism that India lacks a strategic culture is to push Indian policies to more muscular, proactive and offensive directions. This may have utility from a self-image point of view, in terms of emulating great power behavior, but it has disadvantages. Firstly, it makes India part of the great power game. The critique is increasingly in favour of placing India in the Western camp, thereby placing it at odds with its neighbours and risking its autonomy. Second, there is a shift in the bias from development to defence. This bespeaks for an outward orientation that is unremarkable in ‘normal’ states. However, India is a subcontinent. It will have to arrive at its own balance in which the precedent and example of other powers has limited relevance. Lastly, the push for a muscular India is impelled by domestic politics to an extent. Such an India would be politically advantageous for some formations and would be of economic and political advantage of some ethnicities. This would upset the internal political balance between India’s communities and sub-nationalities. Therefore the position that ‘India is a soft state’ is a mistaken one. Giving it credence will lead to the state over-compensating in a direction that it can only regret at leisure.
By Ali Ahmed