Debating Whether India Has A Strategic Culture: A Futile Exercise From India’s Perspective – Analysis


Findings from a study of the impacts of historical and cultural factors on India’s strategic thinking led Prof. George Tanham, a specialist on South Asian security affairs working for RAND Corporation, to conclude that India lacked formal and systematic strategic planning. Therefore, he implied that India lacked a strategic culture although it has been able to develop elements of defence strategy. As a result, India’s actions are more reactive than proactive.

In reaction to Tanham’s findings, many experts on India’s strategic and security affairs assert that India has a strategic culture not only by citing Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, which contained provisions of proactive strategic measures to be undertaken by a pragmatic ruler but frequent references were also made to the offensive strategies adopted by medieval rulers including Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and Tipu Sultan in order to pre-empt enemy’s actions.

Although there are elements of truth in both strands, observations and debates on India’s strategic culture whether India has one or does not have one is a futile exercise from India’s standpoint because these either undercut or inflate India’s real strategic potential and secondly, these unnecessarily push India to view and approach the world from a realist perspective based on the assumption that military and strategic planning is central to realization of India’s national interests.

While the conclusion that India lacks a strategic culture implies that it is vulnerable to security threats, the assertion that India has one has the propensity to make India more assertive and militaristic. Both observations are not likely to serve India’s national interests as the definition of security has undergone change, approach to look at the world must change. Tanham’s conceptualization of strategic culture predominantly represents a western perspective on security which is defined more in terms of proactive military engagements and strategic gains sought to be achieved through systematic long-term military planning and formulation of grand strategies apart from securing the frontiers and territorial integrity.

Therefore, the observation that India has a strategic culture is to pander to the western conceptualization. The western definition not only undermines the value of military restraint, it does not recognise the importance of diplomatic and peaceful efforts towards addressing non-conventional threats and realize non-military definitions of security. For a country like India which has less military and economic resources to invest globally and which has relied more on its soft power resources for global clout, a perspective of peace, development and integration must replace a military security perspective to meet the challenges emanating from non-conventional threats like terrorism.

It seems India’s security establishment imbibes a military perspective on security which, in turn, has turned India into one of the largest importers of conventional weapons and defence equipments of the world apart from its indigenous weapons development programmes. While terrorism has been identified as a constant threat to India’s sovereignty with several attacks on the Indian mainland in continuous succession from terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament and Mumbai terrorist attack through Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks to terrorist attack on Uri military camp apart from regular phenomenon of cross-border terrorism resulting in deaths of military personnel and civilians on a daily basis, so much investment in buying conventional military equipment does not make any sense in this scenario.

Futility of Offensive Strategies to address non-Conventional threats

One of the proactive military measures to project power and provoke fear in Pakistan was the Operation Brasstacks initiated under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership in 1987 which included the largest mobilization of the Indian Army in Rajasthan near the Pakistan border. However, it did not deter Pakistan from engaging in proxy wars rather it induced Pakistan to invigorate its nuclear weapons programme and conduct its first nuclear test in 1998. Pakistan has ever since used it as a balancer to India’s superiority in conventional warfare. It frequently resorted to nuclear threat to prevent India from escalating violence against it while simultaneously retained the flexibility to continue low-intensity proxy wars.

The latest offensive measures have been undertaken by India in the form of surgical strikes across the Indo-Pak border which Pakistan asserts have never happened while India, imbued with success corroborates its reality with photographic evidence. The question that should bother India now is what purpose these strikes have served if incidents of cross-border firings in violation of ceasefire agreement of 2003 have not abated rather increased.

The US embarked on the ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks into the American mainland, as part of its grand strategy. It was conceived as an offensive strategy to quickly form a global alliance not only of countries, continued support of warmongering Afghan warlords was also sought to prosecute the Afghan war starting with dismantling the Taliban regime which provided safe have to the Al Qaeda terrorist outfit and turned down the American demand to hand over the leader of the outfit – Osama bin Laden. The war gradually turned into an American mission of anchoring a pro-US Afghan government and imposing democracy from above while simultaneously engaging in counter-insurgency operations.

However, the American grand strategy seems to have conceived of terrorism as a conventional threat. Even after so many years of American engagement which has cost the global power so much by squandering its human and economic resources, there is no endgame to the conflict in sight rather new threats have begun to make their appearances for an instance, ISIS.

India which has comparably much less resources to prosecute an offensive strategy must learn from the American engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. A history of rich strategic culture does not enable a country to deal with non-conventional threats.

Offensive Strategies and Conventional Threats

While the US has been able to serve its national interests many a times through offensive strategies because of its global presence and power position, it is less likely to be successful in case of India which has relied more on soft power resources for its rise to a global status.

India’s offensive strategies to meet conventional threats have a legacy of backfiring. While many scholars like Neville Maxwell have relied on the Henderson report which allegedly drew attention to the failure of the forward policy of Nehruvian era for it endorsed the idea of erection of military outposts and launching of aggressive patrols in the disputed India-China border areas, claimed by China as its territory, based on incorrect assessment of Chinese reactions finally culminating in the 1962 border war with China.

However, scholars like Bertil Lintner have put the onus of the border war on China. For instance, according to Lintner, China took the decision to go to war with India in the same year the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959. Stark failure of Mao’s the ‘Great Leap Forward’ strategy, death of around 30-40 million people in a famine and Mao’s weakening popularity led the leader to look for an external enemy to divert popular attention and hence the decision to go to war against India was taken quickly after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India with the border issue rising to prominence. India also feared China’s tactful move in the southern direction towards Indian Ocean by occupying Tibet.

Whatever may be Nehru’s compulsion to adopt a proactive policy along the border, adoption of a forward policy sapped India’s diplomatic strength which it could have resorted to more effectively while China was preparing itself for the war. India was not only one of the leaders of developing countries; it could sway opinions of the leaders of major powers in its favour through its soft power influence. However, the war became an imminent threat due to adoption of a forward policy resulting in a humiliating defeat for India.

While Nehru adopted an innovative approach to wade through the muddy waters of the Cold War by formulating a worldview based on peace and development, his neighbourhood policies did not mark any departure from agreements concluded and strategies adopted by British India. He signed treaties with Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim with the protectorate arrangements of British India as a guide in order to keep them tightly within the Indian sphere of influence.

Subsequently, when the Cold War dragged on with increasing influence of the US and Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region in 1970s, Indira Gandhi the then Indian Prime Minister came up with a tougher regional policy with an intension to keep the external powers out of the South Asian region and compel the neighbours to seek India’s assistance to resolve their problems. Her approach to the region gradually began to unravel when discontentment over India’s overbearing role found its resonance in Nepal with signs of support for China. Similarly, opposition to the 25-year friendship treaty that Bangladesh signed immediately after its independence with India began to inflate when Mujibur Rehman, the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh was criticized for signing an unequal friendship treaty which prevented the country from modernizing its security forces and enhanced dependence on India for security purposes.

Similarly, the intention to keep the South Asia region within India’s orbit of influence and keep external powers at bay led the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to send peace keeping forces to Sri Lanka to enforce peace in 1987. The strategy backfired as it antagonised the Tamil population of Sri Lanka who expected explicit Indian support for their cause eventually leading the Liberation of Tamil Tiger Elam (LTTE) to mastermind and execute the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Values of Restraint

Due to practice of military restraint on many occasions, India could be one of the leaders of the Non-alignment Movement for long and which was also a major source of India’s soft power. India was able to receive development aid and military support for its defence even if it categorically expressed its unwillingness to join any of the Cold War military alliances sponsored by either of the superpowers.

India had also to face harsh criticisms whenever it was perceived being involved in power politics. Therefore, it had to move cautiously specifically in the neighbourhood where it perceived most of the security threats come from. Following the liberation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from West Pakistan (now Pakistan) with the Indian military intervention, Indian forces did not move further in the western direction to assert dominance on the areas belonging to Pakistan. India did not even use the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, captured in liberated Bangladesh, to control the bilateral relationship and coerce Pakistan into abandoning its claim over Kashmir. This restrained action from India has made a subtle and gradual addition to its soft power resources.

While India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, it called it a peaceful nuclear explosion in order to avert fuss and chaos in the neighbourhood. Despite rising security concerns expressed through nuclear power China’s increasing footprints in India’s neighbourhood and continuous supply of arms, ammunitions and nuclear material and technology to Pakistan, it was after 24 years that India conducted another test making its military purpose clear in 1998.

Following closely on the heels of India’s test, Pakistan conducted its test later in the same year. It reflects Chinese nuclear assistance to Pakistan over a period of time making it well-equipped with the necessary nuclear technology and material. Although its nuclear test invited criticisms from many major actors of international politics and American sanctions, India undertook efforts to mitigate unusual responses from the neighbourhood and pacify the members of the international community.

India developed a ‘nuclear doctrine’ combining the principles of ‘no first use’ and ‘credible minimum deterrence.’ It seems that it is India’s belief and practice of military restraint in many instances that was instrumental in pushing the US to clinch the civil nuclear deal even though India is not a signatory to the NPT. American leaders have not hesitated to praise Indian restraint vis-a-vis Pakistan on many occasions following allegedly Pakistani sponsored terrorist attacks on the Indian soil.

The Clinton Administration prevailed upon Pakistan during the Kargil War in 1999 and asked it to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control. Changing gesture of the US towards India, India’s diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with China in 1990s and visit of India’s then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to China in the midst of Kargil War led China to maintain neutrality during the war.

Although Indians usually expressed their anger immediately after major terrorist attacks into the Indian mainland and supported coercive measures against Pakistan, simmering sentiments gradually cooled down and fell in place with India’s traditional crave for soft power. An article in Foreign Affairs magazine interestingly noted that people of India have rarely been swayed by militaristic impulses in the long-term. It has been observed when the UPA government came back to power for the second term in 2009 even though India observed military restraint following the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.

Similarly, polls conducted to rate Modi’s popularity after India maintained restraint after Pathankot and Uri attacks indicated marginal changes. Modi chose to invigorate campaign against terror at international platforms and became successful in dissuading other South Asian countries from joining the SAARC Summit hosted by Islamabad. Similarly, two US Congress legislators made a move to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and showed signs of promising strategic partnership between India and the US following the terrorist attack on Uri military camp during the concluding phase of the Obama Administration.

A Perspective based on Regional Peace, Development and Integration must replace the existing Perspective based on Militaristic Notions of Security

Apart from perceived gains from military restraint, India can successfully address the non-conventional security threats such as terrorism, drug-trade, poverty and illiteracy which are closely inter-linked only by uniting its efforts with other South Asian neighbours as India not only shares boundary with other neighbouring countries, they share common ethnic groups as well.

However, it seems perception of the countries of the South Asian region towards India is not a favourable one. The reason for this lies largely in India’s consistent efforts in the past to keep the neighbourhood within its sphere of influence. India’s regional approach although changed following the enunciation of the Gujral doctrine based on the principle of non-reciprocity; there are still many political, economic and cultural practices that hinder change in perception of the neighbouring countries and regional integration.

The principle of non-reciprocity demanded unilateral positive gesture from India to maintain neighbourly relations irrespective of the capacity of other small states to reciprocate. However, India could not show many instances of practice of this principle. For example, instead of evolving a positive approach to deal with issues of labour migration from Nepal and Bangladesh it erected barbed wires showing its inability to build trust required for effective economic engagement. For a long duration, trade concessions to Bangladesh were made contingent on their granting of transit rights. There remained many tariff and non-tariff-related barriers to intra-regional trade some of which the incumbent Prime Minister Modi has been trying to address.

On the political front, India has had the standard practice of extending support to a specific political faction of the neighbouring countries. Whenever a political party comes to power opposed to the one that India patronizes or if it shows anti-Indian tendencies in nascent forms, India shows its unwillingness towards sincere engagement with it. It results in hardening the nascent anti-Indian feelings. India has consistently supported the Awami League Party of Bangladesh, it patronized the democratic forces in Nepal to consolidate their power, in Sri Lanka, the President, Maithripala Sirisena is considered pro-India while the previous regime under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa was considered pro-China.

Considering regimes as binary opposites makes serious Indian engagement with a South Asian neighbour difficult if a political party presumably considered not so good for India’s interests comes to power. India’s reluctance to engage brings more rigidity to bilateral relations rather than helping India.

Keeping a healthy relationship with Nepal has emerged as a challenge for India with Maoist parties forming a government there. Prime Minister Modi’s reluctance to visit Maldives unless political conditions improved there, has not forced President Abdulla Yameen to pander to India’s wishes rather it has nudged the geostrategically important country towards China. It is a puzzle for India how to view the action of Sirisena government of Sri Lanka which has leased out land to China for 99 years for development of Hambantota port through the binary logic.

At the cultural level, different political and religious leaders in India have engaged themselves in rhetoric using cultural symbols and concepts like Hindutva, Akhanda Bharat and cow worship among others playing straight into the hands of opposing forces in neighbouring countries. Political leaders in India considered Rohingyas – a minority Muslim community of Myanmar which is treated as a community of Bangladeshi immigrants rather than citizens of Myanmar – as illegal immigrants and warned to deport them when around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims were reported to be living in northern parts of India following army crackdown in Myanmar.

India while it did not want to antagonize the new government in Myanmar and lose its engagement with a finely geostrategically located country like what happened in 1990s, it could neither support Bangladesh, which hosted the largest inflow of Rohingyas and underwent a humanitarian crisis, openly in international platforms which ran contrary to Bangladeshi expectations.

China, on the one hand, not only openly supported Myanmar on the issue which was in tune with the anticipation of Bangladesh government; it took the lead on the issue and tried to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the other. India’s reticence was not only a diplomatic defeat; it found its soft target in Rohingyas and engaged at times in anti-Islamic rhetoric which further raised Modi government’s anti-Islamic image in the neighbourhood within the larger Hindutva rubric.

Similarly, the new Constitution of Nepal which allegedly discriminated against Madheshi population who shared ethnic identity with similar groups in India led India to seek changes in the constitutional provisions to accommodate interests and rights of Madhesis. However, this political issue turned into a crisis when Madhesis forced an economic blockade over the supply of Indian goods. New Delhi has been alleged to have lent unofficial backing to the blockade and throw its weight behind Madhesi leaders.

This crisis not only reminded Nepal of the earlier economic blockade over transfer of Indian goods into Nepal in the late 1980s, the Nepali leaders were also apprehensive of Modi government’s aggressive approach in pushing its cultural agenda into Nepali society.

India must understand that distrust lies in varying perceptions over economic, political and cultural issues. Trust can only be built if sustained engagements and dialogues take place irrespective of political parties in power in the neighbourhood and their ideological leanings. New Delhi must refrain from religious and cultural rhetoric which can easily be capitalized by dissident groups in neighbouring countries to raise an anti-Indian image. All the states in New Delhi must take care to understand that its neighbours can only define their identity by separating themselves from India’s cultural identity as all the neighbouring states were once part of Indian civilization. Therefore, India must understand their cultural sensitivities before adopting a policy. Once trust is built, integration of the South Asian region will take off and it will go a long way in taking on non-conventional threats like terrorism, underdevelopment, drug-trade and illiteracy to name a few.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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