The Kautilyan Legacy Of Spycraft And The India-Canada Diplomatic Row – Analysis


By Dr. Kajari Kamal

From a magically successful G20 Summit exemplifying trust management, consensus building, and diplomatic sophistication to being alleged of its agents’ involvement in the killing of a Khalistani separatist in Canada, New Delhi continues to draw the world’s attention. Though the allegations are still unsubstantiated and appear “absurd and motivated,” it is pertinent to throw light on the ancient practice of intelligence and espionage in India. If G20 was shepherded around the age-old concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, where might the legacy of India’s spycraft lie? 

Intelligence and the Arthashastra

Kautilya’s Arthashastra is an ancient Indian treatise on state and statecraft widely believed to date back to the Mauryan period (321 BCE-185 BCE). It weaves the idea of internal security into its political end goal (yogakshema), defined as, “The welfare of a state [ensuring the security of a state within its existing boundaries and acquiring new territory to enlarge it] depends on adopting a policy of non-intervention or overt action—establishes the basis for all foreign policy.” 

Both internal and external dimensions of security are strongly predicated on sound intelligence, seen as the bedrock of statecraft. “[T]he king with the eyes of intelligence and [political] science” can overcome rival kings even if they possess greater economic and military resources and personal valourKautilya emphasises three kinds of intelligence—collection centric (spies, double agents, informants, agent recruitment); cognition centric (generating knowledge through analysis and assessment); and action centric (covert actions, active measures, psywar, destabilisation). 

Upayas—a nuanced tool-box

The Arthashastra delineates four kinds of dangers in the realm of internal security based on the origin of the instigation and the response respectively—outer-inner, inner-outer, outer-outer, and inner-inner—and prescribes counter measures based on the type of association and the target audience. For association between two types—outer-inner and inner-outer—success over one who responds is more advantageous because the respondents are full of guile. By neutralising traitors/instigators when treachery is widespread, discontentment cannot be curbed and is bound to resurface. If the respondents are from the interior, they ought to be placated with conciliation (sama) and gifts (dana) and for respondents in the outer, dissension (bheda) and force (danda) are better suited. Kautilya assumes that the discontentment of the popular base has been caused because of a wrong policy, which has led to impoverishment, greed, and disaffection and that the ruler should immediately take remedial measures.

For the association at one end only (outer-outer and inner-inner), success over instigator is more advantageous because the guile is only with those instigating sedition and treason is rooted out when treasonable men are overcome. Here too, individual traitors in the outer region are to be dealt with dissension, force, and secret punishment, and those in the interior with “means as deserved”—conciliation in the case of the discontented; honouring under pretext of appreciating integrity; dividing through dissension; and force as in secret punishment. 

Kautilya is categorical about the use of all means excepting force against the country people if discontented and treasonable, and inflictment of secret punishment for the leaders among them. The nuanced use of the suppressive and remedial approaches based on the character of danger relies on the state’s highly professional intelligence service. 

Canada Sikh activism–India: Outer-Outer

The current diplomatic row between Canada and India over Sikh separatism in general and the killing of the Sikh extremist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in particular, can arguably be read in the context of an ‘outer-outer’ scenario. The ‘outer’ of the kingdoms in the ancient past referred to countryside, frontier and forest areas, and vassals. Importantly, the association ‘at one end only’ identifies the problem (‘dosa’ translated as treachery by Patrick Olivelle) as residing in the instigator to sedition, and not with the general populace.

It would be fair to conclude that there is no widespread Sikh insurgency in India today and Sikhs are proud to be Punjabi and Indian. The situation on the ground is characteristically different from the Sikh separatist movement in India of the 1970s and 1980s, which grew in a complex and entrenched set of ethno-religious, socio-economic, and political factors. But what has been common (though different in scale) is the ideological and logistical support provided by the Sikh diaspora often in tune with domestic and international interests of the patronising overseas nation. A 1987-declassified-research paper by the United States (US) Directorate of Intelligence shares concern about the presence of 150,000 Sikhs in the US who send funds to extremist organisations in India as a potential irritant in bilateral relations, and mentions the high risk of a Sikh assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as a threat to US interests in India amidst an improving Delhi-Washington relationship.

Canada has the largest Sikh population outside India and is, perhaps, the most politically influential too. The support of the Khalistani elements among them to the dwindling political fortune of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who is also in the midst of a controversy over Chinese intervention in Canadian Federal Elections of 2019 and 2021—is critical. The Canadian government has, for a long time, politically condonedSikh extremism, terrorism, and secessionism on its soil, without paying heed to the calls for action from the Indian government. Trudeau’s concern for the farmers’ protest in India in 2020, recent security breaches by Sikh protestors in the Indian High Commission in London and the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, and the rise in Sikh activism in Canada under the garb of free speech are dangerous precedents, which, in the absence of any hope of concrete action, have led to a ‘tipping point’. The strong domestic political imperatives of Ottawa clearly run counter to Delhi’s concerns of territorial integrity.

In this scenario, a classic Kautilyan manoeuvre would be to identify the ring leaders and cause dissension or inflict silent punishment through the secret service. But there is caution advised at the other end too: “…the wise (king) should guard from the secret instigations of enemies those likely to be seduced and those not likely to be seduced in his own territory, whether prominent persons or common people.” Kautilya would advise New Delhi to make fervent efforts to narrow the scope of any disgruntlement amongst Sikhs in India and track down suspected treasonable elements.

From empires to nation-states

In a modern nation-state system, where rule of law is fundamental to international peace and stability, and relations between states are grounded in accountability, transparency, and fairness, Kautilyan prescriptions need to be interpreted and adapted. India should stand up to any political, ideological, or material support given to any terrorist/extremist organisation in any part of the world that threatens India’s sovereignty and territoriality. The current imbroglio has given India an opportunity to send a clear signal to Canada, and through it to India’s adversaries and partners, about its zero-tolerance for any form of external abetment that jeopardises its national security. India needs to leverage its geopolitical clout to exterminate extremist safe havens abroad as much (if not more) as it does to strike defence and technology deals, or establish collaborative economic corridors. If there is one lesson that the Arthashastra teaches modern, independent India, it is the paramount importance of internal security.

About the author: Dr. Kajari Kamal teaches Kautilya’s Arthashastra and is an Associate Professor at Takshashila Institution, Bangalore.

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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