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Emerging India: Insecure and unsafe

By Colonel Anil A Athale
Last updated on: September 25, 2009 20:45 IST
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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) says India's indifference to strategic and defence requirements can cost it dear. A two-part column:

A student of military history would be justified in feeling a sense of deja vu at recent happenings. Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf disclosed that he used American aid not against terrorists but to bolster Pakistani capabilities against India. Our leaders then go ballistic and beseech the Americans!

Cut to April/May 1965 -- Pakistan used the Patton tanks against India in the Rann of Kutch -- we spend time and energy in taking photographs and again go to the Americans.

As in 1962, we seem to downplay Chinese intrusions -- not unlike the famous Nehruvian jibe about Aksai Chin that not a blade of grass grows there!

To cap it all is the recent disclosure by nuclear scientist Dr K Santhanam, that the May 1998 thermonuclear test was less than 100 percent successful has fuelled a much needed debate on our security and defence preparedness. Dr Santhanam is a scientist connected with India's nuclear programme and his views have to be taken seriously. Since 1998, India has openly shifted from 'defence' to 'deterrence' as cornerstone of its security policies.

India did not have much choice in the matter. In the decade of 1980s a reckless US supplied weapon systems to Pakistan (the F-16s) which in turn for the first time gave that country reach and bomb weight to pose a direct threat to Indian cities. Our nuclear reactors came under threat. Thus should Pakistan have so chosen it could target these and virtually 'nuke' India?

The critics of 1998 Pokhran II and an overt Indian nuclear posture to 'deter' this attack, ignore this reality. All that the 'Shakti' tests did was to go for overt in place of 'covert deterrence', itself a contradiction in terms. Ten years have passed and during this time these theories were severely tested and a comprehensive debate ought to be welcome.

While the attention of Indians and the world is focussed on the economic progress of our country, the age-old weakness of our civilisation -- the neglect of the security dimension, casts a long dark shadow on our future.

India is unique in several ways -- unlike other countries, in India ardent and idealist 'peace lobbies' are part of mainstream politics and not on the fringes as in all other countries of the world. In its 5,000-year-old history, India has produced treatises on virtually every subject on the earth, from astronomy, medicine to even sex, but we do not have a single major work on warfare or the art of war.

Time and again our use of war elephants was shown to be ineffective, yet we persisted in it.

We were the first to use war rockets in the 18th century, but never developed them to make them bigger, longer or more effective. Intellectuals stayed away from the war strategy and weapons.

We refused to change with the times.

In the nuclear age as well we seem to be repeating our dismal history. The new 'mantra' is minimum deterrence and second strike capability as panacea solution to face all threats. India went wrong in Kargil in 1999 when we realised that the proxy aggression 'used 'the nuclear umbrella while we lulled ourselves.

The 2002 Operation Parakaram in the wake of the attack on Parliament as well as our inability to react to the Mumbai attacks on 26/11 showed the limits of our retaliatory capability.

Through successful use of rhetoric and threats, Pakistan neutralised our conventional response.

Now over the last 10 years it has become an established pattern of behaviour on our part. Our strategy of retaliation with surgical strikes or the new strategy of 'cold start' remains moribund and ineffective for the enemy believes and rightly so, that we lack the will and wherewithal to implement it.

Our conventional retaliation strategy lacks 'credibility' and therefore is no deterrent. The issue is not of mere 'will' either. India lacks the overwhelming technological/numerical superiority to implement this. For instance, Israel has been successfully employing 'threat of retaliation' as a deterrent to proxy or terrorist threats. Israeli technical prowess makes it a credible threat and its past behaviour has established its will to act.

In 1773, the small kingdom of Thanjavur was threatened by the combined forces of the Karnataka nawab and the British. As enemy troops massed outside the city, the high priests of the famed Thanjavur temple assured the king that their 'mantra' was powerful enough to defeat the invaders, and went on to sprinkle the water sanctified by the 'mantra' to stop the invasion! Of course the 'mantra' failed and the kingdom was annexed by the British.

Today we have the high priests of nuclear strategy in Delhi similarly chanting the 'mantra' of no first use and minimum deterrence! Will the result be any different than at Thanjavur in the 18th century?

An analysis of why 'we are like that only' is necessary so that we can rectify this fatal flaw in our national psyche.

The Diagnosis: What ails Indian thinking on defence?

We are a peculiar nation that is obsessed with the 'eternal truth' while we ignore the 'practical' or the realistic world. Carl Jung, the Swedish psychologist visiting India about a century ago, had remarked about this and felt (as a Westerner) as if the whole country lived in a trance or maya or illusion.

Let me illustrate. It is a fundamental belief of Indians that there are no evil beings only evil deeds and fundamentally the atman or the soul is universal and part of the divine in all of us.

While this is so, yet there are evil individuals, for instance the terrorists who mercilessly killed hundreds in Mumbai or have been planting bombs in busy trains and markets. We have to deal with this evil ruthlessly. But what do the Indians do? We question every action of the police/armed forces, we have karuna or pity for the Mumbai terrorists.

The list of our foundational weaknesses is a long one. Here I would just mention it and leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

  • We tend to think that security is the sole prerogative of the armed forces and police.
  • Divorce between theorists and practitioners -- it is politically incorrect to think of national security in academia -- the British implanted a colonial mindset whereby Indians were kept out of this vital area. Even 62 years after independence this persists.
  • The lack of strategic culture -- in case of nuclear strategy we have scientists as strategists -- like asking chemist to prescribe medicines (as many Indians do).
  • Segmented approach to security -- armed forces kept away from decision making on the nuclear issue.
  • Treating low intensity, conventional and nuclear conflicts in isolation and denying the linkages between them.
  • Isolating defence industry/research from mainstream and colossal inefficiency of the bureaucratic structure of the Defence Research and Development Organisation empire.


Read the second part: Why India needs nuclear weapons

Colonel Anil A Athale is the Chhattrapati Shivaji Fellow at the United Services Institution and coordinator of the Pune-based think-tank Inpad.

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Colonel Anil A Athale