This hefty volume provides a useful primer for non-specialists on Indian security and, to only a slightly lesser extent, for specialists as well. It ranges widely across the spectrum of security issues—covering theoretical approaches to security, traditional threats, internal security challenges and even the new non-traditional threats arising from the economy, migration and cyber-warfare.
No single author could have provided such a 360-degree perspective of Indian security but, by distributing the panorama between 25 contributors, the editors have successfully combined depth with breadth. The panel of authors is a veritable Who’s Who of Indian security scholars, including veterans like Ian Hall, David Malone, S Paul Kapur, Manjeet S Pardesi and Steven Wilkinson; and also a newer generation of stars like Paul Staniland, Rani Mullen, Shashank Joshi, Nicolas Blarel and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan.
Sadly, the book starts inauspiciously, with Sumit Ganguly, one of its three editors, presenting a neo-classical realist account of India’s security. In a predictable criticism of Jawaharlal Nehru, Ganguly makes the superficial argument that India’s first Prime Minister’s preference for ‘negotiated settlements’ and his ‘profound aversion to the use of force’ negates any claim to his being a realist. Other writers—such as Bharat Karnad and Srinath Raghavan—have more convincingly argued elsewhere that Nehruvian realism lay in eschewing armed conflict and minimizing military spending in the conviction that India’s security would be better served through economic and social development than with an arms build up. Ganguly marshals the familiar arguments of the anti-Nehru camp—that the ‘ideational world view’ of Nehru was shaped by Gandhi and his concern that too much emphasis on the military might lead to Bonapartism (generals intervening in politics). Only as an afterthought does the author note Nehru’s concern about the drawbacks of military spending in a country where poverty alleviation made a more compelling claim for scant resources.
Fortunately the very next chapter redeems this mediocre start, with Ian Hall cogently arguing that India’s security choices are better understood through a liberal perspective, based on a wider range of factors than realism considers. These include the political context in which elites operate, the competition between societal actors and the international context in which they operate—all essential for understanding the Nehruvian ideals of secularism, liberalism, and his interaction with the international community. Hall perceptively notes that freedom fighters like Nehru and Gopal Krishna Gokhale who resisted British rule, using notions of liberalism borrowed from the rulers, convinced India’s postcolonial leaders of its virtues. This drove India’s turn towards being a liberal democracy with a written constitution.
Kaushik Roy’s chapter on the Indian army’s colonial legacy could have been another interesting essay, but it is marred by false conclusions stemming from factual inaccuracies. He describes the British organization of Indian infantry into ‘class’ and ‘class company’ units, where companies—units of 80-100 soldiers—were homogenously recruited from a single community (Gorkhas, Sikhs, Garhwalis, etc.). In ‘class’ battalions, all four companies (Roy incorrectly says a battalion has 8-10 companies) were from the same community, whereas in ‘class company’ units, all four companies were from different communities, while being homogenous within themselves. The reason for this mixed structure, argues Roy, was that each company constituted a check on the others for anti-British sentiments. But this does not explain the logic for ‘class’ units, with all four companies from the same community, which formed the bulk of the infantry. The reason for British trust in communities such as the Gorkhas, Sikhs, Dogras and Garhwalis was their loyalty even during the 1857 uprising. After quelling the ‘mutiny’, the British formulated the infamous ‘martial races theory’, which postulated that only certain Indian communities had the martial attributes needed for soldiering. Not coincidentally, the loyal communities were designated ‘martial races’, and formed the ‘class’ units, which were regarded as broadly reliable. Even so, the variety of class units distributed the British eggs between several baskets; and, just to be certain, a sprinkling of all-British units remained in the Indian garrison.
S Paul Kapur’s well-constructed chapter on India’s wars explores the interesting question, often raised by scholars, of why most ended inconclusively. Kapur argues that while insufficient resources, a poor grasp of military affairs by India’s strategic leadership and potent adversaries were indeed factors, a key reason has been India’s status-quoist political goals in South Asia. Viewed thus, inconclusive wars may have constituted success. As a counterpoint, however, some might argue that India’s assimilation of Hyderabad, Goa and Sikkim and its vivisection of Pakistan to create Bangladesh in 1971, hardly demonstrated limited goals or inconclusive execution.
One of the weakest links in the book is Richard Bitzinger’s essay on India’s defence industrial base. While correctly assessing that its performance has disappointed, the chapter is riddled with dozens of factual inaccuracies that should have shown up in an even cursory edit.
Another chapter worth reading is Steven Wilkinson’s essay on Civil-Military relations. Taking off from his 2015 book, Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence, Wilkinson shows that the political leadership’s successful ‘coup-proofing’ measures in the first decade after Independence—which included diluting unitary command and raising paramilitary forces to countervail the army—seriously diluted the military’s effectiveness in the long term. Wilkinson also takes note of recent developments that bode ill for civil-military relations, such as the Rajput-Sikh partisan cleavages when Army Chief, General VK Singh (a Rajput), was engaged in a proxy battle with the officer who eventually succeeded him, General Bikram Singh (a Sikh). The author rightly flags the danger to civil-military relations from efforts by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government’s efforts to ‘Hinduize’ the military. This, says Wilkinson, has taken the form of mandatory military participation in ‘World Yoga Day’, held on the death anniversary of an ideologue from whom the BJP draws inspiration; and the use of army engineers to facilitate an ‘Art of Living’ festival organized by a preacher close to the BJP.
Given the security threat India faces from armed internal uprisings, this topic is dealt with in satisfying detail, with five chapters covering its various dimensions. William Thompson analyses India’s state capacity through three metrics: concluding that the Indian state does so-so in extracting the resources needed to rule and provide services unusually well in establishing legitimacy and right to rule, and poorly in maintaining a monopoly on the use of force. Shivaji Mukherjee examines India’s insurgencies and concludes they are of two types: Left Wing ideological uprisings of the Maoist type; and ethnic-religious secessionist insurgencies like in the North East, and in Punjab and Kashmir. Paul Staniland looks at counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies that India has followed and concludes there is no silver bullet: Punjab was pacified through a devastating state crackdown while Mizoram saw extended deal making. Nagaland is witnessing a reduction in violence without a reduction in armed groups.
The penultimate section on ‘Non-Traditional Security Challenges’ adds depth and flavour to the book. Rani Mullen, examining India’s pursuit of economic security, notes perceptively: ‘In India as elsewhere, the line separating security concerns from economic concerns has increasingly become less distinct, and with it the importance of economic security has risen.’ She concludes that significant hurdles still remain in securing India’s economic security. Sumona Dasgupta points out that the interconnectedness of environmental challenges provides a useful template for conflict resolution and peace-building. Kavita Khory weighs in on the hot-button challenges that arise from regional migration.
Finally, in a concluding section on the implications of India’s rise, Shashank Joshi fleshes out the uneven story of India’s military modernization. He concludes perceptively that moribund procedures and processes, especially those governing civil-military and inter-service relations, could be even bigger hurdles to effective military functioning than the perceptible lack of equipment modernization. Nicolas Blarel explores the perennial question of whether India has a ‘strategic culture’ and if so, what that might be. David Malone, a former Canadian Ambassador to India who has also worked for the United Nations (UN), recounts the rich story of India’s UN peacekeeping, and concludes that India could move towards cutting down its numbers of peacekeepers unless it can secure a greater role in UN decision-making. Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan describes India’s space ambitions and capabilities and concludes that a declared Indian space policy is needed for integrating and synergizing multiple stakeholders. Finally, David Brewster examines the expansion of India’s security sphere, winding up the book with the sobering conclusion that India’s regional fetters in South Asia, and a range of other factors could continue to constrain India’s growth as a major power.
Even if one does not agree with all the arguments and conclusions, the book provides a satisfying sense of having looked at Indian security from every important angle. An excellent compilation of tables adds value, including tables on the China-Pakistan-India military balance; comparative military expenditures, Indian insurgency casualty figures, cyber-crime figures and a useful SWOT analysis on India’s future in United Nations Peacekeeping. Sadly, most figures are current till 2015-16 only, given the two years that Oxford University Press routinely takes to bring out a book. On the flip side, OUP production values have ensured excellent footnoting and referencing, happily included alongside each chapter rather than at the end of the book. This book should find a place in every South Asian scholar’s library.
Ajai Shukla, Colonel (Retd.) in the Indian Army, is Consulting Editor, Strategic Affairs.