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Friday, November 08, 2013

muslims in strategic space

Muslim absence from the strategic space

The competition is already on for the loaves of office once the expected changeover in Delhi takes place next year. It is taken as a foregone conclusion that Luah Purush II, marketed as brand ‘NaMo’, will take over 7, Race Course Road. The recent outburst of the Prince on the ordinance providing politicians a loophole for escaping the long arms of the law notwithstanding, there is little sign of beating the anti-incumbency factor this time. The manoeuvrings by underlings for sinecures as gubernatorial posts and for more consequential ones such as that of National Security Advisor are patently visible.
Those in the running for NSA include at least two from the right wing think tank, India’s own Heritage Foundation, the Vivekananda International Foundation. While it’s director, ex IB chief, Mr. Doval, is in the race, so is Mr. Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary, also at the foundation. But there are others outside of its building in Chanakyapuri burnishing their credentials: the TV nemesis of Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy; pseudo-academic, MD Nalapat; Amb. KC Singh, and not a few moustachioed generals. Some with similar proclivities have however burnt their bridges by being supping with the Congress, such as Mr. Shyam Saran. He brokered the Indo-US nuclear deal and has staged a national security comeback his speech earlier this year on ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation, which a critic has called ‘making a hash of it’.  
The last time a policeman held the post, MK Narayanan, there was little to show for national security but for the nuclear deal. This slims Doval’s chances, leaving Kanwal Sibal as frontrunner, not least because the majority of those who have held the post have been from the foreign service. Given this, it is useful to examine his views. The following excerpt on strategic culture, carried by the VIF website, can serve as a start point: 
The Muslim rulers failed to properly assess the European sea-borne threat. The way the rulers of that period allowed an English trading company to steadily conquer large swathes of Indian territory speaks volumes about the lack of any strategic culture in the India of that period.
In stating this, Sibal echoes the dominant position in conservative-realist circles that India does not have a strategic culture. It is a defensive, reactive and weak power with little understanding of the role of force and its utilisation in international power games. This deficit to owes to a historical legacy dating  beyond the colonial period to Moghul times. The usual trope is that Indians lacked a strategic culture that allowed the Muslim ‘invaders’ (Sibal’s term) to conquer India. They in turn lacked the foresight to anticipate the threat from the sea. Though debatable, these are commonplace views and therefore need not detain us overly. Of consequence here is what he goes on to say: 
Independent India could imbibe virtually nothing in terms of strategic culture from the centuries of Muslim rule, especially as Islam became the basis for India’s eventual division and its theology as practised by Pakistan  presents an enduring threat to India’s security today (italics added).

Sibal, careful foreign service bureaucrat that he has been and one who is looking to come out of retirement soon, takes care to caveat ‘its (Islam’s) theology’ by adding ‘as practiced by Pakistan’. This is to stay politically correct by stating that it is not Islam that is the problem, but the manner it is practiced in Pakistan. What Sibal is implying probably is that Islamism or political Islam in Pakistan is a threat to India as manifested by terrorism to which India is sometimes subjected by its adherents. Pakistan is culpable to the extent the ruling establishment condones and participates in such acts inspired by religious extremism.
This is a generous interpretation of Sibal’s comment. One would wish it had come from him, articulate diplomat that he is. That it has not suggests that Sibal has no interest to elaborate on his somewhat cryptic position. Why this is so is a moot question.
Firstly, this could be proof of Sibal being in the run for posts that the new dispensation may hand out as early as next year. What he has to say is intended as music to the ears of cultural nationalists and that of their minders in Nagpur. Endorsement by conservative thinkers propels them in cyberspace with, hopefully, enough ballast to carry them to Raisina Hill. Thirdly, Sibal may believe this himself. This can give a clue to the manner national security will be run over the coming half decade and more. Even if Sibal himself does not get the post he apparently covets, the one who does no doubt has similar views. 
Abstracting from the individual level and moving away from Sibal specifically, is the point he makes among others, on the absence of strategic culture. The narrative is that India has been slave for a millennium and therefore has lost the ability to think strategically. This equates Muslimness with being foreign, casting the period of Muslim dynasties in India as non-India. The fact is that a fusion at the elite level helped run India even in medieval times, making the period as much Indian as any.
By default then, the Muslim legacy is one commandeered by Pakistan, which ironically, due to its military’s attractions for power, finds enough strategic cultural grist to consummately play the power game. To compensate for this perceived deficit in aggressiveness with Pakistan, Indian strategists of this school recommend greater strategic assertiveness on India’s part. While suggestive of a design to eclipse Muslim contribution to India and its strategic history more than mere default, outcome is in direct pressure on Muslim communities in the country for the contrived linkage with Pakistan and terror, and more directly in Kashmir.
While Indian intellectuals of the liberal-rationalist school do contest such narratives, it also needs greater Muslim involvement in debates and issues of national security to set the record straight. For instance, Seema Alvi could correct the version of history that Sibal suffers from. But getting balance into the narrative will prove an uphill drive. There are but a handful of Muslims on the mainstream strategic circuit. The Vice President was understandably silenced in his elevation to the constitutional post. Former generals, Afsir Karim and Ata Hasnain, Mustafa, Maroof Raza, Amb. Talmiz Ahmed, Gazala Wahab, Amb. Ishrat Aziz and Najeeb Jung come to mind. Perhaps, Asif Ibrahim could join them once he is through with his present appointment as head of IB and later Akbaruddin, the MEA spokeman, in his turn. There is MJ Akbar around too, but editing the Muslim-baiting India Today as he does, it is uncertain which drum beat he marches to.
Muslim contribution to security debates needs also to move beyond community centric issues of terrorism and Palestine. They have the right, and perhaps more importantly the duty as citizens, to exercise their voice on topics such as India’s Pakistan policy, its nuclear doctrine, conduct in Kashmir, maritime ambitions, defence budget etc. A Muslim voice on national security cannot but be beneficial to the debate, even if the critics will have it that it is ‘Muslim’ and not quite national. But that would be to argue that Amb. Sibal and Amb. KC Singh speak the way they do because they are Hindu and Sikh respectively.
Absence of fear of being contradicted due to strategic circles not reflecting India’s diversity enables passing of what is essentially hate speech as security analysis. Deliberate exertion for an informed gate-crashing of strategic debates needs being done lest questionable if not downright communal views become ‘Truth’ itself.


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