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Sunday, October 16, 2016

The myth of ‘strategic restraint’

In mid-2013, a group, referring to itself as ‘members of India’s strategic community’, brought out a press statement at their haunt, the Vivekananda International Foundation that read: ‘It is time that policies are devised that will impose a cost on Pakistan for its export of terror to India, and thus change the cost-benefit calculus of these policies and actions. A proactive approach by India towards Pakistan must be the order of the day, as it will yield us much better results than those garnered by policies of appeasement which have regrettably been pursued by us for years.’[1]
The group amongst which was Mr. Doval, current day national security adviser, has since captured the national security policy making establishment. The results are self-evident, with India’s Pakistan policy taking a final policy turn – after several ‘pirouettes’, in one apt phrasing. Today, if prime time strategists are to be believed, India is following a doctrine of strategic proactivism, jettisoning the strategic restraint of the preceding NDA and UPA periods.
The jury is still out on whether the shift is indeed as marked as its votaries shout about. After all, a set of ‘surgical strikes’ in wake of the Uri attack, are not qualitatively different from those India has reportedly engaged in over the years, dating back to Sharad Pawar’s stint at the defence ministry’s helm. Only, now India is acknowledging outright what it has been at all along, and, while doing so, noticeably couching its language so as to align its action with international law and with the tenets of limitation in the nuclear age.
There are two divergent inferences from this lack of shift: one that the strategic doctrine does indeed continue to be one of strategic restraint; and, two, that what passed for strategic restraint earlier was instead - unacknowledged and misinterpreted - strategic proactivism. Agreeing with the proactive strategy votaries, here a case is made that the second inference is more in accord with reality.
Contrary to the conventional  thinking, the argument here is that strategic restraint is a myth and that India instead has a healthier record of strategic proactivism, though kept well under wraps till Mr. Modi stepped up to unwrap it in the run up to a consequential round of elections in UP and Punjab soon.   
Those spearheading strategic restraint rummage the cupboard of history to make their case that India has been a power always imposed on by nefarious neighbours, particularly Muslims to its north west. This explains their reject of the last thousand year strategic history of the subcontinent as not quite ‘Indian’ since India’s strategic trajectory was not dictated by natives as much as foreigners, with Muslims settled in India for over half a millennium continuing to be regarded as foreigners, including the likes of southerner Tipu Sultan.
A reading of the introductory chapter to the book India’s Wars,[2] by a member of the – by all accounts - apolitical and secular military brass and on the faculty of an august institution that turns out its future higher commanders, informs as much. He writes that he is ‘inclined to look at the Mughals as foreigners who ravaged India.’ He finds the Haidar-Tipu sojourn in the Deccan as relatively short and therefore not worth including alongside the martial exploits of the contemporaneous Marathas and Sikhs to his dating of the origin of the modern Indian army. He chooses to miss out on an opportunity to rehearse the secular imagery - Ranjit Singh, a Sikh; the Peshwas, Hindus; and Tipu, a Muslim – keeping colonialism at bay. His wards at the National Defence College cannot exit its portals unscathed by such history telling. Since this mythology shall get wider as the Modi era firms in, it is best exposed sooner than later. 
The more popular discourse within strategic circles – reproduced in the book – is that India – ever the ‘good guy’ - has since Independence been on the receiving end of its neighbours. That it did go on to retake PoK in 1949, has left regaining it as the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ – a newly minted interpretation of the phrase used hitherto by its adversary. In 1962, instead of throwing in the towel, Nehru should have chased the Chinese back, and used air power to do so, since they would have been caught on the wrong side of the Himalayas in the fast approaching winter then.
In 1965, India should have proceeded with the war beyond its three weeks since Pakistan was exhausted. In this line of thinking, giving back Haji Pir later at Tashkent is the quintessential example of India’s softness. In 1971, India should have used the PoWs as pawns in getting Pakistan to give up its Kashmir obsession. In the various crises unleashed by mega terror incidents, India should have ‘taught Pakistan a (military) lesson’. That it has apparently finally followed their advice explains the loud cheers following the Uri riposte.
All this papers over India’s proactivism. In 1947, it was first off the military-blocks by refraining from signing the Standstill Agreement even as it interestedly watched the Maharaja borrow its proxies, the Patiala State forces, for operations in Kashmir. Later, the timely arrival of its regular army led to chasing the tribal invaders back to Uri. In 1962, its ‘forward policy’ prompted in some measure the Chinese invasion. In 1965, it pulled the rug from under Pakistan by stretching the war zone to include the Lahore front from Pakistan’s plan to keep it confined to Kashmir. It returned Haji Pir in order to incentivize the firming in the ceasefire line as a mutually acceptable finality. It vivisected Pakistan in a well thought through intelligence, diplomatic and military operation over the better part of 1971. It is foolish to sell the notion that it could have ignored its compulsions under the Geneva Conventions to keep Pakistani troops hostage to Pakistan signing on the dotted line giving away Kashmir. It was assertive all through the eighties, be it in Sri Lanka or internally in Punjab.
By the nineties, it rightly understood that it was in the nuclear age. Internally, it deployed its army to quell the insurgency in Kashmir and Assam. The claim that IK Gujral shut down the R&AW’s external operations itself suggests that these were well in hand; and it also needs noting that the Gujral doctrine of unilateral concessions to neighbors had one notable exception, Pakistan.
In wake of terror attacks, the consistent call in the Delhi-centric strategic community has been to militarily take down Pakistan a peg or two. The army came up with a doctrine to enable India to do so, Cold Start. India’s devotion of a proportion of its liberalization-expanded national cake to gain the wherewithal to do so, indicates strategic proactivism not of the immediate kind but a future oriented one. This does not in any way make it less ‘proactive’, at least not where it matters, in General HQ, Rawalpindi. Alongside, the several attacks on Indian consulates across the Durand Line, suggests that it checkmated Pakistan’s redoubtable ISI in its own backyard, Afghanistan. The insertion of the reference to Baluchistan by Pakistan to the meeting’s outcome as far back as in the Sharm es Shaikh meeting in 2009 indicates that Indian interests in Baluchistan are not particularly recent. Diplomatically, India not only de-hyphenated itself from Pakistan and got up close to the US, but has managed to distance the US from its ‘most allied ally’ Pakistan.    
It is apparent that India’s strategic postures and actions cannot easily be taken as strategic restraint. Instead, strategic restraint was not so much a misnomer, but appears to have been conjured to dull attention to India’s strategic moves. It helped justify the moves as resulting from neighbours ganging up to pose it a ‘two front’ problem. It obscured the security dilemma of its principal neighbour stemming from India’s low-profile strategic proactivism, including of the long-term kind.
Strategic restraint did involve keeping the military sheathed for good reasons, but being militarily restrained does not fully equate with strategic restraint, since strategy has several instruments at its command – intelligence, diplomacy, economic - all of which more than compensated for any military restraint. At tripling of the defence budget over this century cannot by any stretch qualify as military restraint either.
In effect, India has been strategically proactive for long, only now its people are being let in on the state secret. Acknowledging this is the first step back from the nuclear brink. Newly minted strategic proactivism entails not only going too far but also to be seen to be doing to. Against a Muslim red rag held by equally charged religious extremists, this is a sure recipe for nuclear disaster. Averting this requires, as the second step, adopting strategic restraint for real.

[1] VIF, ‘Press Statement on India-Pakistan Relations by Members of India’s Strategic Community’,
[2] Arjun Subramaniam, India’s  Wars: A Military History 1947-1971, New Delhi: Harper  Collins, 2016. 

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