15 June, 2005Issue 4.3Asia & AustraliaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Engaging Security

Priyanjali Malik

P.R. Kumaraswamy, ed.
Security Beyond Survival: Essays for K. Subrahmanyam
Sage, 2004
281 pages
ISBN 0761932674

In looking at strategic debates within India, perhaps the more surprising fact is not that K. Subrahmanyam actually speaks the language of ‘national interest’ in a land where such voices tend to be drowned out by declamations of ‘Gandhian’ and ‘Nehruvian’ ideas, but that his ideas are still considered unrepresentative even as India tries to carve out a position of global influence for itself. It’s not for lack of effort, however. Though still a controversial figure, Subrahmanyam is widely acknowledged as the doyen of Indian strategic thinking. 1 is collection, brought out on the occasion of his 75th birthday, acknowledges his efforts at pushing the Indian elite (who presume to lead debates on matters of pressing concern to the country) to engage with Indian security. Until the late 1960s, strategic studies in India was a backwater, unfrequented by the intelligentsia who tended instead to focus more on economics and development, perhaps a justifiable bias given the economic realities on the subcontinent at the time. It was also the product of the postcolonial country’s recent history, where security, until just two decades earlier, had been defined in terms of gaining independence. After 1947, parliamentarians found themselves not only having to change course from fighting against the British to running the country, but they also had to come up with foreign and security policies for an independent India (whose borders did not conform to the state whose independence they had fought for). This task was left to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Meanwhile parliamentarians, with the help of the Indian intelligentsia, set about putting in place an administrative machinery for the new country, either by adapting old colonial structures, or creating new ones.

In hindsight, the lack of serious engagement with strategic matters at the time is breathtaking. By then, India had fought three wars with its two largest neighbours and was soon to be embroiled in a fourth. China, arguably the source of greatest Indian insecurities at the time, had slipped into the nuclear club sanctified by the conclusion in 1968 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The level of debate in response to these developments was rudimentary at best; one parliamentarian, Nath Pai, was finally driven to remark in Parliament after the first Chinese nuclear test that ‘[i]nstead of making a very dispassionate and calm assessment of the Chinese possession of this dangerous, deadly weapon, we have been indulging once again in sentimental platitudes, confusing the whole issue, and unnecessarily dragging [into the debate] Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and, for good measure, Lord Buddha and Samrat Ashoka’.1 In many ways, India was now paying the price for excessive dependence on Nehru: under his guidance, certainly up to the China déb√¢cle, India’s defence policy was its foreign policy. Nehru, as foreign minister, had largely crafted both. After his death and especially in the wake of China’s nuclearisation, Parliament found itself forced to tread hitherto unfamiliar territory. Against this backdrop, after taking over as Director of the government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in 1968 (a post he held until 1972, and then again from 1980 until his retirement from the Indian Administrative Service in 1987), it took some time for Subrahmanyam to stir things up. In fact, it was not until the 1990s that a coherent debate on Indian security began to take shape. In many ways, therefore, this book is a fitting tribute to a man who has worked tirelessly to jolt Indians out of their customary strategic somnolence to engage with the nitty-gritty of defending ‘India’.

Security Beyond Survival is a collection of eleven essays written by people who have interacted with Subrahmanyam over the years and who to varying degrees share his interest in seeing a proper debate on security take root and flourish in the subcontinent. The topics covered are matters on which Subrahmanyam has written on and spoken of extensively — from the broad overview of Indian security down to the fine details of India’s relationships with her neighbours. The only exception, perhaps, is the last essay, ‘A Rather Personal Biography’, by his son Sanjay. In providing a brief sketch of the man behind the reams of newsprint that bear his by-line, along with the shelves of books that have been written, co-authored or edited by him (the collection also contains a ‘select bibliography’ of Subrahmanyam’s work which alone runs to eleven pages), this essay anchors the discussion in the person behind the name, thereby bringing the review round full-circle: this is a debate carried out by individuals as individuals. And Subrahmanyam, to his credit, has always encouraged a multiplicity of voices, even if the cacophony brings forth those who do not agree with him. Even when disagreements threaten to derail consensus — as it was feared might be the case when the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which was tasked with producing a draft nuclear doctrine after India’s nuclear tests of 1998, began its work with Subrahmanyam managing a group of thirty individuals and several large egos — he remained firm that individual opinions should not be obliterated in the need for conformity or unanimity. 1 is is as it should be. India is too large and diverse a country for any single view-point to pretend to speak for the whole population, and if there is one area where this collection fails the person it honours, it is in not providing a discordant view from a scholar who disagrees with him. It would not diminish Subrahmanyam’s contribution to Indian strategic thinking; in fact, it would be a testimonial to the reach of his work.

Subrahmanyam himself has spoken of the need for a healthy debate in India which can produce an informed, long-term approach to strategic matters. Not only has there not been a single White Paper on defence in the country, but the one and only public report on defence matters — the Kargil Review Committee Report — has not been formally discussed in Parliament, despite the fact that the report highlights an almost total intelligence failure and emphasises the urgent need for India to engage with the implications of its and Pakistan’s overt nuclear postures after their nuclear tests of 1998. As Subrahmanyam remarks in exasperation, the country’s indifference to examining defence in any meaningful way is a means of ‘abdicating responsibility’ for supporting the armed forces in defending the nation.2 These gaps are most visible in the area of long-term policy setting, which has fallen victim to the lack of any institutionalised forum for a thorough examination of India’s interests and goals in the medium and long term. One contributor, D. Shyam Babu, goes so far as to distinguish between ‘long-term policy’ and ‘long-term thinking’ (in ‘National Security Council: Yet Another Ad Hoc Move?’), admitting that there has been little of the former in the Indian approach to national security. And long-term thinking can easily slip into a policy of postponing difficult decisions. India’s approach to nuclear policy is especially apt in this regard: the ‘option’ that existed between 1968 and 1998 was for some the embodiment of long-term thinking; harsher critics have of course referred to the ‘option’ as the absence of any policy, sheltered behind the comfortable language of restraint which allowed a postponement of any final decision on a commitment to either permanent abstention or nuclearisation.

This lack of meaningful engagement with security is reflected at the institutional and academic level. As P.R. Kumaraswamy points out in his article, ‘National Security: A Critique’, there is a serious dearth of independently- funded think-tanks in India which can be relied on to provide an ‘outside’ view to balance government thinking; most of the non-official centres and institutes that focus on strategic affairs depend to some extent on state funding and tend, however reluctantly, to get co-opted into the system. That Subrahmanyam pushed the limits of the system from the inside is no guarantee that those who follow in his footsteps will be similarly able to jog government thinking out of its comfortable and customary grooves.

In a way, Kumaraswamy throws down the gauntlet in his opening article when he laments the paucity of informed analysis in the wider strategic debate in India. For some Indians it is enough that India survives. If India is to become more than an ever ‘emerging’ power, or is to make the transition from a regional power to a global one, it will only do so on the back of a long-term engagement with security and with India’s global position as it is and not as Indians wish it to be. Yet any synergy that might develop between, on the one hand, the government and bureaucracy who shape and implement policy, and on the other, academia and the attentive public who critique these issues, is completely undermined by a culture of secrecy that dominates South Block (the building that houses the Ministries of Defence, External Aff airs and the Prime Minister’s Office); the resulting academic efforts remain sadly ‘uninspired’ at best. As he remarks, ‘[d]espite the prolonged nuclear debate, proliferation of scholars and unending stream of writings, two of the classic works on India’s nuclear policy have been written by Western scholars’. And it is true that scholars of India’s past, present and future nuclear posture would be well advised if pointed in the direction of George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb and Ashley Tellis’s India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrence and Ready Arsenal in furthering their understanding.

This points to a conundrum: there is evidently, as Kumaraswamy observes, a reasonable amount of discussion on some strategic topics. Yet bringing a lot of musicians together and instructing them to ‘play something’ will not produce a symphony. There is a lack of focus in Indian debates on security. As Subrahmanyam explains, in the three or four years after the ‘Tehelka’ scandal (on defence procurement) broke, much has been written about ‘Tehelka’ and the political implications of the story, but very little has actually been discussed about the defence-related ramifications of a sting that was meant to probe kick-backs in defence deals.3 This is nothing new in India. When the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was being negotiated in the mid-1990s, several rainforests-worth of newsprint were devoted to big power politics being played out in Geneva, with very little space dedicated to the strategic implications of a treaty that would potentially seriously undermine India’s nuclear ‘option’ by forever denying it the freedom to test a nuclear device. Perhaps if Indians sat down to discuss the implications of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), which the Vajpayee government promised to negotiate after the 1998 tests, and which is being worked out at the Conference on Disarmament at the moment, there might be grounds for hope that the Indian strategic debate is finally coming of age.

Quite apart from not pushing the government on matters of defence as they occur, there is also a curious acceptance of the government’s insistence on secrecy. The armed forces have been calling for a declassification of the histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars, along with the records of the Indian Peacekeeping Force to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. These requests have met with a stony silence, which is echoed by the complete disinterest that the strategic community displays in these matters. This is completely baffling: are the Indian armed forces expected to learn from the military histories of other nations which draw on material that has been declassified after a suitable quarantine period? Perhaps a start can be made in returning periodically to the war with China to examine what went wrong. Rajesh Rajagopalan’s essay, ‘Re-examining the “Forward Policy”’, takes a tentative step in this direction by opening the debate on whether India’s ‘forward policy’ of the early 1960s was a provocative or defensive measure. The essay raises several questions, especially in challenging the almost accepted version that India was caught completely unawares by the Chinese attack in October 1962, when in fact New Delhi had been preparing (albeit weakly) to defend against Chinese incursions along the border from 1958, after Indian intelligence reported on a Chinese road in Aksai Chin in the Western Sector of the disputed border. Yet, without access to intelligence reports and the subsequent inquiries into the failures of the war, we will never be able to look at the full picture. Forty years after the event, the need for such complete secrecy over this war is no longer defensible; nor, indeed, is the Indian public’s acquiescence in this veil of impenetrability. Indeed, Rajagopalan remarks without the slightest trace of irony that until the Chinese archives are opened up we may never know what motivated the Chinese to attack in 1962 instead of diplomatically asserting their claim to the territory earlier, in response to Indian maps showing the disputed territories as Indian. Considering the barriers to scholarly research that keep scholars out of the Indian archives, it might be more fruitful to look within our own records to see what went wrong when the warning signs were apparently visible for all to see.

Of course, the secrecy that shrouds India’s military history pales into the limpid light of day in comparison with the covertness that marks India’s nuclear policy. It is a measure of the complete lack of information that surrounds all matters nuclear that India’s nuclear tests were immediately denounced by critics as a tactic by the BJP to bolster their coalition unity and win further electoral support. In fact, in his first columns after the tests, Subrahmanyam wrote at length about how the nuclear tests of 1998 were the cumulative product of several governments’ work, going all the way back to the nuclear estate established by Jawaharlal Nehru. (It is astonishing that Indians had apparently forgotten that the country had actually crossed a fairly significant technological and military line in 1974 when it tested its first atomic device, the semantics of calling it a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ notwithstanding.) Not much has changed since May 1998 as far as the level of informed debate on nuclear policies is concerned, but one is not sure whether this has more to do with apathy on the part of the Indian public and strategic community, or if this reflects a continuation of the policy of secrecy by the state, or indeed, is a product of both factors.

Unfortunately, this collection does not really further this debate. There is one article on nuclear risk-reduction by Michael Krepon, but it leaves one feeling slightly cheated since he spends over half the article discussing the Cold War before admitting that the dynamics in South Asia will probably be very different from those that prevailed in the West. However, Krepon does open up the debate in pointing out that the triangular relationship of China, India and Pakistan will make it immeasurably more difficult to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi. Furthermore, managing the nuclear relationship will require a long-term engagement with confidence-building measures that cannot be limited to grand pronouncements and symbolic measures designed to ‘assuage foreign audiences that leaders in South Asia are capable of managing their differences’. It requires a commitment to staying the course and fully understanding the implications of building – and destroying – bridges of trust between the three countries. A large part of the impetus for creating these links will of course have to come from the attentive publics of these states; but for that, there needs to be an informed debate on nuclear issues. As the Kargil Review Committee Report (which was largely written by Subrahmanyam) and a subsequent internal assessment by the Army revealed (parts of this were leaked to the newsweekly Outlook), the Kargil encounter was the result of several failures, the most prominent amongst which were a colossal intelligence break-down and the sense of complacency that overt nuclearisation would guarantee a nuclear peace in the subcontinent.4 Indeed the current level of complacency, disinterest even, over India’s nuclear policies is worrying to say the least. History should not show that the debate on India’s nuclear policy was just about ‘going nuclear’; now that the rubicon has been crossed, it is imperative that India’s strategic community engage meaningfully and in a sustained fashion with the implications of this development.

In the end, this is a book about strategic issues, and as such, it does continue and fuel the debate. Perhaps the biggest tribute to Subrahmanyam’s infl uence and his legacy lies in the fact that the contributors to this volume span the globe, attesting to his having reached out to a wide audience. Even if, as Selig Harrison remarks (in ‘KS: A Personal Impression’), Subrahmanyam’s candidness tended to unsettle Americans, who are more comfortable with the usual polite obfuscations of most Indian diplomats, in the end, his refusal to couch his understanding of India’s ‘national interest’ in anything but the terms of realpolitik forced them to engage with this man who never believed in anything but plain-speaking. It’s not a bad legacy to reflect on.

Priyanjali Malik is a DPhil student at Merton College, Oxford, writing her dissertation on the debate over India’s nuclear policy in the 1990s. Prior to this, she worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London after obtaining an MPhil in International Relations from Balliol College, Oxford, in 2001. She gained her first degree in English Literature from Princeton University, where she found herself after growing up in Calcutta, India.

1. Lok Sabha Debates, 3rd Series, 35.6 (23 November 1964).
2. Author’s interview with K. Subrahmanyam, New Delhi, January 2005.
3. Ibid. The ‘Tehelka’ scandal erupted when an on-line newsportal, Tehelka, conducted a sting operation in the latter half of 2000 to expose the payoff s to politicians in arms deals. In the upheaval that followed, the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, was forced to resign as he too was implicated in ‘Operation West End’. See http://www.tehelka.com/home/20041009/ our_story.htm
4. See, Saikat Dutta, “What’s the Secret?”, Outlook, 28 February, 2005.