Introducing Pax Indica

Of Vijay Chauhan, Voldemort and the Realist perspective

Over at Yahoo! India columns I introduce Pax Indica, my fortnightly column.

The underlying point is that countries operate in an anarchy, an environment where there is no overarching authority that can constrain their actions. Here, as the charismatic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vividly explains to Commissioner Gaitonde in Agneepath, the law of the jungle operates. The strong survive by killing the weak. Similarly, when Lord Voldemort tries to entice the young Harry Potter to join him, he declares that “there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.”

Both Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Voldemort would have been astute geopolitical strategists, but went tragically wrong when they applied their logic of power to domestic affairs, where the law of the jungle does not apply. For sovereign states though, the message is clear: their very survival depends on having adequate power to ensure it. But how much power is adequate? That’s hard to say, so the prudent answer is “as much as possible”

Read the rest at Yahoo! India and subscribe to its RSS feed.

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

And he’s doing it before even winning the Booker prize

Chetan Bhagat uses sophisms to advance an argument for surrender

So how many cliched sophisms can you squeeze into one 900-word op-ed piece? Chetan Bhagat manages to do five. More than a defence of the prime minister as it announces itself to be, his op-ed in Hindustan Times (linkthanks Rohit Pradhan) is merely a series of lazy arguments and an intellectual superficiality that is more suited to a discussion of Hindi films, cricket matches and cafeteria-gossip, not the grave issues surrounding geopolitics, foreign policy and national security.

Mr Bhagat begins with a profound misunderstanding of “our attitude”. Instead of reconciling with Pakistan, he says, Indians want to “teach Pakistan a lesson” and put them in their place. Now assuming this is true, does Mr Bhagat pause to examine why? Is it perhaps because Pakistan has devoted itself to damaging India right from the word go? Reconciliation is not a rational response towards Pakistan until the time it unequivocally transforms itself into a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbour. Yet, the story since 1998 at least is one where India has made repeated attempts to reconcile—at political and popular levels—and on each occasion received a dagger in its flesh in return. So yes, bashing Pakistan might be considered patriotic and make good politics, but for good reason. Mr Bhagat doesn’t get into these reasons, of course, because they wouldn’t lend themselves to his conclusions.

The second sophism that Mr Bhagat uses is that ‘every Indian’s future is inextricably linked to Pakistan…because of what India spends on defence.’ This is not the (flawed) “we can’t change our neighbours” argument, it’s not even the (flawed) “guns vs butter” argument. It is a (flawed) “let’s submit to our neighbour’s blackmail” argument. It is disguised as (or confused for, if you want to be charitable) a guns-vs-butter argument by pointing to the opportunity costs of defence expenditure. But it sounds plausible for only as long as it takes you to realise that there are opportunity costs of non-defence too. Ask the Morioris, if there are any left to tell the tale.

A reasonable case can perhaps be made around the concept of a peace dividend—that giving Pakistan something would result in a lower defence expenditure that would in turn allow India to channel the ‘savings’ for development. That depends on what is the “something” that would satisfy Pakistan, and whether the act of giving that something away will actually result in a net positive dividend. Instead, Mr Bhagat asks “how badly do we want Kashmir?” As if giving away Kashmir would automatically lead to the building of colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. This is the third sophism—the plausibility of which lasts only as long as it takes for you to listen to a Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s speech. Giving in to Kashmir fatigue is a terrible idea. Mr Bhagat doesn’t bother to explain just conceding on Kashmir will lead to lower defence expenditure, less more colleges and roads. It’s a double sophism, actually, because Mr Bhagat presumes that government expenditure is required to build colleges, irrigation projects, roads and power plants. You know, just like it was government expenditure that put phones in almost everyone’s hands.

You should really put up your hands when you see India described as the land of Buddha and Gandhi which has somehow lost its peace goals, the fourth sophism. India’s national symbol is not The Other Cheek. As much as Buddha and Gandhi, this is also the land of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Arthashastra—treatises that reveal a sophisticated approach to statecraft. These books do not advocate peace at any cost. Even Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita.

When you don’t have to support your argument with evidence, you can just about say anything you like. Like, for instance, “we need to have peace…because we can’t afford to fight or stay prepared to fight for the next 20 years.” How does Mr Bhagat arrive at this extraordinary conclusion? If India struggling at economic growth rates of 5% or lower could afford to fight and stay prepared for the last 20 years and yet achieve over 8% growth today, surely, it can more easily afford it now? To use Mr Bhagat’s own analogy, if you could afford a security guard when you were poorer, you certainly can afford him now when you are richer.

The byline identifies Mr Bhagat as the author of The Three Mistakes of My Life. With this op-ed he’s made one more.

Sunday Levity: Foreign origins of the South Indian breakfast

Can you stomach the truth?

Most people—most of all South Indians—react to this with shock and denial. Some go on and come to terms with it.

What could be more South Indian?
What could be more South Indian? Photo: avlxyz/Alpha

Well, the fact is the idli—a dish that is almost synonymous with South India—was probably an import from what is now Indonesia (and what was then the Sri Vijaya empire). This little morsel comes from the late K Thammu Achaya, food scientist and historian. As Vikram Doctor writes:

It’s…surprising then to read K T Achaya’s theory that idlis are a relatively recent introduction to India. He notes that the word might derive from ‘iddalige’, first mentioned in a Kannada work of 920 AD, but the indications are that this was made from an urad dhal batter only.

The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but again made from urad dhal flour only. Tamil apparently only first mentions ‘itali’ in the 17th century. All these references, Achaya notes, leave out three key aspects of idlis: “the use of rice grits along with urad dhal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness.”

Only after 1250 AD are there references to what seem to be idlis as we know them. Achaya’s contention is that this absence from the historical record could mean that idlis are an imported concept — perhaps from Indonesia which has a long tradition of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (from where we get ketchup) or something called kedli, which Achaya says, is like an idli. This is plausible enough given the many links between Southeast Asia and South India, through Hindu rulers and traders. [ET]

D Balasubramanian had a good report on Dr Achaya’s works in The Hindu and there’s a little discussion on the subject over at Manjunath & Co’s blog. Although two of Dr Achaya’s most well-regarded works on Indian food seem to be out of print, his last book, The Story of our Food is available.

Meanwhile, the chillies in the chutney and the tomatoes in the sambar came from the Americas with the Europeans.

That’s not all though. It was Baba Budan, a 17th century Sufi from Karnataka who broke the Arabian monopoly on coffee. Legend has it that:

On pilgrimage to Mecca in the middle 1600s, Baba Budan, a revered holy man from India, discovered for himself the wonders of coffee. In his zeal to share what he’d found with his fellows at home, he smuggled seven coffee beans out of Arabia, wrapped around his belly. On his return home, he planted the beans in the hills of Mysore, India, and nurtured the young coffee bushes that resulted. Coffee flourished in the hills of India – hills now named after Baba Budan.

In short order, enterprising Dutch traders bought some of these coffee plants, and shipped them to faraway colonies in Indonesia and Ceylon. The Arabian monopoly of the coffee trade was over, and the Western world was waking up to a new aroma… one that would play a fateful role in Europe, and beyond. [Green Mountain Coffee]

Baba Budan gave his name to a hill in Karnataka, and more recently, spread his seeds wide—to cafes in Cincinatti and Melbourne.

Tea? Okay, it was probably grown and consumed in India long before the British came, but you don’t have to be Aakar Patel to accept that tea as we drink it today is largely a gift of British colonial rule.

So there’s more than one ‘foreign hand’ in the ‘traditional’ South Indian breakfast. The sugar that goes into it though–we have on Dr Achaya’s authority—is an Indian invention.

Tailpiece: Mr Balasubramanian notes that “Dr Achaya points out how in 300 BC, the Arthasastra described the balanced meal of a gentleman as 500 g rice, 125 g dal, 56 g oil and salt..(and this) is the same in essentials as the recommended balanced diet that the Indian Council of Medical Research laid down in 1987 AD.”

What the admiral said about China

Beyond a realistic appreciation of the situation

“Common sense” according to Admiral Sureesh Mehta, “that cooperation with China would be preferable to competition or conflict, as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals. China’s GDP is more than thrice that of ours and its per capita GDP is 2.2 times our own.” (linkthanks Commodore C Uday Bhaskar)

The economic penalties resulting from a military conflict would have grave consequences for both nations. It would therefore, undoubtedly be in both our interests, to cooperate with each other in mutually beneficial endeavours, and ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised…

On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent. [Adm Mehta/NMF]

Those looking for a hawkish tone would understandably be disappointed at these words, but the outgoing navy chief’s understanding of the geopolitical context is infused with realism. There is a wide gap between India and China in terms of aggregate national power—not least because China opened its economy earlier, did it more purposefully—and the gap may be widening despite India’s own growth take-off. A military confrontation, therefore, is not desirable. In Kautilya’s metaphor “attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant.”

While Admiral Mehta’s reading of the situation is astute, his policy prescription summarily rejects the possibility that competition and conflict might be in India’s interests, should such competition hurt China more than it hurts India. That’s in Kautilya’s Arthashastra too, actually. Galrahn over at Information Dissemination has a valid point when he argues that “military asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger, nor should the weaker state seek to propitiate it.” Perhaps Admiral Mehta’s office constrained what he could say openly, but his point about countering the growing Chinese maritime footprint in the region suggests that he has left some things unsaid.

B Raman reads in Admiral Mehta’s speech the UPA government’s re-orientation of grand strategy “from power projection” to “deterrence and self-defence.” If this is a conscious choice, it is a bad one. It should be obvious for anyone to see—no one can reasonably argue that the extended neighbourhood is any more stable after the UPA government’s strategic myopia allowed China literally unbridled room to encircle and contain India. The question is whether this situation came about due to neglect or design. The former is perhaps excusable. The latter is not.

This blog has consistently argued that “projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development”. Because there are Maoris out there.

The librarian of Mysore

It’s been a hundred years since Rudrapatna Shamasastry published the English translation of Kautilya’s Arthashastra

The Star of Mysore has an article (linkthanks JK) by A V Narasimha Murthy marking the centenary of the publication of the very first English translation of the Arthasastra:

Around 1905 there was a librarian by name Rudrapatnam Shamasastry (1868-1944) who hailed from the celebrated village Rudrapatna on the banks of Kaveri, famous for Karnatak music. He belonged to the Sanketi Brahmin community and by 37 he had mastered veda, vedanga, classical Sanskrit, Prakrit, English, Kannada, German, French and other languages. He had also learnt the various ancient scripts of India.

As the librarian daily he was examining each manuscript to know its contents. It was not an easy task either. Most of the palm leaf manuscripts were fragile and to handle them was a big problem. This routine examination continued day by day, month after month and even after years, without great success. But Shamasastry was hopeful of finding out some new spectacular manuscript which was not known to the world. His assistants always taunted him but unmindful of all these, Sastry continued his work with all devotion and sincerity.

One fine morning in 1905, he picked up palm leaf manuscript from a heap. He examined this palm leaf and was pleasantly surprised to know that it was a work on Arthasastra or administration written by an author called Kauitlya, Chanakya or Vishnugupta before the dawn of Christian era. Some people thought that it must have been a hoax: others looked at this with suspicion; But the introduction written by Shamasastry in 1909 giving the details of the author and its authenticity convinced that it was a genuine literary wonder of the ancient world. [Star of Mysore]

The text of Dr Shamasastry’s translation is available online.

Related Posts: R P Kangle’s magnificent translation and commentary; and Reading the Arthashastra series on this blog.

Unjust conquests

On India’s strategic frontiers

In ancient Indian political philosophy, the establishment of the state is seen as an instrument to impose dharma, or the moral code, through dandaniti or the rule of law. It not only recognises plurality by enjoining the king to respect and conserve the culture and traditions of the country he annexes but also circumscribes annexation itself, limiting it to the Indian subcontinent.

Arthashastra has a twofold aim. First, it seeks to show how the ruler must protect his territory. Secondly it shows how territory should be acquired.

It may be remarked in passing that the rulership of ‘the earth’ contemplated in the shastra does not necessarily imply the conquest of the whole world. The field open for the operations of the would-be-conqueror (vijigisu) appears restricted to the region between the Himalayas and the sea. Territories beyond the borders of India are not included in ‘the territory of the Sovereign Ruler’. [Arthashastra 9.1.17-18]

One of the reasons for this may be that the conqueror, according to the shastra, is expected to establish a social order based on the varna and the ashrama system in the conquered territories and the establishment of such a social order outside the limits of India was perhaps considered impracticable or even undesirable. It may also be that such a conquest beyond the borders of India was regarded as unjust.

Arrian, the Greek historian, has remarked, “On the other hand, a sense of justice, they say, prevented any Indian king from attempting conquest beyond the limits of India” [R P Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthashastra, Part III, pp2-3]

Related Posts: The reading the Arthashastra series archive

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Reading the Arthashastra: The rule of law

The science of punishment and the science of government

The concept of dandaniti, variously translated as the science of punishment, the science of chastisement, and in Dr Shamasastry’s translation, even as the science of government may be better understood to be the imposition of the rule of law. Dandaniti is central to Rajdharma—the morality of governance—and is discussed at length in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya suggests why and how the rule of law ought to be applied.

That sceptre on which the well-being and progress of the sciences of Anvikshaki, the triple Vedas, and Varta depend is known as Danda (punishment). That which treats of Danda is the law of punishment or science of government (dandaniti).

It is a means to make acquisitions, to keep them secure, to improve them, and to distribute among the deserved the profits of improvement. It is on this science of government that the course of the progress of the world depends.

“Hence,” says my teacher, “whoever is desirous of the progress of the world shall ever hold the sceptre raised (udyatadanda). Never can there be a better instrument than the sceptre to bring people under control.”

“No,” says Kautilya; for whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment (danda) when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders.

But when the law of punishment is kept in abeyance, it gives rise to such disorder as is implied in the proverb of fishes (matsyanyayamudbhavayati); for in the absence of a magistrate (dandadharabhave), the strong will swallow the weak; but under his protection, the weak resist the strong. [Arthashastra I:4]

In other words, Kautilya eschews a harsh imposition of punishments in favour of their measured but efficient use.

Now it is not known whether Ravikiran Rao referred to fourth chapter of Book I of the Arthashastra but his article on counter-terrorism policy in this month’s Pragati but some of his arguments reflect the Kautilyan view—especially the need to have a co-operative citizenry.

Beyond terrorism, there is abundant evidence that the modern Indian state is failing in its practice of dandaniti. In this week’s Economic & Political Weekly, Andre Béteille has an excellent essay on constitutional morality in India, where he says that the people of India “are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without discarding the one or the other”. When even the chiefs of India’s famously disciplined armed forces brazenly disobey orders issued by constitutional authority, and internal security is almost entirely cast in the framework of competitive communalism, you know that the pendulum is well into the populism phase. A swing back towards constitutionalism is way overdue.

Even if Prof Béteille is right and endless oscillations are destiny, the modern day dandaniti should aim to keep their amplitudes small.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Reading the Arthashastra: War by diplomacy

Here’s an interesting paper by Roger Boesche on the Kautilyan doctrine of war and diplomacy:

Whereas Carl von Clausewitz said that war is just an extension of domestic politics, Kautilya argued that diplomacy is really a subtle act of war, a series of actions taken to weaken an enemy and gain advantages for oneself, all with an eye toward eventual conquest. In Kautilya’s foreign policy, even during a time of diplomacy and negotiated peace, a king should still be “striking again and again” in secrecy.

Because a king abides by a treaty only for so long as it is advantageous, Kautilya regarded all allies as future conquests when the time is ripe.


(A couple of years ago, Sunil Laxman had introduced Professor Boesche’s The First Great Political Realist—a slim, readable introduction to the Arthashastra.)

On the topic of agreements, Kautilya declares:

When the profit accruing to kings under an agreement, whether they be of equal, inferior, or superior power, is equal to all, that agreement is termed peace (sandhi); when unequal, it is termed defeat (vikrama). Such is the nature of peace and war. [Arthashastra VII:8]

There are two aspects to the assessment of benefits from an agreement: relative gains and the time dimension. An agreement is desirable when the gains from it outweigh the gains the enemy makes from it. Also, “whoever thinks that in the course of time his loss will be less than his acquisition as contrasted with that of his enemy, may neglect his temporary deterioration.” Simple as it seems, since an agreement between two states affects all others in the raja mandala, the actual business of calculating relative gains and summing them up is necessarily a complex exercise.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.