It didn’t start in 1988

A brief review of Praveen Swami’s “India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947-2004“, first published in the November 2008 issue of Pragati

A retired senior police officer complained to Bahukutumbi Raman, a former intelligence officer and prolific commentator, that intelligence agencies and police show a greater readiness to share their information with Praveen Swami, than with each other. And that “we all wait for his columns in The Hindu to know what information other agencies and the police of other States have.” That is as much an indictment of the internal security set-up as it is a compliment to Mr Swami. Those familiar with Mr Swami’s reportage will know that some of India’s best writings on terrorism and internal security come from his MacBook.

So it is a mystery why the publishers of India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004, a book Mr Swami wrote in 2006 did not adequately market it in India at a price that ordinary readers could afford. The paperback edition is now available in bookstores, but you won’t know it until you ask for it. (Update: It’s a little more widely available now). That’s a real shame because Secret Jihad is the one book on the issue in Jammu & Kashmir that everyone should read.

If it reads like a spy thriller, it is because it is one. In just over 200 pages of engaging prose, Mr Swami demonstrates that contrary to what most people think (and India’s median age is around twenty-five) the troubles in Jammu & Kashmir didn’t start in the late 1980s, after an infamously rigged election. Rather, as the introduction to the book says “a welter of jihadist groups waged a sustained campaign against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir from the outset, after the Partition of India.” Mr Swami’s narrative takes the reader back to the days of the Master Cell and Al- Fatah—entities that appear quaint by today’s standards—and their subsequent evolution into and inspiration of terrorist organisations that exist in contemporary times.

Similarly, Mr Swami reveals the now-in, now-out relationship of the state’s major political parties with Islamist and Kashmiri-nationalist ideologies, and the reader arrives at the inevitable conclusion that for all the paeans celebrating Kashmiriyat, secularism has always been less than skin-deep in Kashmiri separatist politics.
To the extent Secret Jihad relies on sources from within India’s internal security establishment, it largely illuminates only one side of the war. Mr Swami admits this himself, conceding that Pakistan’s secret archives, if they exist at all, are necessary to improve the completeness of the account. But even so, Mr Swami’s book joins Chandrashekar Dasgupta’s War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48 as an indispensable book for anyone seeking a well-researched and readable account of the Kashmir issue. Secret Jihad ends in 2004 but the secret jihad continues. An updated edition, or better still, a sequel, is in order.

Related Link: Saurabh Chandra has a brief history of events, in today’s DNA. 

Our problem is not spiritual but social

Rabindranath Tagore’s diagnosis of India’s problem

In this letter to a New York lawyer, Tagore accurately pinpoints the big problem—parochialism based on identity—and its unhappy consequences. It comes up again, in verse, in Where the Mind is Without Fear: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls”. This letter was perhaps written around the same time (Gitanjali was published in 1912) and elaborates on the argument in high prose.

Letter to Myron H. Phelps (New York)
16 December 1911

In every age the spiritual ideal has found its highest expression in a few specially gifted individuals. Such are to be found in India even today, often in the most unlikely places—among the apparently sophisticated, as well as among the unlettered and outwardly uncultured—startling us with the wonderful depth of their spiritual perception and insight. I do not feel that India has lost her spiritual heritage, for it is clear to me that her highest thought and activity is still spiritual. In the old days, however, the simpler environment—the comparative freedom from so many diverse and conflicting interests—permitted of the easy permeation of this ideal, emanate though it did from a few isolated altitudes, through and through the lower strata—with the result that Truth was recognized and realized not only intellectually but also in the details of everyday life.

A distinguishing characteristic of this spiritual civilization, as I have explained in my former letter, was its inclusiveness, its all-comprehensiveness. Aliens were assimilated into the synthesis; their widely differing modes of thought and life and worship being given their due places in the scheme by a marvellous interpretative process. But while the evolution of the spirit thus proceeded upon highly complex lines, the growth of the material body went on in a simple unorganized fashion, so that the time arrived when the mesages of the spirit could no longer find their way unimpeded throughout, resulting in differences of spiritual intensity, and consequent compromises and aberrations in the character of its manifestations. That is why high thinking and degenerate living are seen side by side; ideals are converted into superstitions: and the finest of inspirations reduced to grossness in action, wherever the vitalizing spiritual stream is deprived of its freedom of onward movement.

The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body so as to harmonise with and give free and fitting expression to its ever-living soul. In other words our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater—and our national experiences are being dissipated and wasted for want of a storing and coordinating centre. The workings of the spirit are seen as flashes but cannot be utilised as a steady flame.

In the west the situation seems to bejust the opposite. There we see a highly organized body, as it were, of which the soul is dormant, or at least, not fully conscious. While our soul is in search of an adequate body for want of which it cannot give its inspirations effective shape, and succeeds only in displaying to the outside world various incongruities clothed in phantastic forms, we find the west deploring its lack of spirituality. But surely spirituality cannot be lacking where the larger self is finding such noble expression in comfort-scorning striving, in death-defying heroism. On what can this living for ideas be based if not on spirituality? As for the want of consciousness, does not that tend more and more to be remedied by the very activities to which so efficient an organism finds itself increasingly impelled?

It is only where life is petty and scattered, and society partitioned into mutually exclusive sects that the vision of the Great is lost—it is only there that the mental horizon becomes narrow, aspirations fail to soar high, and the spirit remains steeped in a perpetual despondency. Here and there some greater soul may succeed, like a cloud-topping peak, in rising into the serene atmosphere above; but the multitudes wallowing in the slough below are as devoid of material consolations as of clarity of spiritual perception, and an unmeaning repetition of ritual is the only lifelike response of which they seem capable.

If the spiritual genius of India is not to prove futile for the purposes of humanity then it needs must seek to acquire the art of body-building. May it not be possible, in that quest, to avail ourselves of the assistance of the West without treading that slippery path of imitation which leads only to self-destruction?

Source: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: a miscellany (Sahitya Akademi, 1994)

Secure under the New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons in Indian strategic culture

This is the full unedited version of my essay that appeared in the 35th anniversary special issue of India Today.

Despite living next to each other for most of history, despite having fundamentally different ways of looking at international relations, the number of cases of direct military conflict between India and China have been few. In fact, before the India-China war of 1962, the last recorded instance of a Chinese military expedition against India was in 649 CE, when a diplomatic misunderstanding caused a resourceful Chinese envoy to organise a force comprising of 7000 Nepali horsemen, 1200 Tibetan warriors and a few Chinese soldiers to organise a punitive expedition into the Gangetic plains. So, while India was invaded overland several times from the North West, and later from the southern ocean, the Northern frontier was relatively quiet. Why?

You probably guessed it — the Himalayas acted as insurmountable strategic barriers for most of history, specifically preventing the large scale passage of men and material necessary for invasions. It was only in the late 19th-century that technology began to ‘lower’ this barrier, by making it easier for troops to cross the mountains. It should therefore not surprise us that by the 1960s, technology had advanced to such an extent that the Himalayas no longer were the barriers they used to be in the centuries past. There was nothing to stop two very different civilisation-states, two incompatible political systems, two proud leaders and two geopolitical mindsets from clashing violently.

Even as technology lowered one strategic barrier it helped erect another. The advent of nuclear weapons in the latter half of the previous century restored the old equilibrium. Since 1998, after India unambiguously acquired a nuclear arsenal, the resulting strategic deterrence between India and China works quite like the Himalayas used to.

We can see nuclear weapons as the New Himalayas that keep us secure. As long as they are high —that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China or any other power will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion. Of course, we will continue to see skirmishes, proxy wars, terrorist attacks and geopolitical chess games under the nuclear umbrella, but a large scale war is very unlikely. For a nation with a strategic culture of being oblivious to external threats until they reach the plains of Panipat, if not the very walls of Delhi, acquiring security through the New Himalayas was perhaps the ideal way.

As much as nuclear weapons have profoundly added to our national security, many parts of our political, intellectual and military establishment have yet to come to terms with what it means to be a nuclear power. This is partly because knowledge of nuclear matters is limited to a small number of people within the government. It is partly because India has been a declared nuclear power for just over a decade. There are some who steadfastly refuse to think about nuclear weapons in any way other than seeing them as immoral and unethical, with disarmament their only goal. Whatever might be the reasons, nuclear weapons somehow do not figure in many policy conversations where they ought to.

Take for instance the enduring perception of “China doing another ’62, to put India in its place.” This leads to paranoid outrage on violations of the line of actual control, gratuitous self-flagellation on being “too weak”, followed by demands for us to invest in military capabilities to fight a land war on our North-eastern frontiers. Most of the time, this discourse ignores nuclear deterrence. When the nuclear dimension does figure, it is in the form of calls to throw away the no-first use policy or to develop thermonuclear warheads. Few ask whether the Chinese would jeopardise their historic ascent by getting into a war with India that will not only throw New Delhi into the arms of Washington, but could also go nuclear. Few ask how much the men in Beijing trust New Delhi when it solemnly declares that India won’t be the first to launch a nuclear strike. Will Chinese leaders be any more comforted that the warhead on the incoming Indian missile is a kiloton fission weapon, and not a megaton hydrogen bomb? Fundamentally rethinking our assumptions in the context of nuclear weapons will throw up different set of prescriptions of dealing with China.

While India has a well-considered nuclear doctrine and command-and-control structure with the red button in the hands of the prime minister, you can detect a certain nonchalance in the way this actually works. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee didn’t hand over control to his deputy in October 2000 when he underwent major surgery. That was in the days before the Nuclear Command Authority was set up, but even in 2009, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hospitalised for a bypass operation, the nation did not know who actually was in command of the nuclear arsenal. Was this person—presumably a senior cabinet minister—familiar enough with nuclear weapons policies and procedures? In other words, did he or she know what to do? We still don’t know. We ought to.

For all the talk about a new push towards global nuclear disarmament, it is more likely that the world will have two or three more nuclear weapons states in the near future. If Iran has the bomb it is quite likely that the Saudis will want to declare their hand too. A Saudi bomb will probably come from a Pakistani factory. So a triangular nuclear relationship among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel may be in the offing. We need not assume that this will necessarily make things more unstable.

In any case, the international nuclear order needs renewal. In the coming years, therefore, India will have to simultaneously discuss disarmament while ensuring that it has what it needs to ensure that the new Himalayas remain high. All the more reason for us, as a nation, to soberly but quickly reconcile to the value and utility of our nuclear weapons.

The case for Tibet

Saving the software of Nalanda

This passage from the Dalai Lama’s speech at Dharmasala yesterday is interesting. Although he intends this for China, it is really applicable to the international community.

The (People’s Republic of China, PRC) is a country comprising many nationalities, enriched by a diversity of languages and cultures. Protection of the language and culture of each nationality is a policy of the PRC, which is clearly spelt out in its constitution. Tibetan is the only language to preserve the entire range of the Buddha’s teachings, including the texts on logic and theories of knowledge (epistemology), which we inherited from India’s Nalanda University. This is a system of knowledge governed by reason and logic that has the potential to contribute to the peace and happiness of all beings. Therefore, the policy of undermining such a culture, instead of protecting and developing it, will in the long run amount to the destruction of humanity’s common heritage. [Dalai Lama’s official website]

If the hardware of Nalanda was destroyed many centuries ago, the software lives on in Tibetan culture. This is an important reason for Indian society to support the preservation of Tibetan culture.

The legitimate state of the Middle East

Does the absence of a culture of “settled rule” imply continued instability?

At a time when political unrest is spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East, here’s a passage from Deepak Lal’s In Praise of Empires.

In his enthralling history of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East, David Fromkin concludes that [the unfulfilled Allied hope that they were installing permanent successors to the Ottoman sultans in the new states they had created] was due to “a characteristic feature of the region’s politics: that in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on the rules of the game—and no universally shared belief in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.” This is part of a deep crisis of social and political identity, similar to one faced by Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire.

In this search for a political identity, Muslims are not helped by an age-old cultural trait. The empire which the Arabs created was a conquest society, and subsequent Islamic polities have never lost their militaristic nature. The great fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw the medieval Islamic polity he observed as consisting of a settled, nonpolitical society and a tribal state, either imported or imposed by conquest. Whereas the Chinese, for instance, in their cyclical view of history saw settled rule as the norm and a change of dynasties as the result of a loss of virtue of an old tired dynasty, the Islamic polity never accepted the notion of settled rule. Ibn Khaldun considered it effeminate. This has been the black hole of the Islamic policy from its inception.

The social ethos of the political culture of Islam (according to Shlomo Avineri) “is imbued with martial values and the spirit of the army” unlike any other existing culture. “In the Arab world, military rule is political legitimacy; it is the only authentic form of government which has ever emerged in the Arab world.” It makes “glory, honor, pride, form—the virtues of chivalry—into the prime motors of the social ethos.” The democratic constitutions imposed by the West in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were quickly overturned once the West’s representatives departed, and the traditional military form of government clothed in various new civilian hues and ideologies was reestablished. In the Middle East “the question ‘what is the army doing in politics?’ is never raised. Of course the army is in politics; this has been its business since Mohammed, so to speak.” No better example of the continuance of this cultural trait in Islamic countries is provided by the fate of the successor states of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Their respective armies had a common heritage and training as part of the imperial Indian army. All three countries had similar Westminster-style constitutions at their independence. But only the two non-Islamic polities—India and Sri Lanka—have succeeded in maintaining them and keeping the army out of politics. [Lal, In Praise of Empires, pp88-89]

The public protests in the Middle East are essentially anti-Establishment. It remains to be seen whether the resulting political transformations will prove Professor Lal wrong.

Note: An earlier version of this post wrongly attributed the Avineri quote to Walter Russell Mead. The error is regretted. (It arose due to the ghastly practice of endnotes by chapter. It must be abolished.)

Grand Strategy

India has always had a grand strategy: to keep the country united

N S Sisodia, IDSA’s director-general, makes the case in the Indian Express today for the strategic affairs community to develop and articulate a grand strategy for India. IDSA recently launched the National Strategy Project (INSP) that aims to bring together a wide range of scholars, analysts and experts and jointly shape a grand strategy. (Disclosure: a couple of us at Takshashila are involved in this project).

Now, that government-related institutions are beginning to think systematically about the big “Why” questions of foreign and national security policies is a good thing. (ICRIER had launched a National Interest Project in 2007). Does India need a grand strategy that will inform and influence policymakers across ministries, across political party lines and over time? Obviously, yes. Should this be publicly articulated? Most certainly—it might not convince everyone, but doing so offers us a way to assess whether or not policymakers are sticking to the given script.

But is it true that India has lacked a grand strategy all this while?

Two answers are usually offered: the first, made famous by George Tanham, suggests that India lacks coherent strategic thinking. Unlike many other countries, the Indian government’s decision-making remains behind a wall of secrecy, records remain locked up in archives or personal collections and few people close to the action write books on contemporary events, if they write at all. So it is fair for information-starved academic scholars to conclude that the absence of evidence is really evidence of absence—forget grand, they would say, New Delhi lacks strategy.

The second answer contends that non-alignment was India’s grand strategy from independence to the end of the Cold War. During the early Nehruvian-era, non-alignment had realist underpinnings, but in 1962—when Nehru requested Kennedy for US air power support—non-alignment became a grand slogan. But what are bureaucracies for if not to provide policy continuity? Non-alignment continued to be worshipped by India’s politicians and intellectuals even after Indira Gandhi—in an act of hard realism—signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was only when the Cold War ended that non-alignment became a painfully obvious anachronism. The deity had vanished, leaving the worshippers lost and confused.

So it is perhaps not a coincidence that Tanham’s view gained traction in India the early 1990s, just after the Cold War ended.

Actually, the case of the missing grand strategy remained unsolved because they were looking in the wrong place. India’s leaders, at least from the Mauryas to the Mughals to Manmohan Singh, have always had a grand strategy. And it is a very simple one—to unite India and keep it united. Scholars of international relations have missed this because India’s grand strategy has been largely domestic in its focus. As K M Panikkar laments, India’s rulers have always been preoccupied with the subcontinent. Even as it indicates a lack of interest in extra-subcontinental geopolitics, it suggests that they were not “bereft of coherent strategic thinking”.

From Chandragupta’s empire building to Aurangzeb’s military expeditions to the Deccan to the Indian republic’s foreign policy, the grand strategy is consistent—bringing the whole of the Indian subcontinent under their rule and keeping it that way. Non-alignment was not grand strategy, but rather, an approach that followed from the grand strategy. And Tanham was wrong. The survival and security of the state, the most parsimonious definition of the national interest, has been and remains India’s grand strategy. It should remain so.

That said, can India afford such parsimony in its strategic approach towards the twenty-first century? Not quite, because to the extent that India’s grand strategy caused India’s leaders to be inward-looking, both the opportunities and threats emanating from outside have been neglected. In the highly competitive times of the twenty-first century, India cannot afford to miss either. So there is a case to rethink grand strategy. There is a need to shake up the foreign policy and security establishment from one that was defending a weak India from a world that was out to get us, to promoting the interests of a stronger India in a world where there are opportunities as there are threats.

More makers of modern India

Rajadhyaksha’s review of Guha’s book

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha has a fine review of Ramachandra Guha’s “Makers of Modern India” in Mint.

Reading through the selections of the 19 makers of modern India, one is struck by the sheer diversity of concerns that gripped their minds—the gradual reformism of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the militant populism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the enlightened globalism of Rabindranath Tagore, the attacks on caste by E.V. Ramaswami, the feminism of Shinde, the nation-building of Nehru, the futile quest for alternatives to parliamentary democracy by Jayaprakash Narayan, the fight for a free market economy by C. Rajagopalachari, the sharp investigations into caste as a central fact of Indian life by Ram Manohar Lohia and the insights into tribal life by Elwin.

These and other leaders have continued relevance. The splendid economic boom that India is in the middle of will inevitably be socially disruptive as well. It is a well-documented fact that the social strain of such disruption often leads to rebellion or hyper nationalism, to anarchy or oligarchic rule. We see early signs of all these in India, in tribal rage harvested by the Naxalites and the flag waving encouraged by the mainstream political parties. It is critical at such as juncture that India remains in touch with the enlightened political thought that emerged in response to colonial rule and later gave us a liberal republic.

A sound understanding of Indian political traditions would also help us understand the importance of Ambedkar’s perceptive warning on 25 November 1949. [Read the whole thing at Mint]

That Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech should make it into the book is appropriate. Contemporary India must read and reflect on perhaps the most prescient set of warnings that the republic’s founding fathers left behind. Ambedkar is well-known, even if his actual ideas are now forgotten, but Mr Guha has done well to commemorate lesser known, not no less brilliant thinkers too. (The book has Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Periyar, Raja Rammohan Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirao Phule, Gokhale, Tilak, Tarabai Shinde, Jinnah, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Golwalkar and Lohia)

Mr Rajadhyaksha rightly points out that Mr Guha’s work will be contentious because of who it leaves out. I personally think Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, or “Gora”, should be more than a footnote in modern India’s intellectual history. There are many more.

So why not share who you think ought to be considered a maker of modern India in the comments space? (Note: if you are linking to a URL, please ensure that you enclose it in valid HTML tags)

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”


No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]