Reforming the home ministry’s troops

In my DNA column – why India’s paramilitary forces need structural reform

This is an excerpt from the article that appears in today’s DNA.

Why do we need BSF for the border with Pakistan, but separate forces called ITBP for the border with China and the Sashastra Seema Bal for the borders with Nepal and Bhutan? Why should the Assam Rifles be distinct from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)? My colleague Bibhu Prasad Routray argues that it is a good idea to merge the various central paramilitary forces into a single force. Indeed, given that most of them are doing each others’ jobs anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to bring them under one chain of command? If this is way too radical, then why not rationalise them into three forces with distinct roles—internal security, border security and infrastructure security? This is as good for accountability as it is for the forces to develop greater competence within their domains.

In fact, massive expansion of central paramilitary forces without structural reforms could end up being counterproductive. The most important links in the internal security chain are the beat constable, the local police station and the deputy superintendent of police. Policing is a state subject. The massive expansion of central para-military forces after 26/11 belies the total refusal of all state governments to implement the Supreme Court-ordered police reforms. Indian states persist with a colonial police structure designed to keep a subject population under the rulers’ thumb. Persuading them to change is hard enough. If a state government comes to believe that it has easy access to large numbers of central forces, it will have fewer incentives to improve its own police force.

The goal of internal security should not be about sending the CRPF (and certainly not the BSF) to Hyderabad. It should be about ensuring that the Andhra Pradesh police can handle the task without outside help. [DNA]

The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

Takshashila launches the B Raman Fellowship for Geopolitical Analysis

Encouraging popular, high-quality discourse on international relations

The Takshashila Institution, an networked, independent non-partisan think tank, Sunday March 6th 2011, announced the institution of the B Raman Fellowship for Geopolitical Analysis—to encourage, recognise and reward exemplary individuals who raise the quality of the discourse on international relations using the internet and new media.

Eligibility and Expectation
The Fellowship will be awarded to Indian nationals, from any discipline, educational background or occupation, who demonstrate the potential to analyse geopolitical events on an ongoing basis and explain them to the the public at large. The Fellow is required to publish articles regularly, online and in the mainstream media.

The Fellowship is awarded for the period of one year and will only be awarded to an extraordinary candidate. Fellows may pursue other full-time or part-time occupations during their tenure. The Fellowship carries a total stipend of Rs 100,000 for the year.

Nominations can be made on an ongoing basis through Members, Fellows or Councillors of the Takshashila Institution. These will be evaluated by an anonymous evaluation panel and tabled for approval by Takshashila’s Fellowship Committee.

For more information, contact Takshashila.

We have our thumbs intact

A tribute to K Subrahmanyam on the occasion of his memorial at Chinmaya Mission Auditorium, New Delhi

Cmde C Uday Bhaskar referred to my tribute at today’s memorial function. The following is the complete text:

By inspiring thousands of Ekalavyas in India and around the world, K Subrahmanyam has created the strategic culture whose absence he had once brought to our attention.

He, like no other, and largely without his own knowledge, turned some of best minds of recent generations, to think deeply, objectively and dispassionately about India’s interests and how they might be furthered in the unfolding geopolitics of our times.

India’s emergence as a global power is by no means guaranteed, but should it happen, we will find the unmistakeable traces of K Subrahmanyam’s intellectual legacy informing and illuminating that journey.

But we will still have our thumbs intact.

K Subrahmanyam, RIP

If only the Indian government had heeded a hundredth of what he had to say…

K Subrahmanyam passed away in New Delhi yesterday. He was the single most important strategist in independent India.

I had the good fortune of knowing him since around 2006, and he has been a source of encouragement and support to us at INI, Pragati and Takshashila. He would respond to some of my blog posts and articles over email, wrote for and gave an interview for Pragati, and, despite his age and health, turned up at the first Takshashila executive programme in New Delhi in December 2009.

You should listen to the interview in his own voice. You can also download the published interview in PDF.

Here’s a excerpt:

Nitin Pai: Looking back over the decades, what would you say were the best and worst moments?
K Subrahmanyam: One of the best moments was on 16th December 1971, when we achieved success in Bangladesh and the other has to be split into two—18th May 1974 and 11th May 1998, when we conducted nuclear tests.

One of the worst moments was on 18th November 1962. I was then working in the defence ministry, when I came to know that Prime Minister Nehru had written to President Kennedy asking for American aircraft to operate from India soil against the Chinese. This was when India itself had not even used its own air force. The imposition of emergency on 25th of June 1975 was the second worst moment.

10th April 2008

What were the learning points from 1962?
It is a learning point in a big sense. We had an army whose leadership was immature as they had been promoted too rapidly. They were incapable of handling such situations. This was true not only of military but also of the diplomatic community and to some extent it was true of politicians including Jawaharlal Nehru. He was persuaded that it would be either a full-scale war in which case other major nations were expected to support India or that it would remain as patrol clashes. That the Chinese could calibrate the operation so very carefully, mainly to humiliate him, and then withdraw, was something that did not occur to him. It was a very masterful strategy of the Chinese who took full advantage of Cuban missile crisis.

Have the lessons been learnt?
No. Take the liberation of Bangladesh as a case study. Pakistan held free and fair election in December of 1970 under a mistaken assumption that nobody would win a clear majority and the army would still be able to manipulate the country. I was convinced that the army would not hand over power and that we had to be prepared for problems. Then came the hijacking of the Indian aircraft that was blown up in Lahore after which Pakistani planes were banned from Indian airspace. The Pakistanis started building up troops in Bangladesh and the ships were going via Colombo. Everybody knew about it. But we didn’t do anything to warn our armed forces to be ready till 25th March 1971 when Pakistanis began the crack down (See page 21). When asked to intervene on 30th March, the Indian army requested for more time. When they got the time that they needed, they did the job beautifully well. But we did not anticipate this eventuality.

Let us take Kargil as another example. In the Kargil committee report, we have said that the Cabinet Committee on Security should have a regular intelligence briefing by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. But the government has not accepted this. There is no sensitivity to intelligence in India. The top decision-makers do not get themselves briefed on the state of affairs. They only expect to get an update if something happens. This attitude still persists and this is a major weakness.

The whole attitude to intelligence needs to change. Professor Manohar Lal Sondhi used to say that since I was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, I should have nothing to do with academics! During the second world war, all the intellectuals were in intelligence.

American professors used to encourage students to join the intelligence community. Even today, I see many CIA advertisements in university campuses across America.

But when I ask people in Jawaharlal Nehru University to consider a career in intelligence, they simply refuse. Many consider it unethical. [Download the rest]

Pragati January 2011 – Securing Our Ocean

The January 2011 issue (No 46) is out. The highlight of this month’s issue is India’s relationship with its extended neighbourhood: first, we focus on maritime matters and second, we debate what role India ought to play vis-a-vis its neighbours. Featured are two book review essays, on the Indian Ocean and on the problems with military modernisation.

The Takshashila Institution launched its nationwide roundtable conclave programme in Bangalore last month, and you’ll find a report of what was discussed there.

Also in this issue: on the importance of ideas in politics, on corruption being “kicked upstairs, on human trafficking and on a new phase in the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Download the digital community edition in PDF format (3MB). Full articles are also available on Pragati’s website.

Plus: The wonderful people who run Quill Media have reduced the price they charge to bring you a printed copy. It’s Rs 50 per copy or Rs 500 per year (12 copies). Do sign up to receive our magazine in print each month, and take out gift subscriptions to introduce your friends to Pragati.

Cover versions

How dare ‘a little magazine’ accuse Forbes India of plagiarism!

Note: See an update at the bottom of this post

Take a look at these covers:

Pragati - October 2010 Cover
Pragati Oct 2010
Forbes India - Dec 2010
Forbes India Dec 2010, ©

Clearly, they both use the metaphor of Clark Kent changing into Superman that most of us are familiar with. There are hundreds of different images that depict this, but both are based on the same interpretation by Alex Ross. More importantly, they convey a very similar thought—about an Indian politician transforming for the ordinary to the extraordinary.

The image to your left is of the cover of Pragati’s October 2010 issue published online on October 1st 2010. The image on your right is from Forbes India’s December 2010 special issue, published on December 17th. Clarke Kent has been changing to Superman for several decades now, but Forbes India’s use of the visual metaphor, in a similar context came two months after our October issue.

I—and this is my personal opinion—think that this is not a coincidence. To me it looks like Forbes India copied our cover, and I said so in a tweet on New Year’s eve.

At Pragati we believe we are selling ideas and not magazines. Every issue of our magazine is available under a Creative Commons license for non-commericial use. We also allow commercial publications to reprint our articles free of cost (but after getting our permission, which we generally give if the original author allows). Since our contributors write or draw for Pragati out of passion, I think we owe it to them to ensure that they get due recognition and credit for their work.

In this case, our October 2010 cover is unique because it was entirely the work of Aditya Dipankar & Anuj Agarwal, a team of very talented designers. Usually I play a major role in designing the cover, but in this case, Aditya and Anuj pitched this concept to me, which I approved with some changes.

Now, it is possible that the design team of Forbes India arrived at their Superman cover independently of us and I might be wrong to allege plagiarism. I expected the editors of Forbes India to check with all members of the design team involved in producing the cover on where the inspiration came from. If they found it to be a mere coincidence, an explanation in defence would have satisfied both me and their readers. Otherwise, a “sorry, thank you” would have been in order. It wouldn’t take me more than a moment to apologise if I found my allegations to be erroneous.

Unfortunately, that’s not what they did. The official Forbes_India twitterer said—and the magazine’s editor, a Inderjit Gupta retweeted—that the Superman metaphor is well-known, famous, iconic and our designers might have been reading the same comics. As if we didn’t know that!

What was worse is that Peter Griffin, one of their editors—writing on his personal blog with a disclaimer that it was in his personal capacity—used intemperate language not only to disparage Pragati, Indian National Interest and Takshashila, but also to threaten us with legal action for slander and—hold on to your seats—violating the flag code! This wasn’t Mr Griffin defending his magazine against allegations. He was arrogantly excoriating a ‘little magazine’ for having the temerity to accuse Forbes India of plagiarism.

I see no point in responding to Mr Griffin’s vituperations against us because they are irrelevant to whether or not Forbes India copied our cover. But it must be said that he clearly is irony deficient. Forbes India can use Superman because that is well-known and iconic, but he says the Indian National Interest is a “rip-off” of the Nixon Center’s The National Interest. He dismisses us as “people who can’t even think up an original name aren’t worth paying too much attention to” but works for Network18, an Indian media company that owns CNN-IBN, CNBC-TV18 and, well, Forbes India. Or maybe he isn’t paying too much attention to them.

Update: Peter Griffin wrote to me this evening. He apologised for his remarks but maintained that my accusation of plagiarism is “completely unjustified”. He has published a part of this on his blog post. This is as courageous as it is correct and gracious.

On the charge of plagiarism, I have shared with him some information that caused me to suspect that there is more to this than mere coincidence. I am assured that he will look into the matter with the seriousness it deserves.

Second Update: Mr Griffin has followed up on the information I gave him and informed me on January 5th that my suspicion is unfounded. He also notes that one of his colleagues “may have seen the name Pragati in portfolios that he has seen, but has no recollection of it.” I will take Mr Griffin’s word on this, give his team the benefit of the doubt and retract the allegation with my personal apologies.

Takshashila’s Year Zero

Why, what and what next

India’s problems are scaling faster than the attempted solutions. In every country there is a governance gap—between the economy and its governance—but in our country, the problem is severe, acute and worsening. From telecommunications to finance, from education to agriculture, every sector of the economy needs both specialist domain expertise and management skills. To the extent that India is unable to inject these in its government agencies, it is obvious that we will continue to suffer not only poor governance, but also corruption and injustice.

At Takshashila, we have made it our mission to change this. We are acutely aware that the race we are running is marathon, that we will have to run it for decades and the chances that we will succeed are uncertain. Yet, it is a race we have to run.

We want to build one of the best schools of statecraft in India. It will be school that is as rooted in India’s civilisational values as it is global in its outlook. It will aim to bring together the best minds in public policy to impart customised, high-quality education to the most promising graduate students. That’s the vision. We have a sense of how to get there, but we do not want start the school tomorrow morning. Since it is to be a school rooted in the Indian experience, we want to scan the length and breadth of the country and build the body of knowledge first.

Yes, this is an audacious project for a bunch of people most of who did not even have greying temples when we started out (and most do not have them even now). So we want to earn our stripes—build credibility even as we validate our own assumptions—by establishing Takshashila as a networked think tank. This is the first step towards realising our vision of an outstanding Indian school of statecraft.

It is far more effective to connect talented individuals passionate about changing India for the better into a networked community, than to attempt to hire them and put them in the same building. We do not have the budget for it, and even if we did, we would still stick to the networked model, because we believe it is far more suited to the twenty-first century. [See the Takshashila website for more details]

Thanks to a substantial initial donation from Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, we could start much faster than we otherwise could.

So that’s the preamble. This year was our year zero—the year we got off the ground.

We launched our policy research programme and by January 2011, we expect to have more than a dozen fellows. A number of bright younger people have joined us as research associates. Fellows and research associates are spread across the globe, have day jobs and collaborate with each other over the Internet.

Our Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs (TEPSA) was got off to a start in December 2009, with a full-day programme for senior defence officials, in partnership with the National Maritime Foundation. TEPSA partners educational institutions, think tanks and private companies to train executives on public policy subjects. We will be doing more of these in 2011.

We inaugurated our Roundtable Conclave programme last month. Here the idea is to engage civil society by moving high-quality public policy discussions out from New Delhi into the towns and cities of India. We started in Bangalore, and intend to take the programme into other places over the next several months. The idea is to connect individuals who are interested in public affairs to be part of an informed and influential national community.

All this, of course, is in addition to our online initiatives at the Indian National Interest (INI) platform of blogs and on twitter. From the time we started, popularity and site traffic has never been our objective. We just wanted to put out the most credible, non-partisan opinion on what we think is in India’s national interest. And we will continue doing so.

Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review, a monthly magazine we started in April 2007, and which Rajeev Mantri’s Quill Media has been distributing print copies of since October 2009, is now into its 46th issue. Like at Takshashila and INI in general, Pragati has attracted a fantastic team of energetic, passionate and committed individuals, and great set of contributors, all working pro bono. From the editorial team to individual contributors, nobody gets paid. Yet Pragati has become one of India’s most well-regarded publications on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. In 2011, we want to increase the circulation of both the digital PDF edition and of the printed copies.

Since August 2010, I have personally been working on the Takshashila initiative on a full-time basis, thanks to a good friend’s personal sponsorship. I have been fortunate to receive encouragement from a number of people who saw value in what we are trying to achieve. Even so, such a step would be impossible if not for both the support and reality checks imposed on me by my wife…and well, by my children.

Takshashila needs your help in every one of the areas I’ve written about. We need financial support to build our endowment fund so that we can hire the best graduate students to work on cutting-edge policy research. We need organisers and volunteers across the country to help organise our roundtable conclaves. We need you to subscribe to Pragati, take out gift subscriptions and in general spread the word around.

It’s about building an institution that will last. It’s about being a lighthouse that will provide direction to all ships that are willing to navigate by its beacon. Two-and-half millennia ago Takshashila was the intellectual fountainhead not only of Indian statecraft but indeed of all walks of human endeavour. It’s about creating one for modern India.

Announcing the Takshashila Roundtable Conclave – Bangalore

December 19th, 2010 — Bangalore

The Takshashila Roundtable conclave programme aims to create a shared understanding of India’s national interests that can serve as the intellectual bases for public policy. The programme will bring high-quality, cutting-edge discussions on strategic affairs, national security and governance to cities and towns across India, creating a platform for dynamic individuals to connect with each other and to the wider policy-making circles.

The Bangalore Roundtable will have two parts. In the first segment, it will have focussed discussion sessions on emerging policy issues: from geopolitics to geoeconomics, from national security to social capital. Takshashila Fellows will be present to share their research and insights. The second segment moves beyond discussion: participants will brainstorm, develop and commit to their own personal action plans on how they will engage in public affairs in the year ahead.

Mrs Rohini Nilekani will inaugurate the Roundtable. Distinguished Guests include Ambassador Leela Ponappa (former Deputy National Security Advisor), Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (Managing Editor, Mint), Vivek Dehejia (Carleton University) and others. Several Takshashila Fellows and Research Associates will also be present.

Note: For non-members, participation at the event is by invitation only. If you’d like to come, please request an invitation here. As we have only a very small number of seats left, and want to have a healthy diversity of participants, let me apologise in advance if we are unable invite you for this session.