Warfare in history and the Indian predicament – Gautam Sen

Ceremonial Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) between the armies of China and India was held in Ladakh sector on the occasion of the Chinese Spring Festival in January 2020. Since that meeting China has aggressively brought in more troops and crossed the LAC at various places.

Dr. Gautam SenWhat threatens India most is a two-front war, which it would have difficulty surviving for more than a few months without substantial international help in defence material and major diplomatic intervention to take on the unlimited supplies of men and material of China, with the accompanying threat of a mobilised Pakistan on it borders. – Dr Gautam Sen

Part I

The fear of war and the desire for a peaceful life are an understandable ardent wish in most people. In fact, officers in the armed forces usually have an especial abhorrence of armed conflict, knowing full well its brutal cost. However, this perfectly fathomable yearning creates a profound misapprehension in most people about the place of war in human society and between organised communities. War is regarded by most people as exceptional and peace the norm in human affairs. Unfortunately, this is a misperception about the nature of rivalry in a competitive world and the utterly dire consequences that result from it. In reality, war and peace are unavoidable sides of the same coin, apt to succeed each other with predictable regularity though the intermission may occasionally be prolonged.

In this regard, India is a most peculiar case of a society evidently oblivious to the reality of violence as a perpetual phenomenon and apparently determined to discount its ever-present threat to its own very survival. Yet, India has known little else besides chronic warfare in its history, ancient, medieval and modern, and celebrates its past by citing a war of massive proportions and espouses a foundational scriptural text, which arises from that very titanic war. Perhaps, as a reaction to the deeply embedded memory of the price of persisting violence there is a desire among Indians to suppress the truth by expunging their recollections. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi articulated this subliminal apprehension and provided a potent and enduring alibi for wilful amnesia. Only in 1962 did India wake up and begin changing its misapprehension about the nature of a habitually violent world by preparing itself for warfare, which duly came again three years later.

A vast body of writing by historians and scholars of international relations have cogitated expansively on the nature of warfare in the world. Some have eschewed the concept of a world society in favour of system to underline the existence of an essential divergence among organised groups. Others have adopted a Hegelian notion of constructivism to suggest that beliefs are the critical factor in the predisposition to conflict. Perhaps a middle path between the two incompatible notions is to propose that even if competition and the potential for conflict inheres in the world system when and how that reality unfolds are, at least in part, a product of human construction. For example, the balance of power might have required the US to oppose countries with a pro-communist disposition, but failing to grasp that the Vietnamese struggle was largely nationalist and unlikely to be unavoidably opposed to US interests in Asia was possibly a serious misconstruction.

Even if one were to adopt a constructivist viewpoint and agree the world of competitive violence was created by (mis)perception, it can nevertheless be deemed a corporeal reality. It is the historical reality to which vast attention has been devoted by scholars, from Hans Morgenthau to Kenneth Waltz and beyond, and imparted to generations of students. Even a cursory review of history anywhere in the world identifies the human propensity of organised groups to violence against each other. The Western tradition is one especially deeply imbued with violent compulsions that date back to the Greek world. They prioritised soldering over any primacy allegedly given to the world of ideas. Even the great Socrates was a soldier. Violent conflict and the willingness to engage in copious bloodletting have been the Western norm, from Scipio Africanus’s spoliation of Carthage to Caesar’s pacification of Gaul and from the seemingly endless carnage of the Anglo-French Hundred Year War to the brutal seventeenth century Thirty Year religious conflict, culminating in the immense devastation of the twentieth century.

The norm of warfare is everywhere and only the advent of nuclear weapons has curbed the instinct of major powers to lay each other to waste with the vast industrial capacities they possess to do so. Thus, warfare continues across the world in many guises and India is a principal victim of it. The interesting questions that arise from an Indian perspective are the nature of these multiple guises, why they are so commonplace in the Indian context and why Indians persist in remaining largely impervious to the reality they are experiencing. The reason why India is a major target is the old historical one of being an attractive proposition by virtue of the spoils it has always offered conquerors. The second and critical factor is its extraordinary vulnerability to foreign incursions and internal subjugation, a truly permeable vacuum that cannot remain empty for any length of time. It is the equivalent of walking around in finery and jewellery in a darkened street where gangs rule. In the modern context, taking India by force of arms, like Iraq recently or indeed fight over it like Syria, is likely to prove costly and such an endeavour would only galvanise the population to resist indefinitely, as many historic invaders discovered. However, India is an extraordinarily porous object of attention and vulnerable to subversion through treason. This is how the mighty Scindias succumbed during the Second Anglo-Maratha Wars of 1803-05 and Maharaj Ranjit Singh’s successor kingdom was betrayed and by its own generals in 1845-46.

The first reason why India remains vulnerable to persistent foreign interest and inside meddling is its lack of societal cohesion and the absolutely primordial fact of the absence of an overriding and stable societal elite nationally. Indian political life has long been characterised by unending contest for socio-political primacy over it and that phenomenon has acquired especially potent contemporary dimensions, with a new dispensation briskly replacing an antecedent one with a long history of supremacy over the Indian polity. And India’s erstwhile political elites are patently unwilling to cede power under any circumstances. They are also perfectly disposed to ally with foreign adversaries to forestall their own displacement. This kind of life-and-death political struggle is also underpinned by societal forces on the ground, across India, allied to the various political rivals. Other than for the fact that they have potentially decisive consequences, the particular motivating features of the typology of social discords that accompany the internecine struggle for political power are not of profound significance in themselves, howsoever deeply felt by the protagonists. In the Indian case, these divisive forces, mightily cultivated by the political dispensation threatened by change, are caste, regional identity and religion. All these particularistic societal fault lines and foundations of national division are subject to international accentuation as well, by interested parties that have acquired a foothold inside India’s fractured polity.

India’s multiple internal divisions are too tempting indeed for foreign predators to overlook. The subjugation of India is an alluring prospect to friends and foes alike and the supposed friendship of some countries is merely a contingency of sharing a common foe. A friend may manipulate the existence of a common foe to advance its own perceived long-term aspiration to exploit the relationship for yet greater control over India. This is how the US acts in relation to India and uses its many Indian assets to advance the goal of acquiring compelling influence over Indian policy. One vehicle for it is by insisting on the right to promote religious conversion. It is of course also conceivable that India will encounter a compelling military challenge that will alter the matrix of its national manoeuvrability in relation to urgent international issues. What threatens India most is a two-front war, which it would have difficulty surviving for more than a few months without substantial international help in defence material and major diplomatic intervention. India has neither the ordnance supplies nor the financial resources to take on the unlimited supplies of men and material of China, with the accompanying threat of a mobilised Pakistan on it borders.

The support it would require in such a situation will come at a high price, with dramatic concessions almost certainly being demanded by the US, the likely source of significant assistance.

The fractured Indian polity and society divided by caste, region and religion is intermediated by various institutional arrangements deeply inimical to its national well-being. Most Indian political parties are infiltrated by foreign intelligence agencies in varying degree, some major political organisations and their leaders even connected to the intelligence services of hostile neighbouring countries. The failure to interdict terror attacks in Delhi in 2005 and UP a few years later and the ability of Pakistani terrorists to operate with alacrity on 26/11, were due to the collaboration of major Indian political parties and national leaders with Islamic terrorism. Elements of the Indian bureaucracy are also significantly compromised by their relative impecuniousness by Western standards and the allure of a life for offspring and relatives abroad, i.e. the green card and foreign university scholarship syndrome. At the level of society, India is also thoroughly suborned by foreign influence on its media and over individual journalists, and the ideological sway over its intellectual life in universities and, increasingly, think-tanks beholden to global allegiances and funding. In addition, role of NGOs in India is dismaying because they have enjoyed carte blanche for decades. They successfully penetrated Indian society at every level, especially by asserting religious freedom, which is nothing but a cover for destabilisation activities of foreign intelligence agencies. Some of the subversion of India is also, unprecedentedly, funded by major domestic companies, particularly IT behemoths, who finance known foreign-backed detractors of the country.

One specific issue worth contemplating in more detail is the intangible but powerful role of foreign ideologies, which have an unusually profound impact on how educated Indians perceive the world and their place in it. These ideologies have a pivotal and underrated impact in undermining India’s independent thinking. They have a negative impact on the choices of national policies, unable to swim against the tide of dominant modes of thinking and their insistent plausibility. For example, Indian economists are basically a product of Anglo-American indoctrination and their ideological impact has been deleterious for the Indian economy, veering from uncritical statist obsessions to blind reverence for markets. Models and ideas in economics, like counterparts in the other social sciences, are akin to a shared conversation in which one can only participate meaningfully by speaking in the same language. Not so long ago, submitted articles to economics academic journals were obliged to pay homage to the notion of rational expectations, now unceremoniously relegated after the bitter fruits of hard experience were tasted by the profession.

The same experience is true of the other social sciences. One cannot engage in discourse within them without joining an ongoing conversation in the particular language in which it is occurring. It is also only possible to publish in established scholarly journals to advance one’s career by adhering to the prevailing canon to a degree that is astonishing. As a result, Indian academics abroad quickly become shameless mercenaries because they are only able to participate in academic intellectual life by joining the established conversational dialogue in its existing language. The compelling nature of the rationale is underlined by the fact that almost all Indian social scientists abroad routinely submit to the idea that the liquidation of the Indian Union is morally and politically acceptable. Many Kolkata intellectuals disbelieved the Pakistani army committed atrocities in East Pakistan in 1970-71 and some privately advocate the ceding of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan even today. Such vicious antagonistic views were the staple of Anglo-American and evangelist strategies and the established lingua franca of foreign academic intellectual discourses on India.

Part II

India’s situation is parlous and all the prosperity of the past two decades has blinded even educated and supposedly political conscious Indians to the immense dangers their country is confronting. But there are policies that can be adopted to protect the country while it achieves greater societal integrity and economic self-sufficiency. A prerequisite for the ability to chart a course of action that will secure the country and its heritage depends on the evolution of political power within India. It is a primordial necessity for a single political party or cohesive alliance to fuse over the shared national destiny of remaining territorially and politically united. This sense of national purpose did exist briefly after Indian independence but dissipated by the early 1970s, reaching a nadir by the 1990s, with a bitter contest taking place over the nation’s destiny until 2014.

This pattern of political rivalry and division has been weakened by the recent political transformation at the centre but whether it will endure is unclear. In fact, the incumbent administration is facing a tsunami of trials, often originating abroad to derail the attempt to consolidate a national consensus and underpin it with socioeconomic advances that have eluded India for centuries. In this context, public debates on the urgency of protecting India’s supposed diversity and tolerance, and the ardent support within the country and abroad for upholding them at all cost, are a predacious fraud. They are products of the struggle for political supremacy within India and the foreign interest in a weak Indian federation susceptible to intimidation. The public discourses are without intellectual merit and entirely contrived. If political authority at the centre is stable and successfully incorporates the diverging aspirations of the people of India and the political classes that articulate them, the first vital step to ensure the viability of the country will have been taken.

A medium-term goal needs to be a wide-ranging review of NGOs, especially when funding originates abroad, and the decisive curtailment of their undoubted subversive activities. There is urgency to recognise that foreign evangelical and religious groups are political agents that have goals inimical to the security of the nation and should be firmly curbed. The political nature of religious conversion was demonstrably instantiated by the Kundakulum protests that Wikileaks revealed were instigated by Christian constituents and groups. The issue of tempestuous universities and a highly partisan media, routinely endorsing anti national, treasonous sentiment and endeavour, are more complex and requires a long-term strategy to check. Such inexcusable activities have become well-established in some academic institutions, empowering subversion by marginal groups far in excess of any political footprint they possess in Indian life and they cannot be tolerated any longer. The most unsavoury, Indian communism is, in fact, a foreign malady inside India’s body politic. It functions as an agent of external interests, brazenly offering shelter to assorted terrorist groups. The Indian state has been inexplicably hesitant in dealing with major university centres of subversion, dominated by small groups of communist and Islamist radicals, that even recently managed to instigate protest that held the capital to ransom. The first priority is to impose the rule of law to ensure individuals who appear to have had a free run for decades no longer enjoy the freedom to do so and face judicial sanction. The deeper problem is the intellectual seizure from within of institutions by the Indian left that was facilitated by previous governments, as the price of political cooperation necessary for weak governing parliamentary coalitions.

The policy should be to by-pass these academic institutions by promoting other centres of learning that do not espouse protest and subversion of the national purpose as their default ideational premise. Institutions within which violent protest festers should have their core intellectual activity re-oriented in favour of the hard sciences and funding for the social sciences truncated. Much needs to be done on the level of curricula, but the government has so far even failed to address its most egregious and crass politicisation at the high school level. The media’s transgressions are an outcome of the disdainful anti national intellectual climate in the nation’s premier universities and they will adapt with the transformation of intellectual life initiated by change. Its international connections and murky financial affairs also enjoin constant surveillance. These measures need to begin and their implementation will require political dexterity and sophistication in how they are activated.

The practical feasibility of such policies would also probably require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to ensure legal challenges can be overcome constitutionally.

The Indian state is learning of late that violent subversion will also occur in urban centres and connect with so-called Maoist revolts patronised by the Sino-Pak alliance and religious groups. A hard policy of interdiction will surely be required to prevent the government of India being destabilised at a moment opportune to its foreign adversaries. They will indubitably hope for and sponsor myriad forms of violence across India in the event there is a serious military encounter at the border. Such a distraction was apparently suspected in the aftermath of Operation Parakram when a massive conspiracy was instigated at Godhra in February 2002. It would be wise to enumerate a strategy of blocking areas of cities most likely to be the origin of a violent upsurge, ensure the rapid arrest of identified ringleaders and halt all communications. There is of course the much more serious and potentially insurmountable threat to India of a two-front war in the west and north and appropriate policies are required to negotiate them.

Various international defence-related agreements have been created in recent years with supposed allies to deal with such an eventuality, but there must be planning for a situation when India might have to face a challenge to its very survival alone. Any serious setback, in the context of a two-front war, may prompt other neighbours to advance their pre-existing territorial claims. Both Bangladesh and Nepal have stated demands that may prove an irresistible temptation for them if Delhi is compelled to sue for peace on terms dictated by the Sino-Pak alliance. Such a predicament may seem unlikely, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility and it would be wise to prepare for a worst-case scenario that poses an existential threat to India.

Appropriate policies can help achieve a crucial medium-term Indian goal of bolstering its manufacturing capacity in two decades or so. Indian governments have sought to realise this policy in the past and the incumbent one is attempting to implement it with more conviction. However, a substantial national manufacturing base is not relevant on grounds of economic welfare per se, which predicates economic specialisation on the basis of supposed comparative advantage. The evidence demonstrates that with very few exceptions all states acquire a manufacturing capacity, though larger countries establish it a lower level of per capita income. There is also a national security rationale for ensuring manufacturing capacity that China’s current global dominance of it is highlighting. For some decades, it has been understood that economic specialisation is dictated by issues like increasing returns to scale, the absence of significant differences in the cost of capital internationally, currency manipulation and the ‘first-mover’ advantage conferred on early entrants in the markets in question. It is therefore important to consider what kind of policy package would accelerate the creation of manufacturing capacity in India, which remains below the level expected for its per capita income, the service sector enjoying an unhealthy primacy to compensate for the lack of manufacturing. Apart from the military-security rationale for nurturing a manufacturing base, there is also the acknowledged necessity for it in order to provide employment and reduce dependence on the low productivity rural sector that constrains growth of incomes.

The list of urgent economic reforms is well-known and does not require to be rehearsed at length. India’s bedevilled by red tape, despite all official protestations to the contrary. Many Indian states have not eased land acquisition and India’s labour laws fail to offer real protection to those covered while extinguishing the opportunity for employment of the vast majority. The key is stable employment opportunities, not the expectation of permanent employment in one business. Some key states in India have now started addressing the issues with some haste in recent days though others had taken varied steps earlier. India also lacks superior infrastructure facilities and the quality of work skills produced by its educational system is woefully inadequate, as comparison with other Asian countries will confirm. These are the legacies of the past, with the Indian state having sought to do innumerable things and ending up doing most of them badly rather than a few well, suggesting the need for far-reaching policy transformation. India needs to focus on genuine public goods like education, health, security and an efficient judicial system.

The latter has become a major barrier to India’s economic efficiency because the courts cannot enforce contracts, by securing property rights and the vital ability to transact with them, both crucial for purposeful economic activity. One underrated issue is the quality of urban life that will entice high value human capital, in the shape of the highly talented and skilled, the most important modern driver of productivity and economic growth. Indian cities are poorly planned and transportation horrendous, crying out for radical action. Some of these issues are difficult for the federal centre to address unilaterally because the Indian constitution allocates responsibility to individual states.

The acceleration of economic change to improve the quality of life and secure India’s economic strength and resilience also depends on the modus of engagement with the world economy. India’s trade GDP ratio is over 42% which means events abroad substantially dictate domestic outcomes. Many issues crowd the horizon to define what will benefit India from its external economic engagement, in ways that hasn’t been possible before. For example, policies need to encourage firm size, which is critical for average cost and quality control. India must also continue supporting the now virtually defunct WTO because, as a price taker in the world economy, it needs an intermediary to restrain the increasingly unilateral violations of treaty obligations by dominant economic players. At the same time, the Coronavirus crisis presents an opportunity to espouse policies that do not fully conform to the multilateralism of the WTO. Most countries in Asia are anxious about China’s mercantilist economic policies and expansionist aims and not just in Asia. They have a vested interest in helping India constitute a balancing counterforce through greater economic size and capacity. India might wish to lead a movement for virtually unhindered economic exchanges with a number of countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea, with some provision for production in India agreed. But myriad Indian policies, from poor decision-making and bureaucratic inertia remain the devil in the detail, illustrated, for example in the recent refusal to allow Japanese firms to provide medical services, exclusively for their own personnel, with staff brought in from Japan. Much needs to change and existing decision-making structures revamped or by-passed.

India is a highly vulnerable country facing huge challenges that are not as remote as they seem. India’s inward-looking political culture is complacent and pusillanimous and could one day find itself looking over the cliff edge. It may not immediately face foreign invasion but it is clearly experiencing massive interference at many levels within the country itself; even violent street protests are being organised by funding from abroad. These issues need to be addressed resolutely before the country is seized once again by the proxies of its adversaries, which was virtually the case for a decade. The threat of physical aggression by China, combined with a Pakistani mobilisation to tie down Indian forces in the west, can be met rapidly with a few harsh choices.

The prerequisite is to first have a guaranteed second-strike retaliatory nuclear capability, which should occur very shortly, with India acquiring a wide-spectrum SLBM capacity. India should then insinuate it will treat Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as outsourced Chinese assets and target retaliation accordingly. Let Beijing wonder about an innocuous discussion on this subject among retired Indian foreign policy wonks in the media. India must then also consider the most dramatic measure of all, which is to embark on emplacement of battlefield nuclear weapons at the border with China to signal that the initiative will be with China to test Indian resolve in the event of setback to its conventional forces owing to a full-scale Chinese assault. These are psychological games that India must play with conviction. On the domestic front, the Indian Union must resolve to decapitate the manifold forms of foreign subversion that are eroding its integrity as a nation. It is now time for an aspiring great power to stop behaving like a meek supplicant alarmed by foreign newspaper coverage. – New World Order, 16 May 2020

› Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy and political science at the London School of Economics for more than two decades.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu