An in-depth analysis of India’s strategic culture

India’s fleeting rise in the domain of science and technology during the last century gifted her people by way of unrivaled expansion and its reinforcement…….of the nation’s defense and industrial infrastructure. While this triumph had brought jubilation for India lovers across the globe, it had also rung a few alarm bells in the United States.
In 1992, the US Pentagon, in collaboration with their celebrated ‘Think-Tank’, had commissioned a study about India’s culture of strategic depth. George Tanham, the author of this study, had concluded in his study that, despite this nation’s embedded culture of spiritualism and timelessness, India had perhaps, lacked in its ability to maintain domestic traditions of strategic thought.
This study has been further elaborated, under a new title ‘Security Studies in India and in the West’. Some scholars had shared Tanham’s view and claimed that in the land of Buddha, Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi, there has existed a theoretical void, whereas, the country’s ancient, oriental culture had fairly, boasted of its indigenous versions of Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and A.T. Mahan.
In the year 2006, a successive US study was conducted on the same theme, therefore titled “India’s Strategic Culture”. At the end of this narrative, the author, Rodney W. Jones concluded that his own observations were diametrically opposed to Tanham’s. His ‘sacred’ opinion was that India did have a distinct strategic culture, which was influenced by the ideas of Kautilya, (also known to many as Chanakya), the military strategist of his Times, and the famed, ancient Indian theorist of statecraft.
An essential component of the statecraft is a derivative of the core principles, which may briefly be shared, to state that:
India’s strategic culture is not monolithic, rather is mosaic-like. It is both distinct and coherent, comparable to many nation-states of our contemporary world. Perhaps, this has continued because of the vast nation’s flow with the symbolism of pre-modern Indian state systems, and background of India’s ancient Hindu or Vedic civilizations.
Kautilya’s secular treatise is also known as the Arthashastra, which closely parallels Niccolo Machiavelli’s thesis, presented in his work entitled ‘The Prince’. And, this is seen as an exposition of monarchical statecraft and ‘realpolitik’ in inter-state balances of power, as well as the practices of war and peace.
However, in the past, the Indians have documented something very interesting about their strategic culture.
In this context, I am inclined to refer two living and distinguished members of the Indian strategic community. The first, Shivshankar Menon, who was India’s National Security Adviser from 2012 to 2014. It was his expressed belief that:
‘this would nearly be impossible for civilization or a vast state like India, not to have a strategic culture’.
He thought that this was an indigenous construct over millennia, modified considerably by India’s experience in the last two centuries.
The other noteworthy voice, however, has belonged to Namrata Goswami, a strategic analyst, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), located in New Delhi.
She has inspired us by her opinion, which surmises that:
‘India does have a strategic culture where the analysts assess the external environment very carefully and also debate on the efficacy of the use of military power in addressing external threats. India has tended to accord priority to dialogue over the use of military power’.
In terms of the foreign policy, however, this does not mean India did not have a strategic culture; it just means that the strategic preferences were different from the normal understanding of how Great Powers were likely to behave, while they had interacted together.
Today, not much is being heard of the erstwhile supporters of Tanham’s ‘absence’-thesis. Still today, India needs to import military technology, but India has never depended on the import of strategic thinking, nor combat morale, nor foreign skill.
Before we analyze the principal features of strategic culture, we need to make some conceptual clarifications. The term ‘strategic culture’ has the semantic component ‘strategic’ which refers to statecraft, notably, it’s foreign policy and military strategy.
But what about culture? In view of the fact that the American anthropologists Kroeber and Klukhohn have come up with 163 different definitions of culture, most of us agree on one explanation, that is conveyed to us for sake of convenience. That is, for any student of strategic studies, the concept of strategic culture is as dangerous as an unmarked minefield on a dark night.
We understand the culture to reflect ‘as man’s unique cognitive capacity to design and practically implement transformations of nature’, and further as ‘the material and intellectual products of man’s ‘cultivation’ of nature, to include religion, art, science, technology or social organizations’.
Based upon that anthropological understanding, it is of cardinal significance to include the historical dimension of culture: the human transformation of nature occurs always in a social and intellectual context, which has been created by antecedent human beings and their socio-economic formations, customs, traditions and patterns of thinking.
Thus, past human existence is inseparably linked with culture and ‘culture-making’. One can imagine here, the famous maxim of Karl Marx in a deliberation, he made via ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ to inspire us with a totally new concept:
‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted to them, from the past’.
Moreover, while there is a ‘world civilization’ in the sense of universally accepted standards of human dignity, the rule of law, rationality or the scientific method, the term ‘culture’ is inherently pluralist.
Mankind has existed largely conveyed as many, ‘different peoples’. Peoples are distinguished by language and ethnicity, while they live in different ecological conditions. Each set of ‘people’ has different historical experiences and collective memories, and thus different traditions and customs. All that adds up to a diverse manifold of cultures in this world.
Correspondingly, the term ‘strategic culture’ presupposes that the patterns of thinking and behavior in politics in general and specifically foreign and security policy, are not uniform across the world. Collective historical experiences and memories among the given state’s elites and people form the basis of its strategic culture.
Russia’s strategic culture, for example, would be influenced by the historical experiences of the invasions by the Mongols, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, Napoleonic France, and Nazi-Germany as well as the desire to have access to the world’s oceans going back many centuries.
Similarly, India’s long history – and the collective memory of it – is characterized by serial foreign invasions from the North across the Hindu Kush – Achaemenid Persians, Greeks, Central Asian tribes, Muslim Arabs, Mongols and again Central Asian tribes with Persian-Muslim culture.
India’s defensive reflex towards the continental North became so deeply rooted that the threats emanating from the sea by the European imperial powers were not adequately perceived – with catastrophic consequences for India.
Each one of India’s state, that constitute the ‘dominion’, has due to its own, specific history and culture, conveyed varying ‘attitudes’ – dispositions and preferences – in its foreign and security policy. That is so, even though all states share the fundamental interest of self-preservation and have rather similar basic structures in terms of governmental, military or intelligence organizations.
One state may perceive its security assured via preservation of the status quo, the other through its revision. In one strategic culture, there may be a disposition for risk-avoidance, in another a tendency for risk-taking in conflict situations. In exerting pressure on competing or adversary states, there may be a preference for covert intelligence operations or for economic-financial sanctions.
A state’s ‘subjective’ perception of security and potential threats to it, is not mechanically determined, but substantially influenced by its strategic culture. And the same applies to the reaction patterns with respect to such threat-perceptions. That is, what foreign policy actions will a state actually adopt in its political course.
We can also delineate strategic culture as an idealistic framework of conscious, also imparting subconscious dispositions and preferences in perception, thinking, and behavior with respect to the internal and external security of a state.
Copy Edited: Adam Rizvi
End of Part One

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

The author is a former Educator, based in Chicago (USA).

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