From India’s wars, five lessons for the present

Updated on Nov 30, 2020 11:25 PM IST
As India matures as a democracy and its aspirations to emerge as a leading power gains momentum, all these stakeholders must understand the conduct of war and the utility of force as an instrument of statecraft
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision not to allow Indian forces to cross the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict was another example of political clarity that led to the occupation of a high ground by India that demonstrated that it could balance the application of force with restraint(HT Photo)
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision not to allow Indian forces to cross the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict was another example of political clarity that led to the occupation of a high ground by India that demonstrated that it could balance the application of force with restraint(HT Photo)
ByArjun Subramaniam

Having spent eight years researching and writing in a focused manner on war and conflict in independent India, it is time to distil five big lessons for a diverse constituency of stakeholders in India’s national security matrix. These range from the policymaker and the practitioner to the academic and the common citizen. As India matures as a democracy and its aspirations to emerge as a leading power gains momentum, all these stakeholders must understand the conduct of war and the utility of force as an instrument of statecraft.

The first lesson is that contrary to the largely peaceful trajectory of growth envisaged by the drafters of the Constitution, India has been a “reluctantly warring democracy” to protect its sovereignty and internal fabric. It has fought four major wars and one high-intensity but limited conflict with its principal adversaries, Pakistan and China. It has quelled four insurgencies (Mizoram, Tripura, Punjab and Assam), in which the latter two also displayed shades of terrorism. It continues to search for a solution to the longest insurgency in the post-World War-II era (the Naga insurgency) that has merged with another violent expression of ethnic angst in Manipur. Left-wing extremism has shown signs of fatigue, but security forces continue to search for conflict termination before the phase of conflict resolution offers some light at the end of what has been an intense struggle of ideas. In what has been a mother of all struggles, the Indian State continues to grapple with a waxing and waning proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) that has shown chameleon-like shades of insurgency, terrorism and hybrid war.

The second lesson is that India has not been averse to the application and demonstration of force outside its geographical boundaries in response to a call for help from neighbours and the global community. The Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) intervention in Sri Lanka; the foiling of the 1988 coup in Maldives; the sustained contribution to United Nations peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations, many of which have led to violent armed confrontations and resulted in casualties; and the resolute action in Doklam, are all examples of India’s willingness to stand up as a responsible international player.

The third lesson is a corollary of the first and a consequence of both moral and developmental dilemmas in the Indian strategic DNA. In its quest to emerge as a responsible and restrained power that strives to uphold the ideals of its pioneering leaders, India has often been surprised by assertive and relatively clear-headed adversaries, both at the state and non-state levels. While moral dilemmas have often delayed military responses, developmental dilemmas have resulted in the creation of suboptimal military capabilities.

A fourth lesson of realpolitik and umbilical linkages between politics, policy and war in contemporary India emerges from the propositions laid out by Kautilya, the ancient Indian strategist and Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker of the early 19th century. While the former suggested “hard” and seemingly “amoral” decisions in pursuit of power for the common good, the latter advocated close coordination between political entities, policymakers and practitioners of war as the only way to ensure the successful conduct of war as an instrument of statecraft.

These have been clearly validated in India’s experience over the last 74 years. The orchestration of the 1971 War and the occupation of the Saltoro Ridge that overlooks the Siachen Glacier were examples of hard-nosed decisions that went against the grain of conventional Indian statecraft. Similarly, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision not to allow Indian forces to cross the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict was another example of political clarity that led to the occupation of a high ground by India that demonstrated that it could balance the application of force with restraint.

The fifth and last lesson, based on recent events in the security domain, highlight India’s attempts to shape new policies, strategies and structures to meet contemporary national security challenges. There is clearly a reduced threshold to absorb “first blows” and an articulated aspiration to migrate from diffidence and excessive restraint to a more assertive and proactive response mechanism. India’s recent cross-border strikes on its eastern and western frontiers, its response at Doklam and the firm, albeit delayed, reaction to transgressions by the People’s Liberation Army in eastern Ladakh have demonstrated this clearly. What emerges is that for any significant shift in strategy to be effective, there needs to be a strong bridge that connects politics, policy, strategy, doctrine, structures and capability, much like the Strategy Bridge suggested by the renowned English scholar, Colin Gray. Clearly, it is this bridge that needs significant bolstering at every level.

Recent initiatives indicate that this process has commenced in right earnest with a top-down approach; there will be hits and misses along the way as India seeks a “new normal” in its national security and warfighting discourse. Lessons from the past will always offer instructive guidance.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the Indian Air Force and the author of India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971 & Full Spectrum: India’s Wars 1972-2020
The views expressed are personal

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