Book Review: Is there an Indian Strategic Culture?
by Sandhya Jain on 02 Mar 2010 4 Comments

Rarely has a book managed to be so intellectually stimulating and to embody the continuity of tradition and modernity on so seemingly prosaic a discipline as military history as this utterly delightful offering from Maj-Gen Gagandeep Bakshi. The book is as serious as the subject suggests, and the author brings his impressive multi-disciplinary erudition and sharp geo-strategic perspective to prove that India has an early and venerable strategic culture that can be authentically traced back to the Sada Shiva Dhanurveda, Hastayur Veda, the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, the Agni, Matsya and Bradharma Puranas, and of course, the most venerable manual of statecraft, the Arthasastra.


This is startling, given that one frequently hears Indian and foreign analysts pontificate over the lack of strategic culture in India, though this is partly understandable in view of some grim mistakes in our modern history. Notes Bakshi, a strategic culture is persistent over time and tends to outlast the era of its inception. In this perspective, there is an Indian way of fighting, a civilisational continuity, best embodied in Kautilya who transformed India into a political entity from a civilisational unity.


Bakshi notes that the most important historical phenomenon of the 21st century is the inexorable power shift from Europe to Asia, and the rise of China and India. He notes that till the 17th century, India and China together generated nearly 80% of the world’s GDP on the basis of an agricultural economy alone; had continental size empires; huge economic surpluses; and military manpower. Both civilisations declined on account of a singular failure to keep pace with the Industrial Revolution and the new military technology it created, and suffered the humiliations of a prolonged colonisation. Now, history has turned another cycle, and both are experiencing enviable economic growth, industrialisation, and rising military power.


The Asia-centric power shift is best reflected in the fact that the continent today has six nuclear powers – Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The rising economic and military power of Asia has also been accompanied by the rise of nationalism in the region, in response to renewed neo-colonial pressures from a declining Western civilisation.


Bakshi’s fascinating analysis of Indian military history sees it in terms of revolutions in military affairs (RMAs), based on key techno-economic triggers which profoundly impacted the socio-political sphere. In other words, radical changes in the waging of war triggered major economic and political changes.


The Greek invasion of Alexander crystallised India’s sense of self. Till then, warfare in the sub-continent had followed certain codes of military conduct wherein battles were confined to a tournament format in which armies met on flat open plains to fight force-on-force battles of attrition. The horse-and-chariot-based system of warfare of the tribal and clan-republics and petty principalities of northern India proved a liability as they lacked cross-country mobility. The Greeks, in contrast, had highly disciplined infantry phalanxes and light and heavy cavalry, fought most battles on river banks where the chariots got bogged down, and were free from the burden of the Kshatriya code of ethics.


The Indian war elephant, however, was the one element that literally shook the Greeks, and Kautilya wisely made this the first real RMA in India by raising massive shock troops of 9000 war elephants for the imperial Mauryan army. As elephants were prohibitively costly to procure and maintain, they needed a strong centralised state with a huge economic support base to generate the requisite force asymmetry on the battlefield. Little wonder that after Alexander’s invasion, Kautilya and elephant-based army took just 25 years to unite the whole of India into a highly centralised state and empire.


The next significant revolution in military affairs came with the siege cannons of the Mongols, which the Mughals combined with field artillery, flintlock muskets and horse-based archers. These terrified the elephants and made them a liability on the battlefield. The Mughal Empire also benefited from Akbar’s foresight in sucking up the available military labour (four million) to deny manpower to his rivals; mansabdars and subedars managed this military labour for the imperial court.


Akbar retained personal command and control of the guns and artillery, allotting the same to regional mansabdars for specific campaigns only. He monetised the Indian economy on the silver standard and made taxation and revenue collection more scientific, thus attaining a military strength of 2 million armed men and 4 lakh horses for the Mughal empire, which generated 40% of world GDP in that era. However, under the later Mughals, the rapid proliferation of small firearms all over the country spelt the death knell of the Mughal Empire. This benefited the rising native leaders like Guru Gobind Singh, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan.


The next RMA was the Infantry RMA which began in Europe with the Industrial Revolution. Napoleon introduced the concept of the division – a combination of all arms that operate as a single entity on a battlefield. Then, between 1750-1850, the French and British innovated new methods of fighting in Asian colonies. The British raised well drilled infantry regiments in India that could manoeuvre on drill square words of command and shoot in a disciplined rhythm collectively, reaching a sustained rate of fire of 1000 shots a minute. This decimated the Mughal-style cavalry. Later, the British created a suction economy to suck out revenue and raw materials from India to sustain the industrialisation of Britain.


Post independence, the Indian Army in 1947-48 succeeded in Jammu & Kashmir because of tactical innovation and extensive employment of air power. The highpoint of the war was Maj-Gen. Thimayya’s bold and innovative use of tanks at a record altitude to secure the strategic Zojila Pass and lift the siege of Leh. Pakistan’s geo-strategic aim was to capture the headwaters of the Indus river system and secure its agro-based economy – an objective that remains intact to this day.


The 1948 Hyderabad campaign, Operation Polo, was a tactical masterpiece, as was the liberation of Goa in 1961. But modern India’s greatest and continuing failure is the failure to consolidate the Himalayan border regions. The military coup in Pakistan caused Indian politicians to fear the armed forces, which were pushed down in the warrant of precedence, while the political elite laid emphasis on vacuous doctrines of soft power projection and diplomacy. This led to military professionals being sidelined in favour of intelligence officers with a police background and little knowledge of geo-strategy, and the political blunders of Nehru made India loose the buffer and upper riparian of Tibet, without even a border settlement. In the 1962 conflict with China, India was led by Lt Gen BM Kaul who had no combat experience, but enviable proximity to the political elite. His flawed policy gave India a bloody nose and a lesson to remember.


In 1965, Indian forces admirably captured Haji Pir, the Pass from which the main infiltration operations were funneled. Bakshi mentions that India inexplicably left the Navy out of the war for fear of escalation (whatever that means), but a notable omission in his thesis is the failure to mention the surrender of Haji Pir at Tashkent.


This Indian-style of victorious defeat was again experienced in 1971, a war provoked by the Pakistani genocide in East Pakistan and 10 million refugees seeking succour in India. In a marvellous tri-Service campaign with air power as a key enabler, India forced the surrender of Dhaka in just 14 action-packed days and created Bangladesh. The victory showed India revert unconsciously to her classical Kautilyan method of waging war – slow and extended preparation, information dominance, and destruction of the politico-military balance of the adversary through covert action via the Mukti Bahini.


The next paradigm shifts came with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which saw Pakistan emerge as a key frontline state for the CIA jihad against the Soviet forces, and the indiscriminate weaponisation of tribal society which is now undercutting the foundations of Pakistan itself. In 1998, India went overtly nuclear, followed by Pakistan, which then embarked on the Kargil mis-adventure in 1999. But India had no vision of what it wanted to achieve via the subsequent Operation Parakram, which badly eroded her reputation; this lack of vision also led to non-response to Mumbai 2008.


The Global War on Terror has only further destabilised our region, but India is now modernizing with weaponry from Russia, Israel, Europe, and America. Pakistan has largely lost the terrorist battle with India and switched to Intifada style phase of mass agitation based on communal mobilisation. It is now time for India for restructure its security architecture.


Bakshi emphasizes that outsourcing security from terrorist attacks to America is not a viable policy option and we need to build capabilities that can deter China, especially its fourth generation air power. He warns that India should not prematurely take sides in the renewed Cold War, nor be driven to fighting the wars of others. 


In the nuclear context, he notes that the Cold War rested on the fact of military exhaustion of all powers, but there is no such fatigue in Asia today. Hence the Chinese Limited War Doctrines Under Conditions of Informationisation, which involves being ready to fight limited conventional wars even against a nuclear backdrop, needs examination. It is pertinent that this is also the US strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia; America has entered the Soviet backyard in Poland, Ukraine, Central Asia, Georgia …


It is difficult to enumerate the many insights offered by the book, which is a must need for all serious students of military theory. But it may be mentioned in conclusion that regarding the endless jihad in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakshi states that as a sovereign government, Pakistan cannot claim lack of control over its territory or non-state actors within its domains, else it should be prepared for transgressions of its sovereignty. That’s the spirit. Finally, I heartily endorse the demand that West-funded traders in human rights be curbed with a firm hand. One word of criticism is in order – where is the index?


The Rise of Indian Military Power. Evolution of an Indian Strategic Culture

Maj Gen G D Bakshi

Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2010

Pg: 347; Price: Rs 780/-


The author is Editor, 

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