The problem

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THE terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November have pushed national security to the forefront of public policy debates in India. Much of the discussion is understandably centred on the question of terrorism and India’s options vis-à-vis Pakistan. The ongoing debate, however, is excessively focused on the current crisis and is devoid of a broader engagement with the conceptual and institutional underpinnings of national security. Yet, while this debate certainly needs to be widened, it is important not to lose sight of the core concerns. All too often the term security is defined to include economic, social and environmental issues. These factors are undoubtedly important, but placing anything that generates anxiety or endangers the quality of life under the rubric of national security is apt to confuse rather than clarify.

It may be more useful to focus on the central issue of security: coping with organized violence in the internal and external affairs of a polity. Such an approach would turn the searchlight on strategies, institutions, and capabilities that play a key role in the security challenges now confronting India. Examining these along historical, conceptual, and comparative dimensions promises to prepare the ground, both for more pointed public debate on national security and for considering ways in which our repertoire of policy options can be improved and widened.

A good starting point for any discussion of national security is the country’s ‘grand strategy’: the manner in which it seeks to combine the various instruments at its disposal, both military and non-military, for the preservation and enhancement of its security interests. For much of independent India’s existence, the idea of non-alignment served as the cornerstone of grand strategy. Shorn of wrappings, non-alignment was an effort to resist the seductions of either side in the Cold War and to ensure India’s freedom to judge every international issue in the light of its own interests. In the post-Cold War period, non-alignment has largely been supplanted by the idea of ‘strategic partnership’. An oft-used term in Indian strategic discourse, the import of the idea and its utility in preserving India’s security remain little understood. Is a strategic partnership indeed different from a security alliance? How does it fit with India’s stated desire for ‘autonomy’ in international relations?

Another aspect of grand strategy that has come to acquire increasing importance is crisis management. Over the last decade, India’s relations with Pakistan have been punctuated by periodic crises that threaten to bubble over. The possession of nuclear weapons by both sides lends a menacing edge to these stand-offs. Played out at the cusp of peace and war, these intense encounters demand a nimble use of military and diplomatic means to advance one’s political objectives whilst skirting the edge of disastrous war. How has the Indian security establishment fared in these situations? What is the appropriate balance between diplomatic and military action, between threats and inducements?

Perhaps the most neglected aspects of Indian security are its institutional bases. The relationship between political and military leaders is a key dimension of any national security establishment. If strategy is understood as the link between political objectives and military means, then civil-military relations are obviously critical. And yet, studies of Indian civil-military seldom concentrate on the formulation and execution of strategy. What is the appropriate relationship between civilian and military leaders? Does the system function according to design? What is the impact of the state of civil-military relations on strategic efficacy? Confronting these questions is essential to any searching examination of India’s national security.

Closely related is the issue of military modernization. Discussions of military modernization tend to be dominated by the American idea of a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA): in effect, the combination of precision weaponry and information dominance systems. In recent years, China too has embarked on what it calls RMA with Chinese characteristics. By contrast, India’s efforts at military modernization have at best been halting. To what extent do these problems stem from our existing institutional arrangements? What might be the way forward?

The question of modernization is intertwined with that of military doctrine. Military doctrine comprises of two issues: What military means shall be used? And how will they be employed? In recent years, the Indian military has taken doctrine more seriously than ever. But the applicability and efficacy of these doctrines is yet to be examined in depth. Are the doctrines evolved by the individual services compatible with one another? How robust are the links between doctrine and strategy? Is the Indian military doctrine sufficiently flexible to cope with rapid technological and strategic change?

The role of intelligence in national security is widely recognized but less well understood. The terrorist attacks in recent years are routinely attributed to intelligence failures. After each major incident, intelligence reforms are announced; but the failures persist and result in increased public vexation. Nevertheless, there are practically no analytical or historical studies of Indian intelligence. Consequently important questions remain unanswered: Why do failures occur? What kinds of reforms might help? What are the limits to even the most far-reaching set of reforms?

The most pressing security issues now confronting India are non-conventional, i.e., these are not posed by states or entities that seek to wage regular wars. This does not, however, imply that these are purely internal security problems. Indeed, non-conventional threats abetted by external actors pose some of the most difficult challenges for India’s security apparatus. One of the major problems of non-conventional warfare is that the operations are undertaken in populated areas and amongst the people. This problem is accentuated in our information age, where a single tactical slip-up involving non-combatants can have wider strategic ramifications.

Insurgencies are the most familiar form of non-conventional warfare – one that India has been facing since the mid-1950s. Terrorism, too, has been with us for quite some time. How has the Indian state sought to tackle these challenges? Have the strategies adopted been effective? How useful are conventional strategies such as deterrence in dealing with such threats? Is it possible to deter suicide attackers – individuals who are willing to lay down their own lives? Can deterrence work against state sponsorship of insurgency and terrorism? How effectively are our strategies for prevailing in the information as well as military domain?

As this overview suggests, any discussion of national security is bound to raise more questions than provide answers, to incite more discussion than settle issues. This issue of Seminar aims to spur a more sustained debate.