A Possible Future Military Thought for India

- Vijay Madan



An essential component of the British imperial military strategy for India was the part that was assigned to this "Jewel in the Crown," for furthering British imperial interests in the region surrounding the sub-continent. Although the basic thrust of British military strategy was euro-centric in nature, with the dominions and the colonies providing a psychological depth, as well as a vast storehouse of material and men, India's position was slightly different from the others in the Empire. This uniqueness became both the cause as well as, the effect of the type of policies the British pursued in the Near, Middle and the Far East. Thus, while on the one hand, every measure was taken to prevent any threat from arising against the British Indian empire, on the other hand the very existence of the British Indian empire required that the British pursue a policy of dominating the area stretching from Malaya and Singapore to Egypt. The great game in Central Asia, first played between the British and Tzarist Russia was very much a part of this policy.

For this purpose, the British were prepared to overawe and if necessary, overcome any hostile pretensions that arose from time to time in the surrounding areas through the use of the Indian Army. It may, therefore, be legitimately claimed that India, although not a free country was yet, in a sense, a regional power even if as part of the British Indian empire. Its army had a major part to play in maintaining this status. The leaders of the Indian freedom movement, already nurtured on the glories of a united (imperial?) India, whether Mauryan or Mughal, unconsciously and perhaps to some extent willingly assumed such a regional power role for a future free India, a role which they hoped, in time, would lead to a greater world power ranking. To those who would suggest that the idea is preposterous, one can only point out that after all, a major goal of the Indian freedom movement was to retain a politically, economically and administratively united India whose boundaries had been established by the British Imperial power whom the Indian freedom movement wanted to replace. Such a large geo-political entity was bound to exert an overwhelming influence on the areas around it, willingly or otherwise. Consequently, the military component of such a "hope" could not be ignored without causing great damage to the existence of the Indian state.

One of the essential ingredients of exerting such an influence is a well thought out military strategy and a viable military capability created to execute it, as has been hinted at above. The fact that a capability exists is more often than not an adequate guarantee that it won't be required to be used, much though pacifists and many analysts may otherwise like to believe. After all this is the essence of any deterrence, nuclear, conventional or even economic. Unfortunately, on both these counts i.e., building a viable military strategy and the required capability to pursue it, the Indian leadership, political, military and the bureaucratic, has been found wanting. The result has been an absence of clear-cut, long-term, goal oriented military planning, as well as an institutional rather than individual driven military policies. This is all the more incomprehensive in view of the fact that many top Indian leaders of the pre-independence period were familiar with one or the other aspect of the Indian Army though certainly not with the overall strategic role that the armed forces of any country are required to play in the pursuit of national interests. Of course, no one can blame them for being entirely ignorant of purely military strategy per se. After all, many Indian Army officers were equally at sea on strategy matters till well after independence and grew into the art of understanding them with experience.

The Indian Experience

In the 1920s, a demand for the Indianisation of the officer corps was made with great fervour. Motilal Nehru and M.A. Jinnah were amongst the members of a committee set up to examine the issue. Their deliberations resulted in the setting up of an Indian "Sandhurst", i.e. the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun. The first Prime Minister of India, Motilal's son Jawahar Lal Nehru makes a reference to the Academy in his biography, mentioning that he believed that the cadets were reportedly smart on parade and perhaps one day, even an Indian General may arise. This was, perhaps, less a fond hope and more a cynical observation about an army which he after all considered to be one of occupation. He dismissed the Infantry, as being as outdated as the Greek Phalanx and armed with antique rifles. Surprisingly though, it was the same Infantry, armed with the same weapons, that he was to send forth into battle to meet the Chinese on the Himalayas exactly 25 years after he became the Prime Minister of a free India. That, of course, is another story. But it poignantly reflects on the malaise pointed out earlier, the lack of a military strategy and of a consequent military capability.

Some other events during Nehru's stewardship indicate an equally bewildering dichotomy in his attitude towards the Indian armed forces and defence matters. In 1947-48, he was to get Lord Ismay, then working with Lord Mountbatten to propose a future Higher Defence Control Organisation for India, thereby showing an awareness of such matters that needs to be applauded. In his later years however, especially after Krishna Menon's ascendancy to the Defence Minister's portfolio, Nehru became a party to making this organisation rusty, so that after him many of his not so worthy successors were able to wreck Lord Ismay's handiwork. Similarly, while one of the major decisions of the new government under Nehru in 1947 was to militarily save Kashmir, there is no indication that subsequent decisions on either the conduct or stoppage of military actions in that state were taken after detailed consultation with his senior military advisors. That Nehru tried, unsuccessfully though, to somehow put right the mistakes he made in carrying forward a potentially wrong military decision which, as time has shown, was also wrong politically, can be inferred from some of the letters written by him to the United Nations Commission on Kashmir for India and Pakistan. In these letters attempts were made to regain for India those parts of Jammu and Kashmir which his political decisions had earlier prevented the Indian Army from trying to recover from Pakistani occupation. The claim for the reoccupation of Baltistan by the Indian Army is a case in point.

Nehru's Government was to use force or threaten to use force on a number of occasions to consolidate the Indian state and to protect its interest. Military actions in Junagadh, Alwar, Hyderabad, Goa as well as the amassing of troop on the Indo-Pak borders in 1950 and 1951 are instances of Nehru's reluctant acceptance of the part the armed forces play in pursuance of national goals. Uncharitably though, it has been suggested by some that the decision to militarily force out the Portuguese from their possessions in India was to shore-up Krishna Menon's electoral fortunes in his North Bombay constituency. Some apologists of Nehru's political adroitness felt that the Goan episode was meant to be a signal to the Chinese to desist in the north and the north east. If so, it failed.

The result of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, which had its origin in the Chinese entry into Tibet in the fifties and the push forward to the presumed Indo-Tibet border, highlighted the ham-handed, amatuerish and reluctant approach of the Indian political leadership towards military matters. One of the reasons for this reluctance to give any importance to the armed forces and the resultant neglect of military affairs was an unfounded suspicion that giving ideas to the military about their being more than mere paid watchmen to guard the nation's gate, would result in their staking claims to political power. In Nehru's days, when the Indian political leadership was one of the most secure entities amongst the then newly independent countries, perhaps even in the entire world, such thoughts were possibly entertained as a consequence of what happened in Pakistan and Burma. They were highly regrettable then, and are reprehensible now. Such a distrust of the armed forces amongst the politicians was also greatly encouraged by a set of civil servants who misconstrued the concept of civilian control of the military in a democracy to mean civilian bureaucratic control and not civilian political control, the latter being the correct meaning of the concept. Be that as it may, a few incidents were contrivedly misrepresented to the political masters by the civil servants as indications of nascent political ambitions amongst senior military officers. The differences between an acerbic Krishna Menon, and then Chief of the Army Staff, Gen K S Thimmayya, D.S.O, which resulted in the latter's resignation, although a protest against Menon's uncouth behaviour with his senior military commanders was played up by interested parties as being a sign of the military wanting to buck the system. Similar alarm bells were sounded when in a perfectly appropriate anticipatory action the Army Headquarters issued warning orders immediately after the death of Nehru to certain units and formations outside Delhi to be prepared to move for internal security duties. The Army had the experience of the partition days and the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination to fall back upon. Some alarmists in the civilian establishment, over-obsessed by the "after Nehru who?" syndrome, at once thought that perhaps the army was positioning itself for a political role. The Army Headquarters was pulled up for not informing the Ministry about the warning orders, although the Army Headquarters were quite clear that what they had done was to merely issue a warning order, a perfectly legitimate military procedure. The tragic consequences of such intentional misinterpretation of the army's action were to be felt exactly two decades later during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 following Mrs Gandhi's assassination. The army kept marking time, waiting for orders that the civilian authorities, either benumbed or unconcerned, failed to issue in time and thousands of innocent lives were lost in Delhi itself.

But the more bizzare and lasting attitude of this unwarranted, self-generated suspicion was and has been the grotesque Higher Defence Control apparatus that has come into being. It is unique in the world and the uniqueness lies in the inefficiency, bureaucratic delays, lack of coordination and cooperation, financial incompetence, inter-service rivalries, breakdown of various norms of efficiency and so on which is built into the system. We thus have the three Service headquarters often in disagreement. A Ministry of Defence manned almost entirely by non-uniformed generalists acting as final arbiters of military proposals and a work culture wherein running down rather than running with each other is a sign of effectiveness. The political heads of the ministry rarely have time to attend to defence matters. Policies change and re-change with the arrival of each new incumbent as the Chief of one of the Services and in matters of personnel management even general officers have now, as a matter of routine, sought relief from courts. Something unheard of in any other country, democratic or otherwise.

The outcome of the major conflicts after 1962 would bear out our plight. The 1965 Indo-Pak confrontation was at best a draw slightly favourable to India. One can claim that Pakistan's failure to annex the Kashmir valley by force was after all a strategic military victory for India. There is some merit in this claim, as long as one ignores the fact that Pakistan's military aims were grandiose in concept and based on the very faulty appreciation of facing a highly inept opponent. Whatever tactical gains India made however, were of course given away at the negotiating table. In contrast, the outcome of the 1971 war was certainly a success, but the result of a set of fortuitous circumstances and not of a long-term anticipated military strategy. It so happened that Pakistan decided to commit suicide when India had as the head of the government a woman of exceptional courage and determination, unburdened by any self-imposed predilection to play to an international gallery in preference to safeguarding national interests. It also so happened that she had a highly competent and charismatic Chief of the Army Staff who had her complete confidence and who in turn was backed and fully supported by a very cerebral and capable Chief of the Air Staff and a competent Chief of the Naval Staff. All of them set aside their professional and personal differences in order to execute a successful campaign. Besides, she also had some outstanding political advisors to assist her. This was a one time event, not the result of any long-term plan coming to fruition, as many Pakistani analysts may like to believe.

The 1971 war was a high watermark of meticulous planning, close interaction between political leaders and the armed forces, a display of flexibility of both political and military minds, enabling them to recast war aims and tactical goals in response to results achieved by a few energetic field commanders in the eastern sector. In comparison, India's intervention in Sri Lanka, almost a decade and half later, was a political blunder, a diplomatic disaster, a disgrace for the Indian intelligence services and an ill-planned military misadventure. That, at a time when the Indian armed forces, had started to exhibit a sense of strategic feel, largely absent till then, on how to give military backing to India's regional standing. This is all the more confounding, unless one sees it in the context of what has been said earlier about our defence planning, or rather the lack of it. In fact it was an open secret that certain senior military commanders were dealing directly with the highest political authorities bypassing army headquarters. The Navy and the Air Force were never fully taken into confidence, nor their views obtained.

From all that has been said so far, it would be obvious that the Indian state and its various agencies, including very much the armed forces, have yet to decide upon the parameters which should govern the military's role in the national strategy and thereby arrive at a coherent military strategy. The outcome of our failure to resolve the above confusion has finally resulted in the political mind resolving the military problem to be merely that of "safeguarding the territorial integrity of India." The politician and their supportive non-military advisors may compliment themselves on this simple and straightforward enunciation of the role of the Indian armed forces. But in reality they have only formulated a conundrum which even the most brilliant of military minds would be unable to resolve in order to formulate a viable military strategy. As of today, Indian territorial integrity already stands violated both by Pakistan as well as China. Are the Indian armed forces expected to regain the lost territories at some future date? If so, are we preparing these forces for such an eventuality by a comprehensive long-term plan? Or, are the Indian policy makers reconciled, and perhaps wisely so, to the Indian territory being limited to what it is at present delineated by the recognised international boundaries and the Line of Control and Line of Actual Control with Pakistan and China, parliamentary resolutions to the contrary notwithstanding? To suggest that the areas lost to Pakistan and China will be recovered by means other than military is only misleading the nation.

The fact of economic realities has now to be faced squarely. No amount of argument will ever bring the non-military segment of our policy makers to accept that even if there has been financial incompetence by the armed forces in the management of funds allotted to them, but unlike in Pakistan or China, our two presumed adversaries, the armed forces have not been the decision makers on how much should come their way. Consequently, more by the force of economic circumstances resulting out of mismanagement in other sectors of the economy rather than by the financial misdemeanor of the armed forces, military capability has been straitjacketed and military strategy is conspicuous by its absence.

The Matrix for Future Planning

To sum up, therefore, firstly we have to accept that our Higher Defence Control system is cumbersome and lethargic, if not moribund. Next, the territorial limits of India are as they exist today. There is no possible way, least of all a non-military one, by which India can recover the areas lost to Pakistan and China. Indian military strategy must ensure that the existing limits are not pushed further back by force. That they could be redefined by political settlements is no concern of the armed forces, as long as such an outcome is not forced upon the Indian policy makers by pressures of externally generated insurgencies and proxy wars to combat which the Indian armed forces must recast their organisations and doctrines. Thirdly, since the armed forces have no role to play in enforcing India's national interests, except of course to guard the existing territorial expanse of India, plans to maintain force levels for projecting India's regional prowess outside the present boundaries and enforced Lines of Control/Actual Control should now be given a decent funeral. The nuclear dimension has to be kept in mind, although in a negative way. This needs some explaining. For all the gloss, and self-praise on how India withstood the pressure to sign the CTBT, the stark reality is that India has lost the initiative to exercise the nuclear option. Events in this strategic area were allowed to overtake Indian policy, if there ever was one. All political parties and personalities have almost willingly been responsible for this plight. In actual ground terms China is far ahead in both warheads and missiles, while Pakistan has gained an advantage on three counts. One, the Indian superiority in conventional forces has been greatly offset by the implied threat of a possible nuclear retaliation. For the present, therefore, deep penetration by Indian ground troops to destroy the Pakistan army is a thing of the past. As a corollary, the option of an Indian retaliation in other sectors of the Indo-Pak border in response to Pakistani activities in J&K have also been, by and large, closed. A military disconnect has thus been achieved between J&K and the rest of Indo-Pak geographical area. Such an achievement has long been the dream of the Pakistani military planners, specially since the 1965 war. India's unwillingness, if not her inability, to retaliate outside J&K in response to the proxy war there is proof enough of Pakistan's success. Pakistan has thus, by implication, got the world to accept that on nuclear issues and capabilities, in fact in all military matters, India and Pakistan are equals. This has much larger ramifications for India where the region is concerned. Finally, the most limiting factor on the nation is its economic health. It is now to be the overriding factor in all national endeavours. Therefore, future financial allocations for armed forces are unlikely to be higher than those in the recent past.

A Possible Option

We have to take a prudent and an unbiased look at how to structure our security apparatus to meet the challenge discussed above. To start with, we have to accept that till a reasonable restructuring of our Higher Defence Control Organisation takes place, the defence efforts of this country will continue to be mismanaged, wasteful and adhoc in every respect. Arun Singh Committee's report must be retrieved from the lost archives, dusted, and after removing whatever ambiguities there are in it, it should now be implemented. An immediate beginning should be made to breathe life into the Defence Committee of the Cabinet. It should be energised and required to meet mandatorily at minimum specified periods at least. With the resurrection of this Committee all talk of a National Security Council etc. must be put to rest. This latter concept does not fit in with our system of governance. The Defence Committee of the Cabinet assisted by the three Chiefs of Staff, the Defence and Finance Secretarys and Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee, and others who may be called from time to time, is and should be the National Security Council. Unless a political miracle takes place, Pakistan's proxy war in Kashmir will continue. We should be prepared to fight it well into the next century, which means a continuous war against the territories and mercenaries by a force like the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) alongwith the local police. The Pay Commission's recommendations notwithstanding, the RR has to be further augmented and given complete charge of fighting the insurgency in J&K. The Director General of the RR should be located in the state, both to conduct these operations under the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Command and also to act as the Security Advisor to the Chief Minister. The army formations and Headquarters in J&K should be tasked with the protection of the LOC and operations in its vicinity and across if ever desired to be launched, but de-inducted from the counter-insurgency operations. The construction of the Udhampur-Baramulla rail line must be undertaken on a war footing. This is not only a political imperative but a military one too.

The Assam Rifles (AR) should be given complete charge of fighting the insurgencies in the north east, with the Director General Assam Rifles coming directly under General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command. The army formation's engaged in these activities should be de-inducted from such duties. They should be available for conventional operations in case Pakistan decides to launch an open war against India, whether in J&K or outside that state, as a result of frustration at its failure in the proxy war. An unambiguous understanding with China that operations against Pakistan will only be in self-defence and to maintain the status-quo must be reached.

Both the Rashtriya Rifles and the Assam Rifles should be designated paramilitary forces and placed under the Ministry of Defence, possibly under the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff who oversees other arms and services in the Army Headquarters. It may even be appropriate to redesignate the appointments of DGRR and AR as General Officer's Commanding (GOsC) of these forces with three star ranks. Regular army units and formations should be taken away from fighting insurgencies and most certainly from having any role in providing aid to civilian authorities to maintain internal security.

The Border Security Force (BSF) was originally raised at the behest of the Army for taking over border management and relieving the regular army from such duties so that it could pull back, concentrate and train for war. The BSF was also to act as a trip-wire, allowing the Army to quickly move up to fight conventional operations against the opponent, at that time, Pakistan. Presumably the Army, during General Kumaramangalam's tenure as the COAS, was even asked to officer the force. The Army being too involved in its post-1962/65 reorganisations refused. That is history. What is not history, however, is the deliberate effort by many ill-informed and insecure policy makers to try and build the BSF, and also some other police organisations, as a countervailing force to the army. Shades of mistrust of the army still haunt some. This has resulted in all sorts of aberrations and abrasions coming into play between the army and the BSF, especially in the conduct of counter-insurgency operations. Situations can and have become so ludicrous that at times BSF units refuse to carry out orders unless they are cleared by their authorities. Similarly, in a fit of benevolence, the Assam Rifles, a force very much older to the BSF, was placed lower in the ceremonial order of precedence to the BSF, maybe since the Assam Rifles was officered by the army. The consequence is that BSF units refuse to come under operational command of Assam Rifles if required, leading to all sorts of piquant and confusing situations.

The BSF should now be de-inducted from counter-insurgency operations and should concentrate on guarding the international borders in Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Nepal or wherever non-insurgency situations prevail. It should also be available for internal security duties in place of the army which should be absolved of this role as stated earlier.

A complete revitalisation of intelligence services and greater responsiveness from them, by coordination of intelligence activities and upgrading of counter-intelligence efforts, has to take place. Various suggestions in this regard have been made from time to time by the Army and others, and these need to be acted upon with urgency.

A comprehensive and revolutionary examination of the organisations, manpower levels and usage, equipment policies, training and the progressive integration of the three armed forces and the CI forces, designated above, the Assam Rifles and the RR, and the restructuring of Ministry of Defence and Research Organisations has now to get under way immediately. The experts nominated to carry out this long overdue task should be appointed by the government and should include serving and retired armed forces officers, civil servants, scientists intelligence experts and any others, all working under a politician of national standing with a knowledge of security matters, foreign affairs and finance. Leaving such an exercise to individual services will not meet the requirement. The Committee's deiberations, starting from the Ministry should go down to the level of field forces and frontline units of the three services. It should have as wide a charter of duties as is possible with the right to consult every and any quarter. The Committee should be given a time bound programme to put up its recommendations which should be accepted by the government after a debate in the Parliament, so that no partisan interests delay or sabotage the recommendations as has been done with Arun Singh Committee's report. In its deliberations the Committee will have to take into account the parameters that exist today, and as spelt out in this paper, and also project any likely changes visualised in them by the year 2020. The effect of these changes should be catered for in its recommendations.


It would be evident that, if not by design then very largely by default, the political leadership has allowed India's inheritance in the region and the world to be frittered away. The four pillars of a modern regional and a world power are political stability, economic strength, scientific and technological abilities and military capability. They are weak if not very weak, in the case of India. Take Japan for instance, she gave priority to economic strength, scientific and technological abilities and political stability in preference to a high military capability, for which she relied on the Americans. She thus shied away, for almost half a century, from any power status. She is now strengthening this fourth pillar in order to achieve a world status. China on the other hand, inspite of many ups and downs, embarked on strengthening all the four pillars and is already more than a regional power, inching towards a superpower ranking. Then, there are examples to show how countries have failed by not giving attention to all the four issues mentioned. The former Soviet Union is an outstanding example of such failure. Unfortunately, for the present, India too has to be considered in this category.