Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to be not just an orator, but also someone who often throws in a few surprises in his speeches, or even shocks, depending on where you stand. His recent speech at the Combined Commanders’ Conference, the most vital annual meeting in terms of India’s defence, could come into either category. Many were outraged at the breaking with convention in inviting personnel below officer rank, while most others found aspects of his directives puzzling, to say the least. But in the general discontent, there is one aspect that deserves attention and critical analyses — Modi’s reference to an indigenous military doctrine.
Doctrines decide what you buy, produce, or prioritise, all of which flows from deciding your best fighting foot. At one level, it’s simplicity itself; at another, it’s the most complicated exercise in the world, because it needs you to think for yourself, and not unthinkingly rely on exotic language and catchy slogans used by other countries, all enticingly available on the internet.
Doctrines and the like
First, what Modi said is available only as an official précis that says he “stressed the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures and customs practiced in the armed forces”. The reference in this article is only to the doctrine, and not the rest. The armed forces have more history and ‘indigenisation’ in their customs than any other government department. For instance, the Punjab Regiment’s history profiles the evolution of the Indian Army with that of the nation itself. Doctrines are, however, another matter and evolve continuously even while resting on historical precepts.
The dictionary defines doctrine as ‘teachings’. Russia defines it as “a system of officially adopted State views on the preparation for armed defence and armed protection of the Russian Federation”. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) defines it as “fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives”. India’s Integrated Defence Staff distils it as “Who we are, What we do, and How we do” in a basic and generic manner.
In short, doctrine, at the strategic level, is the foundation for everything else.
Who we are, what we do – a belief system
At the very basic level, who are we? We’re a country that doesn’t go out and attack others; most of the time. When we did, as in Sri Lanka, the consequences were disastrous and may have reinforced the non-attack principle. We do, however, act when goaded in our immediate neighbourhood. There was Bangladesh in 1971 and Maldives in 1988.
In both cases, the countries or people concerned requested it, reinforcing our image of ourselves as the ‘big brother’ in South Asia. That image was tied to our memories of colonial history and the freedom movement, which underpinned a moral ascendancy, where India was seen – sometimes irritatingly – as superior to the rest of the world.
In her book Making India Great, author Aparna Pande writes that “the moral dimension of policy making has always been extremely important to the country”. Today, that seems exemplified by the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ where India is supplying vaccines to 71 countries. But the overwhelming sentiment is not morality but ‘pride’ in Indian strength and displacement of Chinese influence in these countries. The same phrasing was evident in our ‘standing up to China’ narrative in Ladakh and the unprecedented strikes against Pakistan in 2019. Despite the stress on “vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family), India’s current belief system is based on a shifting image of ourselves as a dominant power. It’s too short a time to tell whether this is a permanent shift or a short-term aberration. Suffice to say, any new doctrine will need to decide which side of the line our beliefs systems lie on for the foreseeable future.
Who we are – values
Values are how a nation defines itself, and flows from what its beliefs are. Values are central to identity, and are usually part of the constitution. That’s why Russia ties its doctrine to its constitution, which implies that these values are what it will fight for. ‘American values’ have always been vital to US self-identification. It’s at the bottom of all strategy documents, including the Joe Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which mentions “values” 25 times calling specifically for their defence.
India’s value systems are laid down in our Constitution’s Preamble, which defines us as a “socialist, secular, democratic republic”. Our values include an exhaustive array of freedoms of all kinds. But the Constitution mentions “Hindu” just four times. In Article 25, it includes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains in the term Hindus. But does this reflect our current values? Can the armed forces adopt an ‘indigenous’ doctrine that predicates itself on these newly minted values? Probably not. If yes, then that multi-religious army becomes questionable. It’s that simple.
Geography and how we are
Who we are is also heavily defined by geography. To illustrate, Israel’s aggressive and pre-emptive doctrines arise from the fact that it is all of 22,145 sq. km in size. India at 3.287 million sq. km is likely to think very differently about itself.
India has always been aware of its size in the subcontinent, and that, in turn, has—for instance—defined its nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’. When the doctrine was being discussed in the National Security Advisory Board, its chair was the brilliant K. Subrahmanyam. His objections to a first-use doctrine were many; but one was that it was not in India’s character. More than anyone else, he understood that an aggressive tone in policy simply would not stand the test of ‘credibility’. That’s what size does. It makes you less aggressive, unless pushed.
Geography also includes our large coastline of 7,516 km, which has hardly ever been a factor in warfare, since all of our threats from the times of the Mongols were overland. That still holds, but with one important reservation. The biggest threat of all came in the guise of a trading firm, the East India Company. That went on for a hundred years. No surprises then at our reluctance to step up to the Quad and an instinctive distrust of foreigners. Any doctrine has to do that math. In defence, it’s the land. On the sea, trade matters and its protection. But 77 years ago, a German cruiser Emden did bomb the Madras coast, and Japanese plans did make some ingress. So, Quad matters. But don’t squander your resources for one incident in a hundred years.
How we do – rethink the realities
Modi does have a point in what he says about indigenous thinking. For decades, our strategists and army staff colleges have studied doctrines and essays put out primarily by the United States. That’s not because anyone wants to imitate the US. It’s just that there’s so much material around when you have to put up that study paper for your next promotion. That kind of overwhelming availability of data meant that American military doctrines such as “Air Land Battle” and “Follow on Forces” were duly imbibed and replicated to an extent on the ground. General K. Sundarji’s doctrines owed not a little to these concepts, and lie at the roots of the Cold Start doctrine.
To learn from others is laudable, but it prevents clarity on our innate strengths and capabilities. For instance, re-evaluate how the Himalayas remained India’s true frontier for decades. Using it as an advantage could translate into a series of airfields to quickly bring up men and material, while removing roads altogether. Let the enemy battle it out in the forests. Our advantage is in bringing forces to bear against a China with incredibly long logistics lines. It may be oversimplification; but the point is think with along with your history books. Think also of limitations in terms of what our defence budget will ever permit. Large plans need large purses. Stop the roads, and spend more on in-depth surveillance.
Finally, the Prime Minister’s Office can hardly blame the forces for soldiering on however they could. After all, they’ve been working without any form of political guidance for years. It’s the PMO that needs to set the ball rolling by deciding on a doctrinal paper that examines all of the questions identified above, and more. Such a large mapping requires civilians, military and academics to sit together and decide in the simplest language what India was, and what it is now, what worked for us, and what didn’t. No, it’s not that convenient ‘Vision’ document with great English. This is hard reality. But as PM Modi says, it also needs you to look at the whole issue through a Made-in-India lens. He’s right. Now just get on with it.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)