Whenever India’s political or military leaders brandish threats during periods of ‘uneasy peace’, Pakistan Army becomes the main beneficiary.
In 1999, Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. It symbolised the Indian State’s acceptance of Pakistan’s sovereignty. On 1 December 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, writing on the occasion of India assuming G20 presidency, emphasised the lasting appeal of spiritual traditions that advocate the fundamental oneness of us all. He reiterated ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, or ‘The world is one family’.
However, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountain of the ruling party, has continued to maintain a different tune. In April 2022, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’ could be a reality in the next 10-15 years.
The Akhand Bharat argument
Hindutva proponents have conceived Akhand Bharat as a geographical space comprising a subcontinent that identifies itself with Hindu civilisation and cultural homogeneity. Akhand Bharat includes, in varying versions, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and portions of Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The contemporary spine of this argument rides on the notion that with Partition, Bharat (India) has been unfairly and unacceptably divided. Therefore, its restoration to historical and cultural homogeneity is the aspiration.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the original proponents of this concept, had advocated a strategy for achieving Akhand Bharat. The first phase was to be directed toward regaining Hindu supremacy within Independent India, and the second phase was to deal with geographical spaces held by foreigners. So the statement by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval in November 2021, which said that India’s civil society is the new frontier of war, echoes Savarkar’s first phase for the realisation of Akhand Bharat. Doval also emphasised that wars have ceased to become an effective instrument for achieving political and military objectives.
On the other hand, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has consistently maintained that it is only a matter of time before Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is recovered. He also said that Partition on religious lines was a historic mistake.
When asked about Singh’s statements on PoK, military leaders—like the late Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat and very recently, Srinagar-based 15 Corps Commander Lt General Amardeep Singh Aujla and Northern Army Commander Lt General Upendra Dwivedi—also made similar statements: If and when orders are given, the Army will be ready to reclaim PoK. Political rhetoric seemed to find military backing even as China posed a military threat on the northern borders.
Misplaced military threats benefit enemies
Whenever India’s political or military leaders brandish threats during periods that could be described as ‘uneasy peace’, Pakistan Army becomes the main beneficiary. This is because such military threats strengthen their institutional grip on national security policies and provide oxygen for their power base in national politics. Strategically, India is disadvantaged as it reinforces the Pakistan Army institutionally and further reduces chances for improving relations. For the Indian political leadership, threatening Pakistan may be useful for electoral gains. But the cost is often paid through damage to national interests.
Rajnath Singh’s assertions of “taking back PoK” and “Partition on religious lines was a historic mistake” could be drawing their ideological sustenance from the notion of Akhand Bharat. On the other hand, military leaders could be viewing the PoK matter through the prism of recovering disputed territory that Pakistan has illegally occupied. But when they echo the Defence Minister, military leaders are susceptible to being seen as party to an ideological concept based on a Hindu superiority construct, which runs afoul of India’s constitutional values. Therefore, there should be no doubt that military institutions must keep ideological concepts like Akhand Bharat at arm’s length and not allow them to enter its portals—especially in the garb of professional military education.
Akhand Bharat should be no-go territory
The door for Akhand Bharat may have been opened—however unwittingly—by Prime Minister Modi’s exhortation to commanders of the three Services to enhance indigenisation in the national security system: Not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in terms of the doctrines, procedures and customs practised in the Armed Forces. Ancient Indian civilisational historiography is now not uncommon in the seminars of military institutions. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and it has certainly evoked interest in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which has been neglected by the Armed Forces for long, despite it being one of the greatest treatises on Statecraft. That being said, Akhand Bharat should be a no-go territory for the military.
There can be varied opinions on contemporary affairs regarding the takeover—by a majoritarian Hindu philosophy—of institutions meant to safeguard India’s constitutional values. The military, as the ultimate sword arm of the State, must endeavour to retain its apolitical character. Akhand Bharat is undoubtedly not officially endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, even as some of its actions betray its support. Therefore, if the NSA’s statement about war with civil society is any indication, then it is perhaps one that appears religious in character. There is also room for doubt that the first phase of the Akhand Bharat strategy, which deals with ‘religious foreigners’ like Muslims and Christians in India, may already be underway.
Managing ideological constructs like Akhand Bharat and keeping them from professional military education should not be difficult for Armed Forces leadership as it has enough powers of control. So, any opening, institutionally provided, would mean kowtowing and weakening the apolitical character of the military top brass. Moreover, the Army cannot afford to and must not lose focus on the threat developing at its Northern Borders. It must not get waylaid by the relentless cacophony of India’s democratic politics. The Akhand Bharat concept, perhaps, belongs to a fringe group, but that is not to say that they can be ignored. They will enjoy the freedom to propagate it. But one certainly has to keep them from entering the gates of the military institution.