The challenge for the Armed Forces is to stay apolitical while exploring ancient warfare for present and future use, without becoming a mouthpiece for the Modi government
For the first time in our history, an Indian Military Heritage Festival was held in New Delhi on 21 and 22 October 2023. It was organised under the auspices of India’s oldest Inter-Service organisation, the United Service Institution. It was supported by the Army Training Command. The festival was showcased as a flagship event to highlight India’s military heritage and traditions. Unsurprisingly, it has been perceived differently by members of the strategic community. The main point of the detractors is that such projects are part of several initiatives aimed to politicise the armed forces.
Two of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) recent initiatives are particularly obnoxious and antithetical to the apolitical character of the armed forces. The first asks Service personnel to undertake social work while on leave and the second, which takes the cake, is the creation of ‘selfie points’. They will be established to ‘showcase the good work done in Defence’ and all of them will have the picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both initiatives prompted Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge to write a letter to Modi, stating that it is of the ‘utmost importance that the armed forces were kept out of politics’.
The third move, is Project Udbhav. “It’s an initiative set in motion by the Indian Army to rediscover the profound Indic heritage of statecraft and strategic thoughts derived from ancient Indian texts of statecraft, warcraft, diplomacy and grand strategy,” according to MoD’s press release of 29 September 2023. The project seeks to “bridge the historical and the contemporary”. The aim is to connect the past and present by exploring ancient military systems, their strategies, and the wisdom of India’s rich history. It seeks to create a contemporary strategic language rooted in Indian culture, blending ancient wisdom with modern military pedagogy.
Project Udbhav was the centerpiece of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s address at the festival. He reiterated the contents of the MoD press release.
Since 2021, a project run by Army Training Command (ARTRAC), has focused on compiling Indian stratagems from ancient texts. A book released under this project lists 34 sutras (aphorisms) selected from historical sources. The first scholarly outcome of the initiative is the 2022 publication titled Traditional Indian Philosophy…Eternal Rules of Warfare and Leadership. It’s a good compilation of some of the aphorisms from Kamandaka’s Nitisara and an abridged version of Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
The aims of Project Udbhav are laudable. There is no doubt that the Indian military needs to rediscover the wisdom from our ancient past and jettison some of our mostly colonial heritage that inheres in our vocabulary, traditions and culture. More importantly, the Professional Military Education (PME) heavily relies on knowledge from Western sources, which blind us to our socio-political realities, often at odds with our cultural predispositions. The case here is not about ceasing to learn from the experience of other societies but about resurrecting access to indigenous knowledge systems. However, the project would require additional human capital and funds.
Suspicions tend to arise regarding a hidden agenda behind such a venture that claims to rediscover our ‘Indic Heritage’. There is potential here that the process of discovery is shaped to convey an underlying message—Hindus are the original inhabitants of India and all other communities are either outsiders or have been converted by foreigners.
The attempt is to conflate history and mythology. In sum, the message could support the ‘othering’ of religious minorities. After all, it has served as an electoral tool for political parties and has been successfully leveraged by the BJP. The message reinforces the extant belief system driving the Hindu majoritarian impulse in India. Viewed from a national security point of view, the impulse is perhaps the greatest potential threat to India’s political, cultural and social unity.
The challenge for the armed forces is to avoid being the conveyor of the message and preserving its apolitical character while discovering the wisdom, principles and practices of our ancient past that could be of use in present and future contexts. It calls for the military leadership to be cognisant of political machinations that are not uncommon to civil-military relations. It is a task the military can fulfil only if the Chief of Defence Staff and the chief of the three Services take a united stand on the issue.
The military’s institutional approach must be crafted not only to keep a distance from any hidden agenda of the political class but also to ensure that the effort and resources employed do not distract practitioners from dealing with the ongoing strategic, operational, and tactical challenges. There is a case for the military to offload most of the research process to think tanks and academia.
Pedagogy and politicisation
The absence of a National Defence University (NDU), which has been rendered stillborn by the government, will hinder the Services in both research and knowledge dissemination. To expect the military training institutions to identify the research areas, undertake study, design courses and capsules, and dovetail them in military pedagogy is a tall order. The expansion of military tasks to new and multiple domains already leaves no room to include any new topic or subject. The dilemma lies in what can be replaced and with what in order to achieve the goals of PME.
The aims of PME are different at various levels of training in the military hierarchy. Ancient knowledge systems are hardly of any concern to the lower levels as they do not require skill sets that can be distilled from the ancient past. However, since the breeding ground of conflict is politics, it is the middle and upper echelons of the officer class that need to understand the nuances of domestic and international politics as they serve as the instrument of politics. The essence of civil-military relations is about achieving a deeper understanding of each other, to improve military effectiveness.
In reality, to expect the political leadership to spend time and energy to improve their understanding of the military instrument is unrealistic. On the contrary, the military leaders are expected to be the experts in the use of violence, their professional preserve, as long as they adhere to boundaries mutually decided between the civil and military leaderships. Preserving an apolitical character can only come through mutual understanding. Because otherwise, how will the military leadership know when they are being taken for a ride by the political class?
In the absence of the NDU, the dissemination of military knowledge should rely on the increasing pool of expertise available among civilians and veterans. They should be embedded as an important segment of the faculty in military training institutions. It should also be recognised that all three Services are facing severe shortages of officers. The turnover in appointments due to career considerations does not lend itself to long-term research. This reinforces the need to draw the boundary of responsibility between research and teaching. Being at the delivery end, the military leadership would be in control and can sift the pedagogy and avoid politicisation.
The two recent directives from the MoD signify the proclivity of the BJP government to be seen as expecting the armed forces to be answerable to their party rather than the Constitution. However, in the case of Project Udbhav, considering its utility, we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is for the higher military leadership to navigate the pitfalls that could surreptitiously permeate the fabric of military pedagogy.