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Speech by NSA Shri Shivshankar Menon at NDC on “The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs”

October 21, 2010

Your Majesty, the King of Bhutan,
Raksha Mantri,
Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force,
Lt-Gen. Prakash Menon, Commandant NDC,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to deliver the keynote address before the seminar on "The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs” to celebrate the golden jubilee of this prestigious institution. The NDC has made outstanding contributions to the spread of strategic thought and the integration of civil and military thinking in India. You have today assembled a galaxy of experts and authorities to discuss this important question. We await your deliberations with great expectations.

Rather than trying to anticipate what your seminar will throw up, I thought I would look at two issues that you will probably consider in much more detail. Is there in an Indian doctrine for the use of force in statecraft? And, how have recent changes in the world and strategic affairs affected the role of force in today’s world?

Is there an Indian doctrine for the use of force in statecraft? This is not a question that one normally expects to ask about a power that is a declared nuclear weapon state with the world’s second largest standing army. But India achieved independence in a unique manner; through a freedom movement dedicated to truth and non-violence, and has displayed both ambiguity and opposition to classical power politics. In the circumstances posing the question is understandable and legitimate.

To answer the question let us look at traditional Indian attitudes to force and the lessons India draws from its own history, and at Indian practice since independence in 1947.

Attitudes to Force and Lessons from History

While India may have achieved independence after a non-violent struggle, it was a struggle that Gandhiji described as non-violence of the strong.

As far back as 1928 Gandhiji wrote, "If there was a national government, whilst I should not take any direct part in any war, I can conceive of occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it.... It is not possible to make a person or society non-violent by compulsion.”

During the Partition riots at his prayer meeting on 26 September 1947 Gandhiji said that he had always been an opponent of all warfare, but that if there was no other way of securing justice war would be the only alternative left to the government.

Faced with the tribal raiders sent by Pakistan into Kashmir in October 1947, Gandhiji said that it was right for the Union Government to save the fair city by rushing troops to Srinagar. He added that he would rather that the defenders be wiped out to the last man in clearing Kashmir’s soil of the raiders rather than submit.

In saying so, Gandhiji was entirely in keeping with a long Indian tradition which has regarded the use of force as legitimate in certain circumstances, namely, if there is no alternative way of securing justice. This is in essence a doctrine for the defensive use of force, when all other avenues are exhausted.

Our two greatest epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are about wars, and treat rivalries as natural and normal. And the two classical expositions on the use of force, the Geeta and Bhishma’s death bed lecture on statecraft in the Mahabharata’s Shantiparva are extended explanations of a unique point of view.

The clearest description of the uses of force in statecraft is in the Arthashastra by Chanakya, which deals with both internal and external uses of force.

The lesson that comes through very clearly in both the major Indian epics, which deal with wars of necessity, is also apparent in Kautilya, the original realist, and in Ashoka, the convert to idealism. Ashoka and Kautilya were both products of a highly evolved and intricate tradition of statecraft which must have preceded them for centuries. A simple reading of the Arthashastra suffices to prove how evolved Indian strategic culture was as early as the third century before Christ, and how the use of force was limited both by practical and moral considerations. This was not a doctrine of "God on our side”, (though that helped, as Krishna proved in the Mahabharata). Nor is it about just wars. In the Indian tradition the use of force is legitimate not just if it is in a good cause and its results will be good. Instead, this was a doctrine that saw force as necessary in certain circumstances, to obtain justice, when all other means are exhausted, and which also recognised that force was not always the most effective or efficient means to this end.

The other lesson that Indian thinkers have consistently drawn from history is of the perils of weakness. The colonial narrative of India’s history, stressing "outside” invasions and rulers had as its corollary the conviction that India must avoid weakness at all costs lest that history be repeated. The Indian quest after 1947 for strategic autonomy and for autonomy in the decision to use or threaten force has a long tradition behind it.

What I am trying to say is that Indian strategic culture has an indigenous construct on the role of force in statecraft, modified by our experience in the last two centuries. War and peace are continuing themes in Indian strategic culture. While not celebrating war the culture treats defensive war as acceptable when good fights evil to secure justice. Indian strategic culture has been comfortable with this contradiction. While Gandhiji shunned the use of force and opposed violence in politics he was politically steely and unyielding, and accepted violence as unavoidable and justified in certain circumstances.

As a result of this acceptance of contradictions, Indian strategic culture supports ethical views that dovetail easily with international norms of conduct, whether legal or on human rights. It is a culture that tends instinctively to pluralism, tolerance of different views and positions, and a reliance on argumentation, diplomacy and law before recourse to the use of force. It is therefore no surprise that it seeks a rule based international order to limit the anarchy among states that is sometimes evident.

This aspect of Indian strategic culture is common to what Kanti Bajpai described as the three streams of Indian strategic culture, namely, "Nehruvians”, neo-liberals and hyper-realists. They might differ on the best means but not on India’s strategic goals . To summarise Bajpai, all three streams agree on the centrality of the sovereign state in international relations and recognise no higher authority; see interests, power and violence as the staples of international relations that states cannot ignore; and think that power comprises both military and economic capabilities at a minimum. Beyond this they differ.

Interestingly all three streams, "Nehruvians”, neoliberals and hyperrealists, believe that nuclear weapons are essential for India’s security in a world that has shown no signs of moving to their abolition and elimination.

In other words, there is substantial agreement on values, on goals and even on means in our policies, despite marked and rapid changes in the external environment in which we have operated. That is why the core traits of our foreign and defence policies have persisted since independence, irrespective of the parties in power.

The Indian Practice since 1947

Let us look at this aspect of Indian strategic culture in action, in other words at Indian practice and policy since independence.

  • The defence budget has only exceeded 3% of GDP in one year of the last sixty-three.
  • There have been clear limits on the use of force internally. The use of military force for internal security functions has been severely circumscribed, limited to those cases where there is a strong correlation to inimical forces abroad such as Nagaland and J&K.
  • The armed forces of the Union have only been used defensively against external aggression in the sixty-three years of the Republic.
  • India has never sent troops abroad except for UNPKO or at the express request of the legitimate government of the country concerned. This was true in the Maldives in 1987, in Sri Lanka in 1987 and in Bangladesh in 1971.
  • India has also never retained territory taken by force in the wars that she has fought. This is so even for some Indian territory taken back from Pakistan in the Indian state of J&K which was returned to Pakistani control after the 1965 and 1971 wars.
India as a NWS

The Indian nuclear doctrine also reflects this strategic culture, with its emphasis on minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament. We have made it clear that while we need nuclear weapons for our own security, it is our goal to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, and that we are ready to undertake the necessary obligations to achieve that goal in a time-bound programme agreed to and implemented by all nuclear weapon and other states.

In sum, there is an Indian way, an Indian view and an Indian practice in the use and role of force. We do not claim that it is better or worse than any other way that other nations adopt. It is a result of our own history and experience, and we feel it best suited to our goals and situation. And it too is evolving, both consciously and unconsciously, as is the world around us. It is time now to consciously build our own concepts and strategic thinking, adapted to today’s realities and India’s environment, including on the role of force.

Force in Today’s World

The other issue that you will be considering is how changes in the world and in strategic affairs have affected the role of force.

It seems to me that the changes we see in world politics and the effects of technology are the two factors that have most affected the strategic calculus of those in the international system who might seek to use force for political purposes.

Consider the global political situation first.

With global and regional balances of power characterised by unequal distributions of power; the interdependence between major powers created by globalisation; the state losing its monopoly of violence in contested hegemonies both internally and externally; and the diversity of values espoused by states, world politics today is in an unprecedented state of flux. It does, however seem that the cost to the major powers of using force in their dealings with each other could prevent the emergence of direct conflict between them.

The effects of technology are harder to describe and predict. In the early fifties, there were those who hoped that the unprecedented power of the atom bomb had made war unthinkable and therefore abolished it! Unfortunately, we now know better. In fact we have seen technology place increasingly lethal power in the hands of non-state actors. Terrorism is technologically enabled and knows no boundaries today, even drawing on support from within state systems. After several centuries, once again the state is not the sole or always the predominant factor in the international system. In some cases, it is businesses and individuals who now determine our technological future and it is these units that a successful policy must now increasingly deal with.

We have also seen technology create new domains for contestation, such as cyber space, where the speed of manoeuvre, premium on offense, and the nature of the battle-space make us rethink traditional concepts of deterrence. As technology has expanded the spectrum, the line between conventional and non-conventional warfare has blurred. The definition of force, the classic marker of power, has now expanded, thus changing the utility of force as traditionally configured.

As we enter a world of multiple powers, with rapidly shifting balances, change alone is certain. Unfortunately, force is the hedge chosen by several powers against heightened uncertainty in the international system. The balance is shifting between force and the other instruments of statecraft. We therefore need to develop a new and different statecraft.

If change alone is certain, and if the utility of force in statecraft is itself changing in fundamental ways, it is all the more necessary that we return to the values in which the use of force must be embedded. Ultimately it is not just the logic of politics or technology but the values and purposes of the state and society that determine the choices that we make of the uses and nature of force.

What India seeks is a new security architecture, an open, balanced and inclusive architecture, to correspond to the new situation that is emerging. The security challenges of the twenty-first century are radically different from those of the twentieth. Nuclear confrontation or war between major powers is not as likely as the threat from derivatives of nuclear deterrence, namely, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, which are being used to subvert the emergence of a plural, secular and democratic international order in the twenty-first century. The challenges of a globalised world cannot be handled by twentieth century military alliances or containment strategies.


So in effect my argument is that in India’s experience the use of force must be governed and circumscribed by the values of state and society. I have also tried to suggest that there may be value in studying the Indian way, the Indian view and Indian practice in the use and role of force in state-craft.

It also seems from recent experience that the utility of force, as traditionally configured and conceived, is of limited value in protecting a society or achieving some policy goals. But one can hardly jump to conclusions about the futility of force when limited war under nuclear conditions remains possible, and when adversaries need to be deterred. This debate will continue.

I wish you success in continuing the debate and in your deliberations.

New Delhi
October 21, 2010


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