An issue like “Swachh Bharat” may seem remote from something as lofty as national security, but I start with it because the quintessence of national security lies in creating a long-term vision of national interests, and demonstrating the ability for resolute implementation. India’s failure to attain civilised standards of sanitation is emblematic of a serious deficiency on both counts amongst independent India’s rulers and administrators.
In 1920, ICS officer Frank Brayne undertook the “Gurgaon experiment”, which included campaigns to eradicate open defecation, malaria, plague and rural indebtedness. Brayne tried to impose “disciplined defecation” via trench latrines and self-help, but his experiment failed. India’s population has quadrupled since 1920, and the quantum of human excreta on its landscape has, no doubt, kept pace.
If we ever overcome this national ignominy, the credit will go to Narendra Modi’s vision in launching a national campaign. The success of Swachh Bharat will, however, remain contingent upon its implementation by Brayne’s Indian successors. Today, when the nation is beleaguered by grave security threats, and New Delhi seems bereft of ideas, there is a need to undertake an agonising reappraisal of our national modus operandi. A rapid environmental scan highlights some conspicuous examples of the Indian state’s failures to ensure national security for want of vision and resolve.
At the outset, it must be acknowledged that India’s grandstanding on the international stage remains meaningless as long as its deep internal instabilities persist. Apart from enduring insurgencies in the Northeast and the spiralling unrest in Kashmir, the most serious internal security threat arises from the armed Naxalite insurgency running across half of India’s 29 states. Each of these “running sores” is evidence of dereliction, by successive governments, of their duty to assimilate alienated citizens, implement agrarian reform and deliver social justice to the poor, the deprived and adivasis.
However, “government” is not a disembodied entity but an organisation run by 104 secretary-rank civil servants in New Delhi. They are the administrative heads of its 53 ministries and 51 departments, act as principal advisors to ministers and draft policies for them. Given the complete preoccupations of politicians with electoral politics, secretaries are also responsible for implementation of policies. The critical role of civil servants as a central pillar of national governance cannot be underrated because they are also key players in local administration as well as development programmes for rural and remote border areas.
The hallmarks of an ICS officer were his integrity, commitment to the empire, and paternal attitude towards people in his care; but we seek, in vain, similar qualities in our civil servants. A more committed bureaucracy could have been the agent of development and change, for a better, more secure India.
Administrative shortcomings of successive governments have been compounded by their propensity to treat problems, rooted in alienation and socio-economics, as “law and order” issues. Most instances of internal unrest originate in political venality, malfeasance and apathy. A lax administration, then, allows the problem to fester and assume unmanageable proportions, at which point the politicians panic and throw poorly trained police forces at it.
After the failure of government, civil administration and police to control the situation, the area is declared “disturbed” and the military asked to restore order, invoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In the case of anti-Naxal operations, however, the military has firmly refused to be drawn in. There lies another tragic tale of ineptitude.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was designated the home ministry’s “lead counter-insurgency force” and deployed on anti-Naxal operations in 2008. Since then, in an alarming sequence of near-identical Naxalite ambushes, the force repeatedly suffered heavy casualties. Coming from the same background as the army jawan, there is no doubt that the CRPF constable displays equal courage and grit. Army ethos, however, demands that jawans be led into combat by officers; hence, captains, majors and colonels regularly figure on battle casualty lists. The Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, who fill the majority of CRPF command posts, are not trained for combat; hence, they are not with their men when they walk into ambushes.
The failure to regain control of the “Red Corridor” and pacify other states for decades clearly highlights the deficiency of vision and strategy in the Home Ministry. Needlessly heavy casualties amongst our brave armed-police forces point to a flawed leadership template, which needs urgent change. The country’s bleak external environment too calls for reflection on India’s foreign policy track record. Our lackadaisical diplomacy, based on hubristic assumptions of India’s cultural superiority, led to the
underestimation of adversaries and allowed them to outmanoeuvre us. Having created Bangladesh, we botched up the 1972 Simla Agreement, and did little to prevent the emergence of a China-Pakistan axis and the seduction of our neighbours with loans and weapons. Realpolitik is adroit power balancing; but our adherence to “non-alignment” may have left us friendless in a parlous future environment. Amidst the ongoing jockeying for power, manifest in the OBOR initiative, the China-Russia-Pak axis, US-North Korea face-off and a (possible) US-China G-2 diarchy, how will India fare?
Finally, the Achilles heel of the Indian state lies in a neglected and dysfunctional defence industry, entrusted exclusively to scientists and generalist bureaucrats. This lacuna has rendered our national defence hostage to unreliable foreign sources and made a mockery of “strategic autonomy”.
I have steered clear of military issues, but in the words of Pakistani commentator Ayesha Siddiqa, “From economy to social cohesion, India… doesn’t present a very stable image”. Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, is not very smart. The failure to resolve endemic problems for 70 years, using the same complacent people and outdated methods, should cause a re-think amongst our political leadership. Innovative solutions will emerge only if fresh minds are enlisted into government; from business, industry, academia and the professions — including the military — to reinforce the crumbling pillars of the Indian state.