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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 16, New Delhi, April 3, 2021

Message from Kevadia: new trends in national security culture? | Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Friday 2 April 2021

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh *

India’s national security discourse, by and large, is monopolised by Delhi-based intellectuals and think-tanks. However, if the Commanders’ Conference of the armed forces being held in different parts of last few years (including the recent one held at Kevadia in Gujarat) is any indication, the new public policy imperative seems to reduce Delhi’s influence and proliferate national security culture and consciousness across the country’s geographical spectrum. The rotational practice, if sustained and proliferated to new geographical spots, may gradually push towards a resurgent national security culture and reddress India’s national security dilemmas on many fronts.

Events like Commanders’ Conference are representative examples of engendering national security consciousness. While wider details of Commanders’ Conference proceedings are no more being made public as was the practice earlier, yet such events bring opportunities for discussion and analysis on major national security themes. However, there are simply too many similar events in Delhi competing for attention and influence. There are also too many think-tanks in Delhi monopolising the business of national security due to proximity with academic experts, journalists and retired officials from civil services and armed forces. Many of these strategic experts are well connected to policy circles and are well-published. Most news channels, having a Delhi base, limit their opinion-building exercise around these experts.

Conducting Delhi-based national security business leads to some un-pleasant consequences. First, peripheral issues remain neglected or become victim of perceptions and misperceptions while designing national security calculus at Delhi. Ask the Manipuris, Mizos and the Nagas who may have a different view of the on-going Myanmar crisis leading to refugee influx from across the border. The Maithilis in Bihar nurse a soft corner for Madhesis in Nepal on many issues. People in Tamil Nadu sympathise with minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. In all such cases, a perceptional gap between the mainstream and peripheral views on matters of national security is quite common. Second, unlike most sectors of public policy formulation where lateral, peripheral and vertical feedback get duly factored in policy deliverables, national security remains an exception. Here, Delhi-based experts and think-tanks often remain blissfully ignorant of local realities and advocate uni-directional policy imperatives without factoring the ‘other’. The results are sometime disastrous, like the failed IPKF mission in Sri Lanka in late eighties. Third, national security consciousness in other parts of the country remains low, apart from getting affected by differential strategic instincts, cognitive biases and spatial imaginations. For instance, a person in Gujarat may not be adequately sensitive to China-threat on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A person in North Bihar may think more of Nepal in national security priorities than of Pakistan or maritime threats. Abnormally low level of interest in national security issues amongst regional political parties add to the problem!

Proliferation of national security symbols and events beyond Delhi, therefore, is a welcome initiative. For example, Gujarat may have rich military infrastructure but yet it is part and parcel of that neglected ‘other’ in the national security culture. In December 2020, Gujarat had hosted the DGP’s conference that discussed series of issues related to internal security. The recent congregation of who’s who of national security hierarchy matters a lot for raising the security consciousness of local people apart from enabling them a level playing platform. For three days during 4th to 6th March, Kevadia was not a small town but the most discussed name in the national security discourse. Such iteration of events are likely to boost the Rashtriya Raksha University (RRU) that has recently come up in Gujarat as also the fledgling Centre for National Security studies in the Central University of Gujarat.

Kevadia is neither the first nor the last outing in proliferating national security consciousness beyond Delhi. But institutionalisation of such outings hint towards constructive trends in national security culture. First, it would encourage democratisation of national security discourse with new locations, new issues, new experts and new ideas. National security business, hitherto monopolised by Delhi-based elites, may turn into ‘mass culture’ at some stage. Already, new think-tanks in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai are taking initiatives in national security studies. Scholars and experts from these think-tanks are as good and sharp as their Delhi counterparts. This proliferation process may also provide larger consultation mechansim for feeding public policy channels. Second, it also means more integration of peripheral population with the national psyche on security matters. Some people in peripheral or frontal areas do suffer from pangs of ‘isolation’ and ‘alienation’ with the mainstream population. One reason, amongst others, is that some of these peripheral areas are along borders that are ‘artificial constructs’ or ‘imposed dispositions’. People across such borders value their cross-border cultural connect and cameraderie. Hearing out peripheral voices would mean more resilience for policy deliverables along with better probabilities for ‘peaceful periphery’. Third, for long, it has often been alleged that Indians do not have a culture of strategic thinking. We may have rich Kautilyan tradition of diplomacy, statecraft and war but the colonial legacy subjugated that tradition. Most strategic thinkers in West pooh-pooh our ancient strategic tradition when compared to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. In the immediate aftermath of Cold War, one George Tanham made open mockery of India’s so-called ‘absence of strategic thinking’ and we failed to reply aptly. Perhaps, our national security apparatus is conscious, sensitive and apprised of this Western thought process and, therefore, this decision of holding Commanders’ Conference outside Delhi may stay for long!

However, India will have mature, visible and sustainable strategic culture only when national security consciousness is proliferated in a ‘missionary’ mode in other states. Some of these States do not even have proper military infrastruture to propel national security consciousness on sustainable basis! We, therefore, need an even distribution of national security symbols, institutions and events across the country’s geographical spectrum for facilitating unified and clear picture of national security dilemmas.

Note: The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are personal.

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