The strategic imprint of India’s presence

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

Nitin Pai & Prashant Kumar Singh

Listen to the podcast here

In addition to being a politician—and currently the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha—Jaswant Singh is also a visiting professor at Oxford and Warwick universities and a senior fellow at Harvard. In his book lined study in his official residence in New Delhi’s Teen Murti Lane, it was mainly the professor who spoke to Pragati, not least when he began by gently upbraiding his interviewers for not having properly read one of his earlier books.

In this interview, Mr Singh gives his perspective on the fundamentals underpinning Indian strategic thought, contemporary geopolitics and the changing nature of warfare.

How would you define India’s national interest?
To me the definition, even an attempt to describe the national interest, has to start with absolute clarity on the concept of state, nation and country. Which of these three concepts is the core of India? 
Very briefly, the concept of state is alien to India. And the concept of a nation-state is a European construct, post-Industrial Revolution, and in a sense a consequence of the turmoil within what was earlier North Germany. It begins to be effective only from the seventeenth century. India on the other hand, is a non-territorial nation. It is a civilisation. It has never been bound in the sense of territory. I’m astounded to find that there was not a single map of India until the British came on the scene. The conclusion is obvious, we’ve never had a sense of territory. Therefore we never had a sense of protecting and safeguarding territory. 

That lies really at the root of the fact that India is perhaps the only country of its size, that has an undefined land border almost all along its northern frontiers. Sixty years and we don’t have that. Post-Kargil in 2001 we set up a commission to review the Kargil operation—the first of its kind. We commissioned a further detailed study after the Kargil Review Committee had given its report, and we set up group of very distinguished Indians, and a group of ministers of which I was a member. We set up sub-groups. There was a sub group on territorial boundaries. It would horrify you to know that we didn’t know how many island territories India has. This is in 2001. We did not know how many islands are Indian, so many years after 1947.

The British method and manner of running the entity called India was different. They did not have unified British India as one state. There was a British India and there were a mix of states: more than 560 which were pejoratively called ‘native states’. They were not native in the sense of coming from some Antarctic coastline. They were very much integral to India. And then there was British India. And then they had what they called unadministered North-east and North-west of India. If it was unadminstered how was it British? 

In 1947 we just straightaway—perhaps there was a need—centralised it. And we are still learning 60 years down the line, we are still learning what the fundamentals of a state are. It was the first time we attempted a centralised Indian state ever…without knowing the fundamentals of the functioning of a state. 

There had been periods in India’s history when there was no state, and for hundreds of years the Indian nation has gone along. Then there have been different states. Often those states have been at conflict with one another. But the nation was intact and inviolable. Without knowing these fundamentals we jumped into European thought and over-centralised everything. What we suffer today is a consequence of that fundamental error. 

What then is at the core of Indian nationhood? The central living molecular core? That is Indian society. Indian society—no matter whether there was a functioning state, or there was anarchy—kept the wheels turning. It is amazing. There is no other country like it. That is why I so often say that India survives and shall survive whether there is a state or not a state. China cannot. When there is a centralised state, China expands. India will continue in the fashion it is, whether there is a centralised state or not. 

Today, in 2008, is a classic example. It’s a patchwork situation, from Dravidian parties here, to the East—Nagaland is still turbulent, so is Manipur, and there is ULFA and to J&K and there is all the struggle with the Maoists. It’s an amazing capacity that this nation has—what strings it together? I won’t give you the answer: search for it. Preserving that is the principal national interest. That is the core of India’s national interest.

And the other is that the resilience of this land is unmatched. You will have bombs, terrorists, killings—it’s not indifference. After 9/11, the USA became disagreeably and unacceptably militaristic. India has been suffering this for at least three decades, with thousands of lives lost. It’s a remarkable capacity that simultaneously we absorb many shocks. Preserving that capacity is the second national interest. 

I’m only trying to draw a very rough sketch map. What is that civilisational nation, which is non-territorial which we must preserve? What is that central strength of Indian society which we must preserve, because society has kept India afloat. Today, the state is attacking the society, for the first time ever. Even the British were called mai-baap because they were the preservers. Today the citizen is extremely apprehensive of approaching the state. The minute a citizen approaches the state the state stings him, instead of soothing whatever the problem was. Why? Why is this happening? So we are weakening. We will survive I know, provided we understand and grasp some of these fundamentals.

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