India’s Impending Strategic Culture Debate, Part I

“India is a country where not only the future but even the past is unpredictable.”

– Wendy Doniger, 2009


Indologist Wendy Doniger said that while the “unpredictability of the past” was an inside joke among historians ruing the revisionist tendencies in Cold War Soviet Union, it could also be used in the Indian context. It is not clear if she had anticipated then the legal battle that her book The Hindus: An Alternative History would engender. On 11 February 2014, in the backdrop of a court battle against Doniger’s book, Penguin decided to destroy all of its copies. This event, on one hand, generates some conjecture about what Penguin plans to do with all the pulp from the book (papier mâché art?), and on the other, reaffirms that India is not yet ready to read its past comfortably. While I lack the expertise to comment on the intellectual rigor of her book on religious history from 50 million B.C. to 1950 (trop longue durée!), the court case and the subsequent decision by the publishing house, re-ignited a series of pertinent questions in my mind about the strategic culture of this young country and an old civilization.

The timing could not be more appropriate. General elections in India are scheduled later this year, and the Hindu right nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might return to power. Remember the last time the BJP was at the helm of the central government in New Delhi? Pokhran II and its security-driven rationale presented in the letter from Prime Minister Vajpayee to President Clinton. And remember what happened after that? There was an outburst of studies on the Indian strategic culture with several “isms” thrown into the debate. India probably had a strategic culture, even a muscle-flexing one, and George Tanham was absurdly mistaken.[1]

What distinguished the nuclear tests of 1998 from the one in 1974, was not merely a different political party in power, but the justification provided for the act— national security as opposed to a contested peaceful intent. So how peaceful was the nuclear explosion of May 1974? This question, even after four decades of the test, invites reactions ranging from frowns to straightforward outrage in New Delhi. Quite rightly, it opens old wounds of international criticism and technology-denial of the time— what India has learnt to put past itself since the 2008 Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement.  This leads to the larger question: How willing is India to revisit its past of almost 67 years of independent foreign policy-making? The question is pertinent, and such an enterprise mandatory, if we expect ourselves to comprehend and assess the country’s strategic culture.

Read Part II Here


[1] See for instance Kanti Bajpai, “The BJP and the Bomb,” in Inside Nuclear South Asia edited by Scott D. Sagan, 25-67 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) and Kanti Bajpai, “Indian Strategic Culture,” in South Asia 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances edited by Michael Chalmers, 245-304 (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002).


Image: Narendra Modi, Flickr

Posted in , Elections, History, India, Military, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Peace, Policy, Politics, Security, Strategic Culture

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar is a Research Fellow with the Security Studies Program at MIT's Center for International Studies. Her expertise is in international security, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy analysis, and South Asia. Dr. Sarkar’s writings have been published in peer-reviewed journals like Cold War History, International History Review, and Critique Internationale and policy-relevant outlets like The National Interest and Foreign Policy magazine among others. Sarkar is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and holds a Ph.D. in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland.

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2 thoughts on “India’s Impending Strategic Culture Debate, Part I

  1. Jayita:
    Many thanks for this post.
    George Tanham was a wonderful mentor. He took me to lunches at his club in Washington — the Cosmos Club, near the Indian Embassy — where I would try to pry information out of him about his service in World War II under General Patton. He didn’t divulge very much.
    George’s extended essay on Indian strategic culture generated a good deal of back and forth. His insights mattered, and they prompted much-needed writing on this subject within India.
    A recent essay published by the Observer Research Foundation clarifies, to my way of thinking, how unfinished this business is:

    Kudos to Manoj and Abhitji.


  2. Thank you Michael for sharing your personal reflections about George Tanham. I absolutely agree with you that Tanham’s work generated great interest about strategic culture/doctrine/posture of India. Its impact was indeed phenomenal.

    I must point out that this three-part piece that I wrote here is more a collection of thoughts about my personal journey. I had started my PhD with the desire to study India’s strategic culture with respect to its nuclear program. As I went deeper into the investigation, I realised that there is so much ambiguity about India’s foreign policy in general (not just the nuclear program), and so little is factually known, that I quickly recognised that I lack data to convincingly argue anything. Thus, began the extensive archival work and being a Miss Marple—sniffing out documents from India, Europe and the United States. What I have presented here are thoughts accumulated over the four years of the PhD process, which I wanted to share with my peers from the subcontinent.

    Thank you for sharing Abhijit’s co-authored piece for ORF, which I shall read with interest.

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