Mahatma Gandhi's 388km Salt March in 1930 was in protest against the British Imperial monopoly on the must-have mineral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Mahatma Gandhi's 388km Salt March in 1930 was in protest against the British Imperial monopoly on the must-have mineral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), known for his contribution to turning mass mobilization against British imperial rule into non-violent movements for Indian independence, also used non-violence as a tool to fight social injustices such as racial discrimination and untouchability (the practice associated with the Indian hierarchical caste order).

The Gandhian idea and practice of non-violence were inspired by the principle of ahimsa (doing no harm), a creed integral to the Indian spiritual tradition enriched by Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Gandhi called his non-violent movement “satyagraha,” implying the use of the force of truth as a way to convert the opponent by winning over his mind and heart and persuading him to accept and adopt the moral and right course of action.

Satyagraha necessitated patience, fasting, prayer and peaceful persuasion (it admitted no violence under any circumstance whatever) and certainly could not be adopted by weak persons who are provoked by the actions of their opponents and take recourse to violence. Non-violence did not mean passivity, but rather implied active, creative and powerful alternative ways of dealing with injustice, conflicts and opponents.

Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against Britain’s colonial dominance had a decisive impact on the Nehruvian idea of Non-Alignment. While Gandhian satyagraha could challenge the stereotypes such as “weak,” “feminine” and “savage” that the British colonial power used to define India in order to sustain its rule, the persistence and success of the Non-Aligned Movement in providing an alternative to power politics of the Cold War era challenged the standard expectations of the British colonial power and led many Westerners to rethink the pejorative cultural categories they used to define India. The innovative non-aligned foreign policy of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, challenged the dominant Western theoretical paradigms as it steered clear of idealism and realism.

Indian strategic practices were also shaped by the ancient statesman and philosopher Kautilya’s pragmatic ideas contained in his magnum opus Arthashastra and practices of ancient kings and medieval rulers. However, the doctrines of non-violence inherent in the philosophy of Buddhism and Gandhian satyagraha exerted a decisive impact on India’s strategic thinking.

The philosophical undercurrents of non-violence tempered Indian notions of pragmatism and helped engender a doctrine of strategic self-restraint

The philosophical undercurrents of non-violence tempered Indian notions of pragmatism and helped engender a doctrine of strategic self-restraint. While the late George Tanham, a specialist on South Asian security affairs working for the RAND Corporation, based on his findings from a study of the impacts of historical and cultural factors on India’s strategic thinking, asserted that India lacked formal and systematic strategic planning and therefore a strategic culture, his conceptualization of strategic culture predominantly represented a Western perspective on security and was more defined in terms of proactive military engagements and systematic long-term strategic planning, which not only stood at variance with Indian strategic thinking, the doctrine of strategic restraint laid bare his narrow perspective on strategic culture.

While its strategic culture restrained India from adopting a militaristically adventurist foreign policy, it allowed necessary measures to address its defense concerns. Nehru argued: “No government of any country dare allow its country to be unprepared for contingencies.”

Because of its practice of military restraint on many occasions, India was able to be one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement for long, which was also a major source of India’s soft power. Indian assistance was crucial to the John F Kennedy administration’s efforts at stabilizing Congo and its significant contribution to defusing the Korean crisis led to its appointment as chair of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission.

India was also asked to chair the International Control Commission set up under the Geneva Accords for its contribution to peace in Indochina. India and other Afro-Asian countries received massive aid from both superpowers for their moral and numerical strength. The impact of Indian soft power on the Western powers was palpable when Nehru rejected American attempts at tying Western aid to the settlement of the Kashmir dispute after India’s request for US military assistance in the wake of the border war with China in 1962. Subsequently, the materially powerful US backed down and continued to provide aid without any conditionality.

Evidently, India was able to receive development aid and military support for its defense even if it categorically expressed its unwillingness to join any of the Cold War military alliances sponsored by either of the superpowers. India had also to face harsh criticisms whenever it was perceived as being involved in power politics. Therefore, it had to move cautiously, specifically in the neighborhood where it perceived most of the security threats coming from.

After the liberation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan with Indian military intervention, Indian forces did not move further in the western direction to assert dominance on the areas belonging to Pakistan. India did not even use the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, captured in liberated Bangladesh, to control the bilateral relationship and coerce Pakistan into abandoning its claim over Kashmir. This restrained action from India has made a subtle and gradual addition to its soft-power resources.

While India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, it called it a peaceful nuclear explosion in order to avert fuss and chaos in the neighborhood. Despite rising security concerns expressed through nuclear power China’s increasing footprints in India’s neighborhood and continuous supply of arms, ammunition and nuclear material and technology to Pakistan, it was only after 24 years that India conducted another test making its military purpose clear in 1998.

Following closely on the heels of India’s test, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear test later the same year. It reflected Chinese nuclear assistance to Pakistan over a period of time making it well equipped with the necessary nuclear technology and material. Although its nuclear test invited criticism from many major actors in international politics and US sanctions, India undertook efforts to mitigate unusual responses from the neighborhood and pacify members of the international community.

India developed a nuclear doctrine combining the principles of “no first use” and “credible minimum deterrence.” It seems that it is India’s belief and practice of military restraint in many instances that was instrumental in pushing the US to clinch the civil nuclear deal even though India is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

American leaders have not hesitated to praise Indian restraint vis-a-vis Pakistan on many occasions after allegedly Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The Bill Clinton administration prevailed upon Pakistan during the Kargil War in 1999 and asked it to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control. The changing gesture of the US toward India, India’s diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with China in the 1990s, and the visit by India’s then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh to China in the midst of Kargil War led Beijing to maintain neutrality during the war.

Although Indians have usually expressed anger immediately after major terrorist attacks and supported coercive measures against Pakistan, simmering sentiments gradually cooled down and fell in place with India’s traditional craving for soft power.

It has been noted that the people of India have rarely been swayed by militaristic impulses in the long term. This was observed when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came back to power for a second term in 2009 even though India observed military restraint after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008.

Similarly, polls conducted to rate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity after India maintained restraint after the Pathankot and Uri attacks indicated only marginal changes in this attitude. Modi chose to invigorate his campaign against terror at international platforms and became successful in dissuading other South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan from joining the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit hosted by Islamabad in November 2016. The recent United Nations decision to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist also bears testimony to India’s persistent diplomatic efforts at voicing its concerns related to cross-border terrorism at international forums.

India’s move toward enhanced military preparedness geared toward tackling threats from Pakistan’s as well as Beijing’s suspicious strategic moves in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region have turned it into the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 12% of the total global imports for the period 2013-17 according to data on arms transfers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Of late, India has signed many fresh defense deals with great powers. India must revisit its increasing hard-power inputs into its strategic policies and make attempts at enhancing its soft-power component.

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