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A Protean Subject

Satyabrata Pal

Edited by Kanti P. Bajpai and Harsh V. Pant
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 486, Rs. 995.00


Anyone who has asked an Indian Army officer why it has got bogged down in a bloody quagmire in the North East, why it made such a hash of the operation in Sri Lanka, or why the lives of so many jawans were squandered in Kargil, hears the same answer: ‘We fought with one hand tied behind our backs’. Apart from being hard to do unless you have a tail or other appendage to which the hand can be tied, that excuse absolves many sins. That is also the first of many limitations in this book. Though India’s national security has at least as many arms as Kali, perhaps as many as Durga, the editors have chosen to tie all but one away from view, examining only how the state faces armed conflict. That is a one-armed tackle, and a one-eyed view, of a protean and slippery subject.   The second limitation is the doctrinal bias that runs through the book. With some exceptions, including the three chapters written by foreign scholars—Bethany Lacina, George Perkovich and Walter C. Ladwig III —the authors are, in the popular idiom, hawks. Natwar Singh, asked how he reconciled their views with those of the doves, replied that he ran a Foreign Ministry, not a bird sanctuary. That was a witty deflection of a valid question, to which the riposte must be that both India’s foreign and security policies are usually up in the air, where you need a wing, talons or a prayer to survive. The perspective of this book is the hawk’s, which, as Ted Hughes wrote, ‘effortlessly at height hangs his still eye’. It is a lordly and distant overview.   The third shortcoming is that several pieces are apologias for past policies, rather than critiques. (They also confirm what may be a given, that India’s security remains a male preserve. Bethany Lacina, hardly a household name, is the only woman contributor; no Indian woman scholar features, nor does a name come to mind that was an obvious omission. Across the border, though, in a society supposedly more patriarchal and macho, it would be hard to think of a Reader on Pakistan’s security without contributions from Ayesha Siddiqa, Maleeha Lodhi or Shireen Mazari.)   This book, therefore, presents a very myopic view of India’s security, though a Reader, like a primer, should serve as an introduction to a ...

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