Reviews

The Oxford Handbook of India’s National Security review: Chinks in the armour

National security is a powerful rallying cry that can trigger frantic debates, reasoned analysis and determined policy interventions despite the indeterminacy and fuzziness surrounding its conceptual foundations. There is often a worrying lack of clarity with regard to what national security is, what its contents are, where its boundaries lie, and how to achieve it. Moreover, the absence of clarity, and critical debates, on national security could potentially lead to governmental overreach based on (mis)perceived national security threats. In that sense, academic debates on national security, with embedded policy prescriptions, should be welcomed.

Defining security

The new Oxford Handbook on India’s National Security edited by Sumit Ganguly and others is a scholarly and timely addition to the growing literature on India’s national security. The editors and contributors have done a commendable job of telling us what the contents of India’s national security are and what can be done to improve its various aspects. Before we take a closer look at what the book offers, let’s ask the basic question: what, after all, is national security? Is it merely about the state or does it include individuals as well? The three well-regarded editors have offered a nuanced definition of security — ‘an area of inquiry of the sources and management of direct threats to the physical integrity of a country’s population’ including ‘violence between individuals and groups of individuals.’ Definitions are important: they not only set the tone of the argument but also instruct the reader on what to expect. In this case, the editors’ definition of security is refreshing and sufficiently accommodative.

There is an underlying argument in the book, and a correct one in my opinion, that the meanings and contents of national security can be viewed differently by different countries, individuals and communities. By including a healthy mix of traditional and non-traditional approaches, the editors have done justice to the divergent and vigorous debates on national security today. It is evident that the book is conceptualised by scholars who understand India and its specificities exceptionally well. They make a conscious effort to ensure that the chapters in the book do justice to the country’s locational realities.

The editors have also resisted the temptation to reuse previously published material, instead daring to conceptualise new areas of national security. The editors deserve credit for creatively conceptualising this volume and keeping the chapters coherent, brief and uniformly well-structured, and bringing together a diverse range of scholars to contribute.

Divided into four parts, the volume contains 25 chapters besides the editors’ introduction. Part one deals with ‘theoretical approaches to national security’; part two focuses on ‘traditional security problems and responses’; part three discusses ‘traditional domestic security problems and responses’ followed by parts four and five which focus on ‘non-traditional security challenges’ and the ‘implications of India’s rise for its national security’ respectively.

Strengths, weaknesses

Some of the outstanding contributions in the book are by Sumit Ganguly, Kaushik Roy, Richard Bitzinger, Steven Wilkinson, Shashank Joshi, Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, among others. In his insightful chapter on ‘India’s Defence Industrial Base: Decay and Reform’, Bitzinger investigates the problems faced by India’s defence industry and concludes that “India will continue to depend on foreign weaponry... while its local arms factories will waste valuable time and resources turning out military equipment that will contribute little to the country’s hard power. It is not a combination that makes for great power status in the global arena.” That indeed is a damning observation coming from a senior scholar. Similarly, Wilkinson, another scholar of global repute, points out in his chapter entitled ‘Civil-Military relations’, that “the ‘coup-proofing’ measures introduced from 1947-55, such as heavy civilian oversight and the splitting up of the forces into multiple commands with little coordination, have also created real long-term problems for India’s military effectiveness.”

Joshi, while discussing India’s military modernisation, perceptively argues that “modernisation includes improvements not just to capabilities and procedures, but also to the various institutions.” This is an important insight. Buying off-the-shelf weapon systems from abroad would not alone be enough to modernise the Indian military; there is a need to modernise institutions as well. In the absence of that, India’s defence industry will continue to “function mainly as an assembler, rather than an innovator,” to use Bitzinger’s words.

Plan and prepare

Taken together, the chapters in this book point towards the crying need for political attention to structural reforms and drawing up the required doctrines and long-term plans. There is a mismatch between India’s national security objectives and its institutional and policy capacity. Moreover, India’s focus, at the moment, seems to be to strengthen its material capability which, several chapters in this volume, demonstrate will fall short in the absence of institutional capability. In short, this volume identifies gaping holes in India’s national security architecture. I would have, however, liked a little more focus on India’s national security institutions, military doctrines and national security management.

I have not come across a comparable book on India’s national security with the same intellectual rigour, range and insightfulness. This is a must read for national security practitioners, scholars and readers.

The Oxford Handbook of India’s National Security; edited by Sumit Ganguly, Nicolas Blarel and Manjeet S. Pardesi, Oxford University Press, ₹2,495.

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