A fleeting opportunity

The current design for the National Defence University falls far short of the original ambition.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:12 pm IST

Published - August 10, 2016 01:20 am IST

Putting heads together: “The INDU proposal was not only meant to augment existing Professional Military Education capacities, but to provide the intellectual underpinnings for “jointness” among the different services.” File photo from the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

Putting heads together: “The INDU proposal was not only meant to augment existing Professional Military Education capacities, but to provide the intellectual underpinnings for “jointness” among the different services.” File photo from the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

The draft bill for the proposed Indian National Defence University (INDU) has been recently placed in the public domain. While the intent to seek comments is a good sign, the draft bill is a stark illustration of deeper infirmities in thinking about both national security and higher education.

The idea for creating a National Defence University was first proposed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1967 but it was only after the 1999 Kargil war that this idea was taken seriously when the government created a Committee on the National Defence University (CONDU) headed by the late K. Subrahmanyam. This committee submitted its report in 2002 and provided the rationale for creating a National Defence University. In 2010 the Cabinet gave an “in principle” approval for setting up the Defence University in Binola, near Gurgaon. Subsequently a public sector undertaking EdCIL (India) Limited was tasked with preparing a Detailed Project Report (DPR), a blueprint explaining the physical construction of the university, its act and statutes, plans for faculty development and the overall intellectual approach. After some internal discussions (spearheaded by former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon) on an initial draft, the final DPR was submitted in February 2013.

Trouble with silos India already has existing tri-services institutions for Professional Military Education (PME) like the National Defence College (New Delhi), College of Defence Management (Secunderabad) and Staff College (Wellington). Each of the PME institutes ‘educate’ a particular office profile — the National Defence College is for Brigadiers, College of Defence Management for Colonels and Staff College for Majors, and their equivalents in the other services. The INDU proposal was not only meant to augment existing PME capacities, but to provide the intellectual underpinnings for “jointness” among the different services. But jointness cannot be achieved simply by creating additional empires for serving and retired military officers. It requires new ways of thinking and bringing actors across a wide spectrum to understand and learn from each other and build networks of trust that reach across narrow bureaucratic and service silos. Presumably a well-designed National Defence University would attempt to do this. Unfortunately, the INDU as currently constituted does not appear to meet this test.

First, there has been little public debate over how this institution should be built. To a significant degree this has been because the government has left the conceptualisation and implementation of the INDU almost entirely to the military and the Defence Ministry. Their penchant for secrecy, a convenient cloak to avoid scrutiny, has denied the public access to crucial planning documents like the CONDU and DPR reports. Having had the opportunity to peruse these reports, we can say with certainty that they do not have any operational secrets that could even remotely be inimical to the country’s interests, or hand any advantage to a potential adversary. In the spirit of generating a healthy public debate, the government should immediately release copies of these reports.

Second, by handing over the project to an ill-equipped public sector undertaking, which prepared the DPR, any prospect of conceptual creativity was dashed from the very beginning. The report represents the highest (or lowest depending on one’s point of view) virtue of Indian babudom who have seen higher education as an extension of their own mores. The External Affairs Ministry’s brilliant forays into higher education, epitomised by the shining performance of Nalanda and SAARC universities, will now be eclipsed by the military brass’s insights into knowledge creation and higher education.

The stilted thinking is evident in the third DNA defect of the INDU. While this university is expected to incorporate the existing tri-services institutions for PME, it does not have any plans to address an existing anomaly, the absence of civilian faculty. Indian exceptionalism continues here — among ‘mature democracies’ India is rare in that civilians are denied the opportunity to teach at higher defence colleges, which prevents military officers from having precisely the type of broader exposure that is unavailable to them in the course of their service duties. The project report for the INDU states that it will eventually require around 300 civilians for its faculty even though currently none of the existing tri-services institutes have any civilian faculty.

But could the INDU hire 300 civilian faculty tomorrow even if it really wanted to? Even in the best of circumstances, hiring so many faculty in a short time is extremely difficult. Of course, it is simple if mechanistic genuflections to paper qualifications are all that matter. The difficulties are rooted in broader travails of Indian higher education. A cursory scan of the research output or student profiles of the 29 universities in India which have departments of defence studies would reveal a rather depressing state of affairs. There is more talent in the think tanks, but in this day and age unless there is a conscious attempt to tap talent outside serving and retired military officers, the INDU will become yet another babudom masquerading as deep thinking — which would defeat the entire purpose of this endeavour.

If the government is serious in its intention to create an institute of ‘national importance’, then in addition to releasing documents it must implement two additional measures. First, it should broaden the membership of the INDU cell located in the Integrated Defence Staff beyond the military officers who serve on a rotational basis and lack expertise in higher education or professional military education. And it should retain the few who by interest and hard work develop some understanding but are, in classic Indian bureaucratic style, posted out as if to emphasise that expertise is a dangerous thing.

If the INDU is to live to its potential, the complexity of India’s national security challenges needs to be recognised. This means that while the armed forces should have the largest representation, the INDU should not be a monopoly of the armed forces. The INDU will only succeed if all relevant organs of the Indian state are sensitised to the intricacies of national security and thereby foster a ‘whole of government’ approach. While the plans envisage participant vacancies for police, paramilitary and other civilian bureaucracies, this requires conscious partnering with institutions like the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration and Sardar Patel National Police Academy, as well as the intelligence agencies. Only then can the INDU emerge as an institution that fosters greater cooperation and understanding between different arms of the Indian state.

Learn from best practices The government should move to appoint an academic council, with broader representation than simply bureaucrats and military officers, and house it in a government-sponsored think tank like the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. It needs to make conscious efforts to learn about best practices in professional military education from other countries. This is not just for the benefit of India’s natural security but for the armed forces themselves whose senior officers need wider and better exposure to prepare themselves — and for them to prepare India’s civilians — for the challenges ahead. Unless these steps are taken, the INDU will become another costly retirement home, and India’s security will be its collateral damage.

Devesh Kapur is Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. Anit Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor in S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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