Indian Militarism in a Historical Perspective
After the Pakistani surrender in 1971, Mrs. Indira Gandhi remarked that it was the first victory of Indian arms against a foreign power in two thousand years. The earlier victory, presumably, was Chandragupta Maurya’s success against the Seleucid empire in 303 BC. This was bad history for various reasons, but it is not that history that concerns me here. It is, rather, the peculiarity as well as the universality of the modern Indian relationship with military power, and the place of militarism in Indian democracy. As a nation-at-arms, modern India is a case study in desire and distortion. This has been the case, arguably, since 1882, when Bankim imagined an army of patriot-sannyasis as not just the defenders but also the core citizenry of a disciplined, technologically capable nation. Bankim foreshadowed Mrs. Gandhi’s view that war and victory constituted restoration to history itself; both the writer and the prime minister saw this restoration as the realization of modernity. In the past few years, however, the sharpness of the desire for a militarized subjectivity has gone far beyond the fantasies of Indian nationalists of the period before 1947. In a country where the military had a low profile even after independence, and the sight of olive uniforms was a sign of extraordinary disorder, the soldier has become a highly visible public icon. A rampant militarism has called into question the very project of modernity that was championed by the ideologues of the Indian state.
The surreal spectacles of belligerence that have become an everyday reality in India evoke the ‘alternative modernities’ posited by the Israeli social scientist S.N. Eisenstadt. On the one hand, news anchors on television channels catering to middle-class viewers have donned flak jackets and turned their newsrooms into ‘war rooms,’ where they do battle with Pakistan, Kashmiris and assorted ‘terrorists.’ On the other hand, villagers (also conscious of video cameras) recently placed the body of a dead Hindu – accused of lynching a Muslim for having beef in his refrigerator – in a coffin draped with the national flag, simulating a military funeral. They were affirming, not denying, the dead youth’s complicity in the murder. Cricket stars and Bollywood celebrities thank the army at every public function, and declare their willingness to die if the government would only give the order. An esoteric term like ‘surgical strike’ has become part of Indian popular culture, overflowing the circle of English literacy. (There was a time when ‘surgical strike’ implied that doctors at AIIMS had stopped working, Dilip Menon recently joked.) So has the distinctly pre-modern word ‘martyr,’ translated without irony from the Islamicate shaheed and used religiously to describe dead soldiers of either the secular republic or Hindu Rashtra. In more forums than ever before, the Indian soldier has become an object of reverence, and the military a sacred icon. Criticism of the armed forces and skepticism about surgical strikes have acquired the status of blasphemy: television ‘personalities’ scream at the blasphemers, self-appointed public watchdogs threaten them with prosecution or more summary forms of justice, and editors and vice chancellors have taken it upon themselves to police disrespect for ‘those guarding our borders.’
The element of self-appointment is crucial. Good citizens have stepped forward to defend the honor of the Indian soldier with such enthusiasm that the state and government have faded into the background, leaving a mob that imagines itself as the nation. I do not mean ‘mob’ merely in the generic sense of an unruly crowd, although I am not excluding that meaning either. I am, rather, using the word in the sense in which Hannah Arendt used it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, to describe a racist political community that cuts across economic classes and acts in the name of the state. As the mob has adopted the Indian military, Indian militarism has itself been transformed. It has become a phenomenon that is only apparently outward-directed and concerned with what we generally understand as ‘defense’ in a world of nation-states and national interests. The new function of the militarily assertive state in India is to maintain a condition of national war, or a civil war that gives meaning to the nation, within a diffuse theater of power that is generally described as ‘the border.’ Militarism in India operates with reference to established global models of modern statehood and international competition. Its primary product, however, is a local, historically specific, gap between the Indian nation and the Indian state that secretes not only the rationales and methods of majoritarianism, but also a fascist relationship between the state and the citizen, with all the intimacy and violence that relationship implies.
It may be useful, at the outset, to outline the contours of militarism as a historical phenomenon. Militarism is not simply enthusiasm for military action; nor is it limited to the role played by the military in the conduct of state policy. It is quite different from the ‘warlike’ reputation of tribes or the ‘martial’ pastimes of feudal aristocracies. It is, first and foremost, an aspect and associate of nationalism: a vision of the military as an extension of the Self of the self-identified patriot, and as a facilitator of the will of the citizen. It is also a perception of incompleteness. The nation or nationalized Self is incomplete in some significant way, which can vary, but invariably completion is imagined as the product of military power, or as military power itself. Militarism is, indeed, so intertwined with nationalism that it is impossible to posit a line where one ends and the other begins, although it is not uncommon – or inaccurate – to see the former as an excess of the latter.
Joining the people, the army and the state in a triangle of mutually reinforced sovereignty, militarism has its roots in eighteenth century Europe, where Prussian royalty began dressing in military uniforms just when uniforms (and uniform militaries) in the modern sense came into existence. Prussia was not a nation-state, but its seminal place in early German nationalism can hardly be overstated. In what Benedict Anderson described as ‘official nationalism,’ a monarchy shoring up its sovereignty could seek to draw upon the desires of its newly self-conceived ‘people,’ turning itself and its instruments – including the army – into national icons. These Germanic roots became deeper and more complex in Napoleonic France, with its cult of a national army that was also the national citizenry and a revolutionary guard, simultaneously defending the citizen, exporting the nation, and completing the revolution.
The longing for completion, more pronounced in German nationalism than in the French (because unlike revolution in France, nationhood in Germany was inherently Romantic), gained more discursive flesh in Italy and Japan. In the former, national liberation and unification were military accomplishments, and in the latter, the consumption, display and projection of military power not only underlined the nation’s breaking of geopolitical shackles imposed by history (generally) and the Western powers (specifically), but its achievement of the ethos and aesthetics of technological modernity.
In each of these cases of militarism, and crucially in some others, colonialism added another dimension, beginning with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. That dimension was race. Racism did not, of course, come fully formed into colonial warfare; it was itself shaped by that bloody history. As scholars of settler colonialism have shown, the connection between war and whiteness has a lineage that precedes Napoleon by at least a century. There is, however, a difference between the racism of settler militias and the nineteenth-century phenomenon of metropolitan publics following the colonial adventures of their armies, participating actively in those adventures, or demanding such adventures, against a racially identified enemy. The latter, while not fully separate from the former (especially in the American case), is closely affiliated with the emergence of the nation-state as the center of populism, and consequently, the cultivation of racism as a basic content of the experience of citizenship, both in the sense of a horizontal community of ‘the people’ and in that of a people represented by a particular state. By the middle of the Victorian century, for instance, the infrastructure of a popular press was sufficiently advanced in Britain for the Indian Rebellion to unleash not only a temporary orgy of violent fantasies about niggers and pandies, but also a lasting culture of war memorials, boys’ literature and bad poetry. The Spanish-American conflict and the subsequent campaign to retain the Philippines did something similar for the United States, effecting the transition from Indian-fighting on an internal frontier to a jingoism that nevertheless retained a strong trace of the former.
Arguably, by the turn of the twentieth century, the militarism of what is generally regarded as ‘good nationalism’ or ‘patriotism’ (Britain, the United States) had caught up with the militarism of the ‘bad nationalisms’ (Germany, Japan). This catching up is important, because otherwise we risk falling into a false divide. That distinction between good and bad nationalisms, which is essentially a separation between liberal-civic and ethnic conceptions of nationhood, is not fully sustainable in most contexts. But if the ethnic Self lurks not far below the surface of all nationalisms, including the avowedly liberal-civic, it owes much to the emergence of a relatively homogenous militarism that was ready for its global debut in August of 1914. This militarism proved durable enough to recover from the shock and disgust – and even the ironic sensibility, which is the deadliest antidote to nationalism – generated by the Great War.
The mechanics of this recovery are worth noting briefly. On the one hand, it was facilitated by the rise of fascism, which revitalized not only the longing for wholeness that had characterized the fantasy of national war, but also the mob-mentality that characterized the chronic violence of the colony and the frontier, and at wartime, the imperial metropole. This mob violence was inseparable from governance itself. On the other hand, the rehabilitation of militarism after the Great War was facilitated by the Second World War, which restored and vastly strengthened the concept of the good war, and wove war more tightly into the economic, political and social fabrics of those very nations to which the enthusiasm for soldiering and large standing armies had come relatively late. The full spectrum of militarism, including the racist pleasures of colonial warfare, remained available as culture and as policy to the post-Nazi nation-state. It could undergo periods of decline, as during the ‘Counterculture’ of the late 1960s, but rebound easily, as during the Reagan-Thatcher era and then the ‘War on Terror.’
We must ask, at this juncture, whether militarism is to be regarded as a default mode of nationalism in the world after 1945, into which the Republic of India was born. We can certainly find examples of anti-militarist nationhood in this period: Japan and to some extent Germany, nation-states that were once saturated in the glamor of military technology and the moral virtues of soldiering. Both countries continue to maintain large and powerful military forces, but without romanticizing war or nurturing a cult of the soldier. (The German case is complicated by the four-decades-long partition into two ideologically opposed states.) These, however, were very much the exceptions. If nearly all contemporary nationalism is militaristic, then is there a meaningful phenomenon called ‘militarism,’ or a ‘militaristic society,’ at which we can point? The answer, as in questions about fascism in earnestly democratic states, is ‘yes and no.’ No, in the sense that militarism is ubiquitous. But yes, in the sense that it has not become equally central to the articulation of political community everywhere. Moreover, even in those states where militarism is an obvious element in national politics (the United States, France), it is restrained and countered by a great variety of cultural, ideological and political mechanisms that are rooted in the same classes that anchor nationhood and the nation-state. These include not only liberal institutions such as the robust protection of free expression, but also specific discourses – including historical ‘lessons’ such as the Holocaust – and traditions of dissent, including irony and individualism. Thus, when love of the military does assume a particular centrality and threatens to overwhelm other constructions of the politically engaged Self, it remains possible to identify, interrogate and even confront the phenomenon.
Superficially, Indian militarism is similar to these ‘reformed’ militarisms, including the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, American type. Indeed, it is often patterned after that model, with its exhortations to ‘Support the Troops,’ ostentatious displays of flags and ‘Semper fi’ stickers on windshields, and apparently inexhaustible willingness to bomb Third World countries. American militarism, however, rests very substantially upon a long and broad-based tradition of actual military service. Multiple and overlapping historical factors – old settler-colonial militias, Jacksonian frontier democracy, the absence of a true peasant class, perhaps a Scots-Irish enthusiasm for fighting, and certainly the twentieth-century history of conscription – have ensured that in spite of the controversies over elite deferments in the Vietnam years, military service in America cuts across classes and regions and includes the militarists. Those who ‘support the troops’ often have relatives in the armed forces, and the ‘Semper fi’ decal indicates that the driver is probably a Marine. In India, on the other hand, peasants constitute the great majority of troops, while the middle class – safe from conscription, which it sometimes fantasizes about but is unlikely to tolerate – has provided the officers and the cheerleaders. It is, in that sense, vicarious: removed from the actual military, and a compulsive attempt to close that distance.
That distance cannot be closed by ordinary, prosaic means. While it would be uncharitable to suggest that Indian militarists are cowards, afraid to do the fighting they advocate, it is fair to note that military service does not fit the professional, economic and status-based aspirations of middle-class India. They have (to borrow Dick Cheney’s words) other priorities, which define them as a class apart. The angst of incomplete citizenship that drives Indian militarism is located partly in that gap, which must be filled in with extravagant gestures and wild rhetoric. The gestures and the rhetoric have come to include a naked intolerance of dissent that further erodes the already weak protections of free speech – which, fundamentally, is minority speech and the minority condition itself – provided by the Indian Constitution.
The erosion and the original weakness are part of the same trend: both are based on the presumption that Indian nationhood is not only beleaguered and fragile, its most appropriate remedy is the lock-step of military discipline. Thus, while the current flowering of militarism in India is all too ready to take its rhetorical cues from America, and shares the racist element within American belligerence, it differs from the American model in that it is far more ambivalent about democracy. On the one hand, it equates democracy with majoritarianism. Militarism then becomes the defining stance of ‘the people,’ excluding its targets as well as its critics from the nation. On the other hand, it sees democracy itself as a weakness in the nation. The military itself then becomes not only the preferred model of nationhood, its worship becomes the solution to the weakness exposed by democratic politics. In that sense, Indian militarism is actually closer to ‘crisis mode’ militarisms elsewhere in the world, particularly interwar Europe (where crisis was sandwiched between two catastrophes) and Israel (where crisis is a chronic national ideology). What we are seeing in India at the present time is a sharp movement in the latter direction.
Early Indian Militarism
The perception of incompleteness – the existence of an unacceptable gap between the citizen and the soldier – is as old as Indian nationalism itself, but we can identify three distinct phases, each producing a different key of militarism but also drawing substance from earlier models and emphases. In the period between the 1880s and the 1940s, Indian nationalists had no army to call their own. They were highly conscious that an army of at least two hundred thousand Indians existed in their state, but it was not their state. They were, moreover, excluded from that army by the colonial regime as well as by themselves, through a combination of class, ethnic, gender and political calculations. It was not an absolute exclusion: beginning in the interwar period (and in some provisional cases, even earlier), limited numbers of Indians began to enter the officer corps of the colonial armed forces. Also, mass recruitment in Punjab during the Second World War produced an unforeseen phenomenon: the reconfiguration of demobilized soldiers – peasants equipped with military training and infected with the ‘martial races’ ideology of colonial ethnology – as militias that played a major role in the Partition killings. But the Indian officers were few, remote, and politically contained by their loyalty to the colonial power, and the World War II veterans were not only late on the scene, they remained a mob that ‘respectable’ Indian nationalism was not yet ready to own.
Consequently, when nationalist Bengalis, Maharashtrians and Punjabis imagined themselves as soldiers, they had to operate not only outside the state, but also outside the institutional realities of soldiering in India. They found their armies in the realm of pure fantasy (as in Bankim’s novels), in admiration of Europe and Japan, and then in the rag-tag revolutionary societies that began to appear in India by the last decade of the nineteenth century. These pursuits were vexed not only by their detachment from strategic and even tactical realism (and containment within the domains of mysticism and adolescent play), but also by the total failure to acquire the most basic requirement of an army: a substantial body of troops. Not only did peasants – including those groups that joined the colonial army – remain indifferent, the middle class itself was admiring but not especially engaged.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, two new trends became evident. One was epitomized by the formation in 1925 of the RSS, with its khaki uniforms, stiff-armed salutes and parade-ground drills. Inspired by the feeder units of European militarism, especially youth organizations like the Boy Scouts and the Jugendbund (the early Hitler Youth), as well as older Indian educational projects like the DAV and Ramakrishna Mission schools (which cannot themselves be termed militaristic, but which emphasized disciplined masculinity and national service), the RSS produced a level of membership, regimentation, structure and visibility that swadeshi-era revolutionary groups like Jugantar and Anushilan had never achieved. Just as importantly, RSS ideologues introduced an overtly racist way of thinking about the Indian population, about Muslims, and about the role of the nation-state in the management of enemies. The RSS could afford to be visible; it did not threaten the colonial regime. In spite of the treatises on race and governmentality, its vision of an Indian state remained curiously disconnected from any quest for independence. This was still a fantasy of war, or playing soldiers, within a playground provided by British rule, and it is only fitting that the soldiers resembled colonial police constables armed with bamboo sticks.
The other development was the emergence in India of middle class men who did not (and usually could not) join the colonial army but became visionaries of military professionalism. Unimpressed by the secretive revolutionary societies with their ineffective weapons and lack of a discernible strategic vision, these men – often boys – borrowed the framework of the colonial state and its army, but imagined themselves as its statesmen and generals. They were Romantics, in the sense that they felt the need for military power as a requirement of the nationally-identified Self, but they were also rationalists, in love with technology and a chessboard vision of the world. Thus, as early as during the Great War, a young Nirad Chaudhuri would haunt the shipyards to inspect British warships, and studied the specifications of German artillery. Torn between loyalism and rebellion but imagining both as military-technological expertise, he began to hope that in the foreseeable future, either the imperial or the national leadership would invite him into its planning chambers. Others, like Rashbehari Bose and Taraknath Das, came out of the revolutionary societies of swadeshi-era Bengal, but went abroad. Traveling to Europe, America and Japan opened their eyes to a world of strategic alliances and possibilities. Having escaped the cage of a colonized land, they discovered a wider geography of oceans, navies, nation-states and nationally-identified (but internationally engaged) expatriates and revolutionaries. They became fascinated by the ongoing debates on military and diplomatic policy, and admired those who were able to articulate coherent visions of power-projection. The India they imagined and plotted for, however ineffectually, was a player on that newfound strategic map, cooperating and competing with sovereign powers and empires on terms that were not so much equal as aspirational.
Clusters of such men – many of them students – gathered in Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States. Their relations with the organized mainstream of Indian nationalism could be tense, and a part of the reason lay in their obsession with warfare. ‘They are all Nietzscheans,’ Lajpat Rai remarked in disgust after meeting some of them in London after the Great War. Some of the ‘Nietzscheans’ returned to India and became well-regarded academics and public figures. The sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar was the most prominent and accomplished of these, and his career – until his death the year after Indian independence – illuminates how they were simultaneously insiders and outsiders. Sarkar was both avowedly patriotic and strikingly cosmopolitan, being literate in multiple European languages and having spent many years abroad in the world of sovereign states. He had an elaborate, complex vision of an independent Indian state as an armed player in the world, and had worked out the policies and strategies – domestic and foreign – that might allow a fledgling nation-state to maximize its power. The particulars of Sarkar’s patriotism were, however, alarmingly alien to nationalist politicians: he appeared to value the state over the nation. Nehru knew Sarkar personally, but ignored him when it came to taking advice.
The ultimate exemplar of such marginalized militarism was, of course, Subhas Bose, who Sarkar idolized. Sarkar was convinced of the need for coercion in democracy, and Bose’s commitment to democracy was even thinner. In Bose, we see a highly developed flowering of the strategic yearnings of Indian nationalists who were not only located outside the colonial state, but were also external to the priorities of the organized anti-colonial movement, which, by and large, had not sought to challenge the imperial power on strategic grounds. Bose’s appearance at the head of the Indian National Army, attached to a government in exile and allied with Germany and Japan, came close to a realization of the militarized nation-state, albeit one that was unconvincing and abortive. His traversing of the continents – the treks to Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and Germany, the epic submarine voyage to the eastern theater of the world war, the crisscrossing of wartime Asia, the movement into Burma and India, and finally the bomber flight to nowhere (which could be Taiwan, Manchuria, Siberia, India or Japan) – was almost literally a projection of the nation into the world of war, weapons and strategic maneuvers, and an exhibition of mastery of those domains. The INA was on the losing side of the conflict, but for middle-class nationalists, it was a far more satisfying approximation of a nation at war than the much larger Indian Army or the ‘India’ that took its seat at the victors’ table in 1945.
On the eve of independence, therefore, Indian militarism had already diverged into two streams. One was an explicitly Hindu channel, with the RSS as its climactic product. It might be categorized as paramilitary rather than military in its focus, in the sense that it was provincial, centered on the geography of the national home rather than on a map of the world. The other was relatively secular, stridently technological, and obsessed with locating the nation in a world of armed states. Its great institution was the INA, which, for all its military failures, was explicitly and recognizably a ‘real’ national army, and as such, a facsimile of a disciplined, homogenous and horizontal national community. Its value to the Indian patriot was that it not only functioned as a ‘clean’ counterpart of the messy, embarrassing and apparently pre-modern politics of caste, religion and region (which belied the very existence of the nation), but also that it allowed the middle-class nationalist to claim the horizontal community of brotherhood or nationhood as well as a vertical structure in which the commanders came from the existing socio-economic elites. No challenge to that hierarchy was seriously entertained. That, indeed, is part of the appeal of any national military, which is simultaneously flattening and top-down, potentially revolutionary but reliably conservative.
In each stream, two further patterns remained evident. One was a weak attachment to any functioning Indian state. That state remained colonized, academic, fantastic or ‘alternative’: the longed-for place in the modern sun that was always beyond the reach of the political machinery of nationalism. This predicament generated the second pattern, which was a premium on frustration as a hallmark of Indian militarism. To be a true believer in the nation-at-arms was to be convinced that the nation itself was suffused with indifference, and that ‘politics’ – effectively, the need to accommodate the agency of the masses – had encrusted and handicapped the military potential of the state.
Wars of Frustration
The next phase of Indian militarism can be identified as the period between 1947 and 1998, i.e., the years between independence and the second set of nuclear weapons tests at Pokhran. This is a paradoxical phase, because while an armed and sovereign Indian nation-state was visibly present in that half century, the army itself was not very visible, and the register of war-mongering was relatively muted. If frustration with an elusive state is a key component of militarism in India, such frustration was harder to justify in this period. It was, nevertheless, a significant and revealing period, because it became clear that the mere existence of a sovereign nation-state was not enough to generate the completeness that nationalists longed for, even when that state engaged in fighting a succession of wars. A gap remained between the state of war and the nationalist citizen.
Part of the reason for this unsatisfactory state lay in the nature of the organized nationalist leadership. The Congress after the Great War was a political machine, geared to win elections, holding together not only ‘the masses’ but also vast feudal and business interests that were, by and large, insular and protectionist in their outlook. Its leaders were quite aware that only a small part of their constituency ‘saw’ a world that was wider than India, or, at most, wider than the India-Britain relationship. Indeed, as the organization became broader based, the leaders themselves came from relatively insular, provincial constituencies. Their priorities lay in management of nationally-deployed interest groups, not ‘national interests.’ Moreover, with Gandhi playing a dominant role in shaping the agenda of activism, there was little room for military fantasy in the party’s narrative. The obvious exceptions were Nehru and Bose, both of whom watched world affairs closely and were convinced that the Congress needed a foreign policy. But by the late 1930s, Bose (a misfit) had been pushed out of the party, and Nehru – with his anti-fascist principles – found it increasingly difficult to articulate a strategic position that differed significantly from that of the empire and the colonial state. After 1945, Nehru had lost even his fascist enemies.
The coterie that inherited the administration of independent India in 1947 thus lacked any militaristic credentials whatsoever. Not only were they removed from the shorts-and-sticks displays of the RSS (which was, moreover, damaged by its association with Gandhi’s murder), they were – as machine politicians – cut off from the strategic enthusiasts. Moreover, they did not try hard to hide their suspicion of their own armed forces, which had, after all, been the military of the colonial state, deployed against the Congress itself as recently as the Quit India Movement of 1942-44. The higher officer corps in that period was almost entirely carried over from the pre-1947 period, and while generals like Thimaiyya and Cariappa – like most Indian officers in the 1940s – were nationalists in their own right, they remained tainted by their association with the colonial regime. They were, in addition, known to be considerably to the right of the government, in the sense that they were unsympathetic to its avowed objectives of socialism and non-alignment. In the first years of Indian independence, with the civilian institutions of governance still new and fragile, the possibility of a military coup (as in Pakistan in 1958) was a real anxiety, and there was no reason for the government to encourage a cult of the armed forces. This is precisely why keeping the military out of public life was a widely accepted political norm, one which the military itself came to see as a part of its ethos. The high profile of a general (subsequently Member of Parliament) like V.K. Singh or G.D. Bakshi (who retired to become a hawkish media star) in recent years has not been the Indian norm; even the charismatic Sam Maneckshaw was more circumspect.
For all that, Nehru and his colleagues were not averse to war, to the maintenance of armed forces, to the discourse of military necessity, or even to the symbolism of weaponry. Nehru signed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives soldiers immunity from prosecution in civilian courts while engaged in counterinsurgency operations. He accepted the ritual of Republic Day, when the Indian state parades its tanks and missiles like the Maharaja of Patiala parading naked and erect before his subjects. In spite of their political mismatch, the first prime minister and the senior Indian Army and Air Force officers had all wanted to expand the 1947-48 war beyond Kashmir. They were restrained only by circumstances beyond their control. Nehru had not hesitated to deploy Indian forces to the Congo in a combat role as part of the United Nations Katanga operations in 1961. The 1962 war was precipitated as much by Indian recklessness as by Chinese ‘treachery.’ It is worth noting that India went to war far more often in that period than subsequently. Indeed, if we count the military deployments, the numbers add up quickly: the limited war with Pakistan in 1947-48, the so-called (and extremely bloody) ‘police action’ in Hyderabad, the annexation of Goa, the clash with China, the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, the ill-fated intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war, and the counterinsurgency in the northeast that continues today. Indian military spending until 1962 was modest but it was not inconsiderable, and Nehru gave every indication of wanting to build up a credible structure of force, with the continuous acquisition of modern weaponry from every available source. He was, in that regard, not entirely detached from the strategic fantasists of the interwar years.
Nehru’s enthusiasm for military self-assertion, however, remained unconvincing. It was tempered by his affiliation with specific ideologies – anti-colonialism, non-alignment, liberal democracy, socialism – and by an apparent respect for international mechanisms of conflict-resolution. Nehru the nationalist thus frequently came under the shadow of Nehru the internationalist. That shadow may have been spurious, because Nehru’s ‘internationalism’ is best understood as an attempt to shape a world order in which the victims of colonialism – including India – had a voice both within and without the established institutions. But militarism does not permit a plurality of ‘victims’: there can be only one relevant victim of history. The prime minister’s readiness to link India’s history and destiny with those of others gave him his reputation as a naïve idealist who (unlike Bose or Patel) lacked either a cold, clear sense of ‘the national interest,’ or the toughness to pursue it.
Even the wars that were fought in this period failed to produce a sustainable bellicosity. After some initial coverage in the press, few noticed the IPKF deployment in Sri Lanka: the long war was soon recognized as an embarrassing mistake, best ignored until it could be wound down. The 1971 conflict, with its unambiguous victory and successful defiance of American and Chinese pressure, generated much exultation, but it was contained and curtailed by the very modest Indian media infrastructure of the time. There was little in the way of television, radio had all the charisma of a bureaucracy, the press was genteel, and nowhere was there a financial incentive to turn war into culture. Moreover, Indian belligerence and celebration in 1971 were both moderated by the particular discourse of the conflict, in which the primary victim was not India, but another people. There was, in other words, no conviction of ‘being wronged’ on which militarism might feed and flourish, and victory produced no extended diminution of the political domain in favor of the military. Indeed, barely a year after the Pakistani surrender in Bangladesh, most Indians were more concerned with the turmoil that would climax in the Emergency, than with any newfound fetish of the military. Even the Pokhran nuclear test of 1974 brought only a brief flush of muscular narcissism.
The earlier wars were fought in an even poorer media environment than the Bangladesh conflict. In 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri did attempt to harness some populist zeal with the Jai jawan, jai kisan slogan, but middle-class militarism is an attempt to claim soldiers for the modern community, not clump them together with peasants. Shastri was operating within the old Congress mode of building political coalitions in the agricultural heartland, not asserting a modern state of war. Moreover, while the scale of the incompetence that every branch of the Indian military showed in 1965 is only now beginning to emerge, even then the outcome of the war was regarded with such ambivalence that only Shastri’s death saved the government from having to answer the kinds of questions that had arisen during the war with China three years previously.
Incompetence, particularly the military variety, is more historically and ideologically meaningful than incompetents are usually given credit for. The 1962 war was a shocking spectacle of incompetence on all fronts: military, political, diplomatic and bureaucratic. The incompetence was quite predictable, because war-fighting capability at that level requires institutional maturity and, more nebulously and importantly, widely disseminated habits and mentalities of modernity that can come only with universal literacy, the dismantling of feudal economic relations, and an ethos of horizontal community, i.e., equality. In India, fifteen years into independence, none of that existed. Nehru was frank enough to acknowledge that he and his colleagues in the government had been ‘somewhat amateurish.’ That amateurishness, which could be interpreted as either an incomplete nationhood or as unfitness for statehood, was – and remains – extremely difficult for Indian nationalists to come to terms with. It was an unnerving reminder of older narratives of incompetence, especially if one accepted the fable that the ‘last victory’ was two thousand years ago.
Moreover, the Indian middle class was quite comfortable with its position of privilege in a predominantly subaltern population, and had no intention of investing in the modernity of social organization that gives a tiny country like Israel its long-standing military advantage over much larger Egypt. In India, that kind of modernity would have been revolutionary. It might have required the respectable classes to make do without servants, or to eat with their servants, or to let their daughters marry their servants (and by extension, to let their daughters make other autonomous sexual choices). It is worth noting that the Indian Army itself has steadfastly refused to give up the ‘orderly’ system, in which officers are allowed to use enlisted men as their personal servants. (Even the Pakistan Army has given it up.) Those who celebrate the Indian soldier have not found it necessary to intervene in something so normal.
The nationalist response, therefore, was to find scapegoats. In this search, the military – not only the overt symbol of national sovereignty and potency, but also an apparently permanent institution – fared better than the elected government, which was compromised by its transient and political nature. A few generals who were known to be a favorites of the government could be included among the villains, but otherwise the honor of the ‘martyred’ soldier had to be salvaged with narratives of political ineptitude, weakness and treachery that are as old as nationalism itself, and that have historically surfaced (“we were made to fight with one hand tied behind our back,” and so on) whenever nationalists have had to deal with the inadequacies of their martial mythologies.
The second phase of the nation’s relationship with the military thus had the quality of an unfinished product or a stunted animal. Having got their state, their army and their wars, those patriots who had longed for a militarily assertive nation-state found that the nation, the army and the war-fighting state were not coterminous. In the absence of conscription or mandatory military service, the wars entered into by the state were far from being everybody’s wars. On the one hand, the military and the nation could be insulated from unsatisfying wars. On the other, that possibility of insulation made all wars fall short. Moreover, while Hindu rhetoric was not entirely missing from these wars (Indira Gandhi’s depiction as Durga in 1971 is the best known example), there was no sustained attempt to link the conflicts to a discourse of Hindu victimhood or revenge. Even in 1971, the potentially explosive fact that Bengali Hindus were disproportionately targeted by the Pakistani military was carefully downplayed by the Indian government and news media, not least because it would have unleashed a revenge narrative that was at odds with the priorities of the Indian state. But if these ‘shortcomings’ were a source of frustration for those who wanted a different kind of militarized nationhood, it must be remembered that frustration only intensifies militarism and gives it new facets. For the middle-class patriot in the 1990s, therefore, not only had the Indian/Hindu nation not fully realized itself through its army and its wars, the failure was inseparable from the emerging narrative of the ‘pseudo-secular’ state and its politics of ‘minority appeasement.’
Mind the Gap: Militarism in the Age of Hindutva
The third phase was announced by the nuclear tests in 1998. The tears of joy on the face of the Home Minister, the jubilant crowds of men in the streets of provincial towns and major cities, and the sadhus performing Hindu religious rites near the test site (in celebration, not penance, lest anybody be confused), all broadcast on television, belong firmly within the militarism of the present day. They were, if not its starting point, its inauguration. The mini-war in Kargil, which came along conveniently the following year (a gift from the Pakistani military leadership), cemented the new model, giving us the now-familiar spectacle of television anchors posing with artillery units and playing the hyperventilating war reporter, twenty-four-hour footage of fighter planes taking off between advertisements for cheap motorcycles and skin-whitening cream, retired generals giving blood-curdling lectures to IIT students, and personalized stories of ‘martyrs’ and ‘heroes’ who multiplied and morphed into celebrities, to be appropriated by celebrities from the world of entertainment. The soldier, the reporter, the scientist (Abdul Kalam’s status as the ‘good Muslim’ who is good because he is a missile engineer who wrote bad poetry about nuclear weapons began at this time), the celebrity, the politician and the viewer merged into a heady package of feel-good citizenship.
The critical changes that enabled these developments are, at one level, structural and easily identified. A post-1947 educational system that privileged first engineering and then business management had, by the 1980s, produced a middle class that valued technocracy and efficiency of command, and was essentially illiterate in the humanities and social sciences, seeing these not only as frivolous and effeminate pursuits, but also as subversive of the fundamental mythologies of nationhood. These included not only ‘great narratives’ like responsibility for the Partition and the role of Muslim kings in Indian history, but also lesser details like Kashmir’s place in the nation, and the definitions of commonly used terminology like ‘terrorist’ and ‘national security.’ For this unevenly educated class, the military – with its supposed efficiency, order and technical competence – was the counterpoint not only to the dirt and corruption of politicians, but also the ‘sedition’ of intellectuals. The unquestioning obedience and apparent self-sacrifice of the soldier, rather than the treacherous speech of the campus radical, was the preferred mode of citizenship. Obedience and hierarchy were long established norms within Indian nationalism, but a liberal-humanist streak had nevertheless emerged. More compromised than liberalism inevitably is by other national, racial and imperial priorities, it was a fragile but important component of Indian democracy. That liberalism was literally educated out of the middle class (and middle-class men in particular) in the three decades after independence, as part of the quest for ‘development.’ When ‘security’ replaced ‘development’ as the central narrative of the Indian state in the 1990s and 2000s, it found ready acceptance.
Even more obviously, economic liberalization had expanded the scale and scope of consumerism in India. A much larger middle class, for which consumption was the most immediate marker of class identity, had sprung up, and shown itself to be highly interested in consuming war. Although this class was made possible by the economic policies initiated by the Congress in 1991, it quickly showed its greater fondness for the BJP, and its growing size and appetite for consumption – which was more than ever a form of speech, but unlike ‘free’ speech, compatible with majoritarian and reactionary politics – kept it from becoming irrelevant even when the BJP was out of office. Simultaneously and not coincidentally, the media infrastructure – television in particular – had become vast, omnipresent, and reoriented to sell everything that could be marketed, including, especially, itself. As a part of this marketing, it sold America, or at any rate, a version and aspect of America that also emerged in 1991, with CNN’s coverage of the war against Iraq. This America, viewed in its own context, was grounded in the Reagan-era makeover of the crises of imperialism generated by the Vietnam War. For Indian television producers and audiences, however, it was a shiny, seductive and aspirational vision of power undiluted by irony or self-doubt, in which images of missile launches and unbloodied soldiers functioned as shorthand for having arrived at the global shopping mall. Sometimes the soldiers were pictured dead, bandaged or decorously boxed and flag-draped, but never in large numbers. The American lesson from Vietnam came ready-made and packaged: the ‘martyr’ had to remain a vicarious Self, distant enough and few enough to be quasi-fictional and unthreatening.
At another level, the changes that made the second phase of Indian militarism possible are ideological and harder to isolate. The new middle class was not fully separate from the old, but it partially swallowed and digested its predecessor. In the process, it produced bastardized versions of the strategic and military-technological preoccupations that went back almost a century, and added the overtly Hindu-nationalist and racist elements that had been contained within the RSS-affiliated fringe. After 1998, when the BJP demonstrated its ability to form and lead a governing coalition, the cult of the Indian soldier also became an apparent reconciliation of the nation and the state. In this new political environment, soldier-worship was a part of how the BJP differentiated itself from the Congress and the Left parties. This was not so much the transcendence of the ‘domestic’ agenda of Ayodhya and anti-Muslim pogroms, as its extension to the domain of foreign affairs. It was, in that sense, the reconciliation of the RSS and INA streams of Indian militarism, and a transition from the militarism of frustration to a militarism of triumphalism. (It has become popular for the Hindu right to seek to co-opt the INA itself, by describing it, rather than the Congress, as the true precipitator of Indian independence.)
The nature of that triumph is highly ambiguous, because the nationalist understanding of foreign affairs was itself transformed as a result of its capture by those who had concerned themselves primarily with a different history. The older emphasis on inserting the nation into a world of strategy and power that had its own autonomous existence was replaced by a vision of the world as a theater of Hindu-nationalist historical revenge: a delusional self-centeredness and provinciality that would have been quite comical to Sarkar, Bose and their contemporary advocates of Realpolitik in foreign policy. Moreover, it is evident that some of the players on this stage have left the Indian state that was acquired in 1947, and are looking for a posture of holding on. Provinciality, thus, has had to find common ground with deracination. The consequence has been a highly stressed nationalism that must protect itself from fragmentation by posing with weapons and soldiers. It would be difficult to find a better example of this phenomenon than the tendency of some Indian-Americans to see Donald Trump as an ally, and the bizarre show they staged in Trump’s honor in New Jersey. Indian dancers were ‘attacked’ by light-saber-wielding ‘terrorists’ speaking faux-Arabic, and rescued by American commandos, following which everybody grabbed an American flag and did a Bollywood-style dance to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
We have here what is literally a new world: the distortion of the strategic globe into a flat earth, or perhaps one of Eisenstadt’s alternative modernities. The performance in New Jersey was not satire. Nor was it simply the muddled loyalties of immigrants in an era in which concepts like ‘emigration’ and ‘immigration’ have become obsolete, and ties to the old country are kept alive by frequent travel, unbroken families, the Internet, globalized Bollywood and state-sponsored schemes of dual citizenship. It represented, rather, the performance of a nationalized subjectivity that needed the state (or multiple states) as a prop and an embellishment, but was not wedded to any particular state, any more than a peasant is wedded to a particular state. It is also representative of the hyper-nationalist who has emigrated to an imperfectly understood world without actually leaving home. The well-known NRI or Non-Resident Indian (affluent first-generation Indian immigrants in the West, a key source of support for the Hindu right wing in India) is paralleled by the less famous Indian in Gujarat and Haryana whose nationalism is rendered desperate by his envy of New Jersey. His triumphalism is interwoven with desire for what one would like to purchase but cannot afford, and he continuously becomes a cheap, distorted copy of the foreign patriot.
That distorted and distorting foreigner, while generally American, carries more purpose-specific passports as well. The most common such passport, for the Indian militarist, is Israeli. This is not entirely new (Israel has long had its Indian admirers) but it has taken on a new dimension lately with the Indian prime minister’s explicit mention of the Israeli military as a model for the Indian. Israeli references are important in Hindutva for many reasons, but two in particular concern me here. One is the historical distortion that becomes inevitable when a nation of more than a billion people, with deeply rooted and widely manifested traditions of ethno-religious intertwining and coexistence, seeks to model itself on a garrison state of six million that is also a settler colony, an ethnocracy and an occupying power. The other is a political and ideological effect. Israeli militarism is, among other things, the projection outwards of an enmity that is internal to the population of the state. The Israeli outlook on the world reflects not only the Holocaust, but also a paranoid expectation that ‘it could happen again,’ executed by Palestinians or ‘Arabs.’ This expectation makes it virtually impossible for the Israeli state to operate in the world in the mode of a normal power; it must forever function as a rogue state (albeit with powerful friends), interpreting the world in the light of its internal struggle. This predicament is an existential incompleteness: a gap between the (Israeli) state that includes Palestinians, and the (Jewish) nation that does not. As noted earlier, a similar gap between the nation and the state has long marked Indian militarism, and functioned as a source of frustration. Now, however, it is functioning as the norm. The gap is there to be maintained, and the state is there to preserve it. We can say that the gap between the nation and the state has been closed in India only in the sense that the state now manages the gap.
The gap can manifest itself as a strategic space, a state of exception, a campus, or Kashmir. It is the space in which Muslims must live (or conversely, be discouraged from renting or buying a home) as aliens and racial inferiors; it is also the space in which Hindus can maneuver between being global citizens engaged in something as cosmopolitan as the ‘war on terror,’ and being ethnic nationalists who feel oppressed by an ‘appeased’ minority. Within it, they can be citizens of a constitutional democracy, but also seek to intimidate or lock up ‘anti-national’ scholars, and punish actors who refuse to come out as anti-Pakistan. It can manifest itself as ‘the border’: a curious terminology, reminiscent of the old American concept of ‘the frontier,’ that has come to permeate Indian culture, from war movies (straightforwardly titled ‘Border’) to everyday exhortations to remember that ‘soldiers are dying on the border.’ In the makeshift modernity of the Indian nation, which never had borders before the colonial state, the border is now everywhere. It is not simply where the Indian state meets the Pakistani state. It is, rather, where the Indian nation that has triumphantly taken possession of its state meets its inner, inescapable, essential Pakistan. It has been remarked that the Pakistani state that emerged in 1947 was so suddenly improvised that it had a magical, ethereal quality. It might be added that many Hindus found it considerably easier to realize Pakistan: it was always next door, no matter where one lived. The border in India is a state of mind, i.e., a norm of governance and citizenship.
Signifying the border has become the most specific function of the armed forces. The most obvious site of this signifying is, of course, Kashmir, which has become not so much a physical space as a toxic cloud of permissions, restrictions and sentimentalities. Here, the state can torture, maim, kill and impose curfews with impunity, because such governance is permitted by the special quality of the national border. Criticism of that permission is immediately dismissed as sentimentality, and this dismissal or silencing is made possible by the actual sentimentality, which is the cult of the brave jawan. The belligerence with which a talk show host insists that nobody can impugn the ‘honor’ of the Indian soldier is derived from the same ‘border’ that nurtures (and needs) a Nehru-era law like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, but it is the extension of that border into the living rooms of civilians. The safer those civilians are, the more unsafe they claim to feel, and the more thankful they become ‘to those guarding our border.’ Grateful patriots show their gratitude by assaulting a handicapped cinema-goer who did not stand for the national anthem (a new requirement at Indian movie theaters), and by demanding that such ingrates be arrested. The police have duly obliged, and their action defended by Bollywood stars, because, well, ‘soldiers are dying.’ A concept like the ‘honor’ of the soldier, enforced by the civilian mob, becomes utterly incompatible with democracy, although it may not be out of place in the Klingon Empire. Yet it is precisely because democracy has put down tenacious roots in India that militarism is more dangerous there than in states where the army is in control. In India, the distortion of democracy comes from the people: i.e., from democracy itself.
Under specific and unusual circumstances, usually involving catastrophic and total defeat in war, nationalism can be purged of militarism. In India, such purging is inconceivable, not only because India has not known war on that scale, but also because India’s military engagements have been limited to the domain of the state. The nation, meanwhile, has fought other wars: wars of desire for a state, wars of strategic fantasy, wars of frustration, wars in khaki shorts, wars with light-sabers, wars with kerosene cans, and wars of historical compensation. It is the latter set of wars that convey the force and menace of Indian militarism, and the implications of the new obsession with ‘security.’ That word no longer refers to a serious concern with war between states, or even to ‘defense,’ which does not require a military fetish. It refers, rather, to an agenda of ethnic domination and authoritarianism. The greatest menace of Indian militarism is the lynch mob continuously demarcating its borders, demanding and often getting the help of the state in locking a minority into the role of a foreign enemy.
In a society in which nationalism has been a highly uneven phenomenon, meaning substantially different things to elites, subalterns, provincials and emigrants, the idea of the nation-at-war provides certain pleasures and reassurances: cohesion, community, a modality of post-liberal citizenship and post-political governance. It provides, moreover, a link between the nation one inhabits, the state one does not confidently own, and the world one cannot fully inhabit. Militarism welds together not only India and America, the neighborhood and the border, but also the ‘strategic’ mentality of a Bose or Sarkar and the provincial Hindu chauvinism of Narendra Modi. Both are authoritarian – and in some regards, fascist – outlooks on power. But whereas the earlier militarism came with the fantasy of a secular, modernizing state that might restrain and retrain the mob, the other reflects a racist majoritarianism: the phenomenon of the mob that wears the state as its badge.
Enshrouded as he is in a fog of insults and honor, the dying soldier has finally accomplished something that eluded Indian nationalists for a very long time: the production of the citizen-soldier, whose homes, streets, schools and movie houses are all the national border. This citizen-soldier is a fake, in the sense that unlike the Israeli and even the American civilian, he (and increasingly, she) does not expect to join the army. But since the border (or ‘Kashmir’) is now everywhere, he too is constantly engaged in guarding it. Even a cow-protection gang or a lynch mob killing a neighborhood Muslim (who, ironically, had a son in the military) imagines itself to be the Indian Army, fighting its local Pakistan. Like its middle-class counterpart, it is uninterested in fighting anything else, or even in seeing a world beyond this omnipresent 'Pakistan.' In that sense, it is part of the same mob.
The consequences of this militarism are, accordingly, both farcical and alarming. It is not actually the case that the Indian state will go to war at any moment. Even after the ‘cowardly terrorist’ incident at Uri, in which nearly twenty soldiers were killed by four Pakistan-trained militants, the Indian armed response was highly restrained: it consisted, at the most, of a shallow cross-border commando operation. The Indian response to the Kargil incursion, too, was marked by its restraint. What was not restrained was the cascade of moral judgment (the ‘terrorists’ had to be ‘cowardly,’ lest the army be deemed incompetent), and then the illiterate but quasi-American rhetoric of surgical strikes, the gloating, and the display of public bellicosity. It is a bellicosity that has both aided the state (that arrests and kills some people) and been abetted by it (with the refusal to arrest or kill others). It has forced the old-style military enthusiasts – who romanticized fighting machines and held back from looking too closely at what the military was doing in Manipur and Mizoram, but were nevertheless attached to a state that was secular, democratic and inclusive – to share their platforms with the staggering coarseness of those who see Muslims as the national enemy and racial inferiors. Indeed, the former have yielded their platforms and their authority to the latter, and increasingly there is no way to romanticize the Indian military without also endorsing the rest of Indian militarism: Kashmir, AFSPA, mandatory patriotic rituals, the beating and jailing of student activists, the cravenness of the media, and of course the kerosene cans.
October 25, 2016