Book Title: India’s National Security Challenges
Author: NN Vohra
This slim volume is an outsized contribution to the discourse on India’s national security challenges. The editor, former Jammu and Kashmir Governor NN Vohra, has been one of the country’s most experienced civil servants on issues of security. He has served as Home Secretary, Defence Secretary and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. He has a deep connection with security-related issues, having begun his career as an officer in the Special Security Bureau, a secretive outfit set up in the wake of the war with China.
The authors of the essays are former armed forces officers and some civilian commentators who have dealt with fundamental issues related to national security. The book also has an extensive chapter summarising the discussions on higher defence management reforms which took place online, on account of Covid, in early 2021. The lively discussion among the former chiefs of the three Services took up issues like the viability of reforms such as the creation of the Department of Military Affairs, as well as the proposed air defence command. A bonus of sorts is a cogent essay by the late Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), outlining the rationale for theaterisation of the Indian armed forces.
Vohra’s masterly essay on the need for a national security policy delves into two key themes — first, the importance of understanding that our constitutional arrangements make it vital for the Union government and the states to recognise their respective responsibilities in dealing with security challenges. The second is the requirement of a national security policy which brings them, as well as the public at large, on the same page when it comes to identifying national security problems and undertaking to resolve them.
Such a policy would also sharply identify India’s “national and international interests, the security threats facing the country from within and without, and the contours of the foreign, defence and homeland policies within which the Union and state governments would need to work together”.
Vohra also disclosed that the 2000 Group of Ministers’ reforms included a proposal that had been mooted by him for the creation of a National Security Administration Service — a stream of civil service personnel who would specialise on security issues and man the ministries tasked with security-related matters in the Union and state governments. However, he noted that vested interests had prevented the proposal from being implemented.
Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) hits the nail on its head when he notes that because of the abdication by the political class from playing any significant role in guiding the system on issues of national security, “India alone among major powers has suffered from the lack of an institutional process which generates defence reviews, policy white papers and national security strategies”.
In the discussion around the issue when the book was released at the India International Centre (IIC) last month, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon revealed that at least three attempts have been made to produce a national security strategy, only to find that the political leadership was hesitant to support it. Menon felt that perhaps the political class would then have been compelled to come up with the resources which the implementation of the strategy would have needed. IIC president and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who moderated the event, noted that the political class wanted all options to be available, and that usually ended in none of them being used.
Vohra has also provided a roadmap for reorganising the Ministry of Home Affairs to meet the challenges. Among its tasks would be enlarging and strengthening the Intelligence Bureau, and overhauling the functioning of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). In a similar manner, he has called for reforms in the Ministry of Defence, but has questioned the key reform of the current government — giving the responsibility of the personnel and other matters pertaining to the Services to the Chief of Defence Staff. This, he notes, is a needless bureaucratic burden on a person who has already been vested with a lot of other issues to deal with.
More important, in the light of the somewhat ad hoc decisions and functioning of the reform process overseen by the CDS, Vohra strongly urges the government to ensure a thorough discussion on issues like theaterisation, working out a consensus and ensuring that a formal approval is accorded to the decisions by the Union government before their implementation.
In this day and age when security challenges have become more complex and challenging, many practitioners have noted that a nuclear armed India does not really face any existential threat from an external source. The real challenge, in many ways, is internal. Vohra’s essay has provided some suggestions here.
Ajay Sahni’s essay on internal security shows how it impacts national defence. He has pointed to the dangers arising from the lopsided, non-inclusive growth in the country and the polarising politics “that exploits every division — communal, caste, regional, economic and class”. Taken together with the erosion of the “integrity and autonomy of state institutions”, this poses a clear and present danger to the country itself. He has called for substantive investments in intelligence, security and the delivery of justice to deal with the issues.
The one issue that does come through clearly in this volume is the fact that Indian politicians are largely absent from the debate and discussions on the security challenges. Whether it is the issue of allocating scarce resources or providing leadership for difficult areas of national security management, the politicians usually defer to the bureaucracy — military and civil. True, they run ministries and are the nominal bosses in the Centre and the states, but when it comes to crucial issues of decision-making, such as those related to national security management and reform, their presence is marked by their absence.