It has been twenty five years since George Tanham, an American analyst from the RAND Corporation, asserted that India lacked a strategic culture. In his seminal essay “Indian Strategic Thought,” he argued that the “predominantly defensive” orientation of Indian elites was the product not of careful deliberation but rather of India’s geography, culture, and history.

Carnegie India hosted Dr. Rahul Sagar, global network associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi, for a roundtable discussion to revisit Tanham’s arguments and trace the evolution of Indian strategic thought. The discussion was chaired by C. Raja Mohan, director of Carnegie India.

Discussion Highlights

  • Tracing the Roots of Strategic Thought: The discussion focused on the first volume of Sagar’s forthcoming three-volume reader, entitled “Nations on the March.” In this reader, he has collected all Indian periodicals written in the English language published between 1850 and 1950. He explained that this project will not only provide a bird’s eye view of Indian strategic thought during this era and determine the validity of Tanham’s claims, but also reduce the cost of future historical research. Some participants commented that limiting the project to English language periodicals might hinder an understanding of regional variations in various schools of thought during the period. Other participants also noted that a lack of information about oral presentations, such as speeches, in the nineteenth century might also be a limitation. While discussing the scope of the project, participants commented that the research reveals much more than a counter narrative to Tanham’s views. They remarked that when viewed comprehensively, the database showcases a long tradition of grand strategic thought in India, including on diplomacy, education, and economics. 
  • A Tradition of Pragmatism: While discussing India’s strategic culture, participants stated that historically, it has been one of the least dogmatic nations, constantly adapting to a shifting environment. They noted that this flexibility should be seen as a manifestation of strategic acumen, which goes against the popular narratives about Indian idealism. Participants pointed out the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1904 was a tipping point which brought about a realization of India’s potential to pursue and achieve its external interests independently from Britain. To further illustrate this point, participants used the example of how elites in British India debated Russian advancement into Central and South Asia after the Crimean war. They described a split in terms of how much of a threat the Russians posed, with the Liberals believing that the Russians would not be able to make it to India, while the “forward” school of opinion called for a more assertive position by deploying more troops to the border areas. Support from several Indians for the latter position, including from associations such as the British Indian Association and the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, they explained, highlighted Indian understanding of grand strategy.    
  • India Debates the World: Participants agreed that Indian strategic thought consists of many competing and diverse schools. They commented that India always had a tradition of debate, not only on domestic matters but also on global issues. Participants highlighted the opium trade in India as an example. During the nineteenth century, different sections of society had different perspectives regarding the trade. Participants said that while a section of British Quakers thought of opium as a moral hazard, Bengali landlords were in favour of growing poppy as they argued that without the trade, taxes on natives would increase. Participants also discussed contradicting Indian views on the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the Second World War. They said that while the British vouched for the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, Muslims in India were not in favor, eventually leading to the birth of a pan-Islamist movement called the Aligarh movement. Finally, participants also discussed Indian perspectives on global economic developments and the principle of self-reliance. They highlighted that although the British were in favour of free trade, Indian elites were hostile to the concept as they believed that open competition would harm infant industries in India.  
  • Learning from History: Lastly, participants discussed the importance of history in understanding contemporary foreign policy and international relations. For example, participants discussed that the research project demonstrates that concepts like non-alignment and realpolitik could be traced back to the nineteenth century.  However, some participants noted that the chosen research period might miss earlier efforts, adding that it might be necessary to delve further in history to understand the larger picture. Participants also highlighted issues such as the lack of access to primary documents, especially those belonging to the post-Independence period. This, they said, heavily impacted archival research. Participants agreed that better access to primary sources is vital for comprehensively understanding history and informing future policy decisions.      

This event summary was prepared by Deepakshi Rawat, an intern at Carnegie India.