Learning from Kautilya: New lessons for Army - Hindustan Times
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Learning from Kautilya: New lessons for Army

Oct 30, 2023 10:48 PM IST

While the quest to bring about an Indic renaissance in military thought is commendable, the exercise will need intensive engagement with civilian scholars

The Indian Army (IA) has launched “Project Udbhav”, whose ostensible intention is to study, understand, absorb and apply the lessons of ancient Indian classics to contemporary and future warfare. Thirukkural of Thiruvalluvar, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Nitisara of Kamandaki are listed for study. These classical works of literature, the Army believes, will help prepare the officer corps to gain a better understanding of the intricacies of military intelligence, psychological warfare, the ethical or moral conduct of soldiers in war and, more generally, strategic thought.

According to the ministry of defence, the Indian Army received a total of 317 awards for the gallantry and distinguished service of its personnel. (File Photo / HT) PREMIUM
According to the ministry of defence, the Indian Army received a total of 317 awards for the gallantry and distinguished service of its personnel. (File Photo / HT)

The Indian Army (IA) has launched “Project Udbhav”, whose ostensible intention is to study, understand, absorb and apply the lessons of ancient Indian classics to contemporary and future warfare. Thirukkural of Thiruvalluvar, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Nitisara of Kamandaki are listed for study. These classical works of literature, the Army believes, will help prepare the officer corps to gain a better understanding of the intricacies of military intelligence, psychological warfare, the ethical or moral conduct of soldiers in war and, more generally, strategic thought.

This initiative is a promising and admirable endeavour. However, any rigorous engagement with the aforementioned texts will need the involvement of academic experts and scholars, to comprehend the relevance of these ancient experts and their work to the domains of present-day warfare. Take, for instance, classical works such as Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War.

These works came about following careful reflection and study by the authors. In subsequent centuries, they have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Besides primary texts, there is a whole body of secondary literature that interprets them. Consequently, there are contentious debates about what Thucydides or Machiavelli meant on some issues. Rigorous analysis of ancient texts also helps us to grasp the relative weaknesses and strengths of each of the texts. For instance, Clausewitz’s work hardly captured the importance of logistics in war. There is also nothing in On War on naval warfare; nor did its illustrious author anticipate the emergence of airpower. Similarly, the employment of Thucydides’ analogies from the distant past to the present can be tricky. For instance, the bipolar rivalry between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Cold War is analogised to the contest between Athens and Sparta that culminated in war, captured rivetingly by Thucydides.

However, unlike the adversarial relationship between Athens and Sparta, the antagonism between Washington and Moscow did not lead to World War III. The decisive factor was nuclear weapons, which ensured the Cold War did not turn “hot”. The offsetting nuclear capabilities of the two antagonists produced mutual restraint. A major war between great powers looks unlikely today. This does not imply major powers that wield nuclear capabilities should not build their conventional military power. Indeed, conventional capabilities are as relevant today as nuclear weapons.

Secondly, as a corollary to the problematic use of Thucydides, there are the risks and pitfalls of drawing false or trite analogies from ancient texts. Technological conditions and capacities that existed during the time of Thiruvalluvar, Kautilya and Kamandaki are vastly different from the socio-political and technological realities of today. The demands and needs of India’s democratic society and an absolutist monarchical State that existed during Kautilya’s time are different. While the nature of the strategic pressures on contemporary India and its response to them can to some extent be derived from the application of Kautilyan thought to Indian statecraft, they will have to be embedded within a wider body of thought.

Focused and precise comparative analyses of works such as Thirukkural, which engages with ethical principles including those that belligerents should adhere to in war and explores the importance of restraint and justice in war, with similar modern texts must be undertaken. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations is an apt work for comparison. The importance of a comparative study would apply as much to Arthashastra and Machiavelli’s Prince and Nitisara to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It is equally important to understand their limitations. Stratagems, which are ruses characterised by deception and subterfuge, are no substitutes for warfighting or actual combat because war is a contest of arms between animate entities involving direct operational engagements.

While the quest to bring about an Indic renaissance in strategic and military thought is commendable, the exercise will need engagement with civilian scholars much more intensively to produce contemporary scholarship on these primary texts as well as with non-Indic strategic thinking so as to achieve optimum results.

Harsh V Pant is vice president, Studies and Foreign Policy, Observer Research Foundation and Kartik Bommakanti is senior fellow, National Security and Defence, ORF. The views expressed are personal

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