A Kautilyan Take on the Recent India-Pakistan Conflict

By Dr Kajari Kamal, Faculty, Strategic Studies Programme

The news of Indian Air force striking Balakot in a ‘non-military pre-emptive’ action came when former Indian diplomats and members of the strategic and academic community were deliberating on ‘India’s Strategic Culture and Policy Options at a national seminar. The rather unexpected scale of response elicited guarded jubilation among the attendees and threw Indian strategic thinking and Kautilya into the domain of serious consideration. While the invocation of Kautilyan ideas to assess the recent India-Pakistan conflict is indeed welcoming, a fuller understanding of his prescriptions rather than folklorish discussions may be in order.

Cognisant of the risks of ‘presentism’ but emboldened by the ‘unchanging laws of human nature’, let us see how Kautilya would answer some of the questions about the recent happenings.

  1. Was India’s escalation an appropriate response to Pulwama?
    Indeed yes. Pulwama was a brutal attack on India’s sovereignty, worst ever in several years, causing perceptible public outrage. The use of danda (force) after successive and ineffectual uses of sama (conciliation), dana (gifts) and bheda (dissension) to address Pakistan’s asymmetric approach was justified on a number of counts.Yogakshema (ensuring security and welfare of the people) enjoins the ruler to secure the survival of the state including through resort to force. Although war is the ultima ratio, a judicious use of the rod makes the king respectable. It must be noted that a tactical deviation to use force does not necessarily translate into departure from the prudent ‘strategic restraint’ over the longer term, something that Kautilya would advocate.

    Second, India’s response uniquely ties together elements of mantrashakti (power of counsel), prabhavashakti (power of might) and utsahshakti (power of morale). The time and nature of attack and selection of target suggests good counsel. The speedy, precise and deep penetration without any casualties demonstrates IAF’s full spectrum capability. The surprise and deception, in particular, would make Kautilya proud. And of course, “the response the people of India have shown, have brought greater motivation” to the defence forces.

  2. Should India continue to respond to future terror attacks in this fashion?
    For Kautilya, tactical deception is key. Balakot was useful in messaging the intent to take recourse to such measures in future. Iteration may not necessarily prove useful. Also, “When the degree of progress is the same in pursuing peace and waging war, peace is to be preferred”. 

    However, it is the prevention of such terror attacks rather than fashioning responses that Kautilya would rather dwell on. Tactically, Pulwama was partially a result of an intelligence failure. Knowledge is the foundation of Kautilyan statecraft which is built upon the philosophical undercurrent of anvikshiki (science of enquiry). Intelligence is central for determining the capacities and intentions of competing/adversary states, correlation of forces, and importantly, also for degrading the capacities through active measures and covert actions (subversion, disinformation, sabotage, assassination) short of a large, ‘regular’ war. Non-violent stratagems that cause weakening and diminution of the enemy are the most efficient and cost-effective. However, it is the combined use of sama, dana, bheda and danda in the right measure, which can prove most effectual.

  3. How do China’s interests get furthered in an Indo-Pak conflict?
    China neatly fits into the madhyama (middle king) category. The distinguishing feature of this type of state is that it has territory immediately proximate to the contending parties (India and Pakistan), is capable of helping them when they are united or disunited and of suppressing them when they are disunited. While the ‘middle king’ may not be directly involved in the conflict, it is capable of influencing the course of their conflict. A divided subcontinent, distracted neighbour and a friendly Pakistan – all work in China’s favour.
  4. What are the best means by which India can secure its interests in the rajamandala?
    A state’s relative position in the rajamandala is determined by the health of its prakritis (basic elements of the state). The saptanga theory spells out the seven basic factors (ruler, ministers, territory and population, fort, treasury, armed might, ally) which are logically and substantively interrelated and hierarchically ordered. A continuous optimization of the prakritis is the surest way to enhance comprehensive national power, and in turn, bring about welfare of the people. ‘Strength is power, success is happiness’.It is the internal health of the state and correlations of forces between states that dictate foreign policy action (sadgunyas). The more optimized the prakritis, the more options available. While Balakot is partly a reflection of better optimized state capacities at one end, the terror attack which it sought to avenge points to a graver internal threat at another.

    Pakistan abetted terrorism in Kashmir is effectively a manifestation of state’s weak legitimacy. Rajadharma which enjoins the ruler to bring about happiness of the people (prajaranjan) has been found wanting. The janapada (territory and population) is the third most important basic element of the state which cannot be alienated. Good governance is the key to long-rule and success in the rajamandala. Therefore, the ruler should not allow the causes of decline, greed and disaffection among the subjects to arise, or, if arisen, should immediately counter-act them.

Amb. T.P. Sreenivasan, speaking at the national seminar described Indian strategic thinking as ‘prudent’ and ‘pragmatic’, dictated by the need of the hour, rather than conditioned by a coherent strategic culture. Kautilya’s value lies in the way of looking at statecraft that he teaches us. The rational prudent concerns of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) rest firmly on the abstract ideal pillar of dharma (righteousness).  While calculations of expected utilities of different strategies in the light of available resources, is an inalienable part of Kautilyan statecraft, it is legitimacy through the well-being of the people which makes Kautilyan prescriptions both good and effective.

Views expressed on the blog are the author’s own and do not constitute Takshashila’s policy recommendations