Why should I join the Indian Army?


Ashok K. Mehta

served in the Indian Army from 1957 to 1991, most recently with the rank of major general. Today he is a political analyst and expert on security policy in South Asia. He also works as a columnist for Indian and foreign publications.

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

Complex internal and external challenges

Indian defense and security policy is shaped by the country's geostrategic location, unresolved border conflicts with Pakistan and China, and armed uprisings and internal terrorism. The focus is on avoiding violent confrontations and looking for peaceful solutions to the conflicts. However, India is able to respond militarily to threats.

An Agni-IV medium-range missile is presented at a military parade in Delhi. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

India is a status quo power without the urge for conquest and territorial expansion - impulses that are slowed down by Hindu restraint. Historically, India has no interest in military dominance, but it does have a good sense of when to defend itself against the domination of others. Well-known American security expert George Tanham believes, however, that India lacks strategic instinct and strategic culture, not least because India's national interests and its military and security strategies have rarely, if ever, been formulated officially. From a military perspective, India is a defensive and reactive power that rarely addresses the root causes of threats and challenges.

While India inherited the insignia of the imperial British legacy after independence in 1947, the associated military power was stripped from it due to the division of the subcontinent (into the states of India and Pakistan) and the associated division of the army. [1] Worse still, the conflict over the Kashmir region and the unresolved border with China made India vulnerable from two sides, resulting in four wars with Pakistan and one war with China. 67 years after independence, the border problems with both opponents are still unsolved.

In his book Defending India, the former defense minister Jaswant Singh writes that the main challenge for India has been and continues to be the establishment and maintenance of internal stability. The consolidation of the Indian state required the peaceful integration of 565 princely states. But it also took violence and pressure to bind four rebellious states to India - Junagarh (now Gujarat), Hyderabad, Goa, and especially Jammu and Kashmir.

Three aspects form the core of the Indian security dilemma. These include the failure to prevent the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the division of the Indian subcontinent, and being trapped within four strategic border lines - the Durand Line (between Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Line of Control in Kashmir, and the McMahon Line and the Line of Actual Control to the northeast. [2] All of this has limited strategic flexibility and operational scope.

The inherited military institutions continue to be structured in a similar way to the colonial era. Control has shifted, however, revealing the deep distrust of politicians towards the armed forces, which are alleged to have failed to participate in the struggle for India's independence. This unfounded accusation continues to be felt, so today bureaucrats are in charge - disguised as the civilian political control of the military. This is the casus belli of the disrupted civil-military relations in India, in which the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces are largely excluded from the decision-making processes of politics.

Security Policy: Strategic Autonomy and Restraint

Strategic autonomy is the central pillar of security thinking. India will therefore neither join a military alliance nor become a satellite state, although it will seek strategic partners for itself. [3] This policy enables flexibility and independence as well as decision-making processes that are not influenced by the outside world. In addition to this principle, there is strategic restraint, which includes avoiding violence in order to resolve conflicts. [4]

The Indian doctrine on counterinsurgency aims, for example, to create an atmosphere in which the search for political solutions becomes possible. The use of force is at best the last option. [5] If this is pulled, only small arms are used to fight insurgents inside. Artillery and air force are not used for this. With one exception: in 1966, fighter planes bombed rebel positions in the Mizo Mountains of Assam.

The policy of strategic autonomy and restraint is complemented by India's nuclear deterrent, which includes renouncing the initial use of nuclear weapons. India already has operational land and air launch systems. The sea-based arm of the nuclear triad (made up of strategic bombers, ICBMs and submarines) should be ready by the end of the decade. Three nuclear powers border each other in the region, with China and Pakistan as partners, both of which have a chick with India.

Despite its geostrategic location as a peninsula in the Indian Ocean, strategic thinking is shaped by a continental mentality, which is due to invasions and repeatedly shifted borders in Indian history. However, there is a secret reorientation towards a more maritime strategy, which is related to India's dependence on energy and raw material imports (to maintain its economic development), much of which are transacted via the Indian Ocean.

Defense Policy: Complex Challenges

India emerged in 1947 in the shadow of the tragedy of the division of the subcontinent and the baptism of fire in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent illegal annexation by Pakistani tribal fighters. The defense of two borders, the exact course of which is unclear, also requires preparation for a conflict situation on two fronts. In addition, there is the need to ensure order and stability at home. The security policy challenges are therefore complex - both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. However, with the exception of 1971, India has always reacted to military actions by China and Pakistan and has not gone on the offensive itself.

Pakistan - proxy war against India

In 1971 India waged its last conventional war, which resulted in the establishment of the state of Bangladesh. In this conflict, the Indian military defeated the East Pakistani army after they were guilty of genocide against their own people. [6] This humanitarian intervention was the first military operation in terms of the Responsibility to Protect. The character of the war in the region has changed since then, as Pakistan perfected indirect war or proxy war, which includes terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

After India and Pakistan became nuclear powers in 1998, Islamabad focused primarily on cross-border terrorism and the support of Islamic extremists. It used this strategy effectively and thereby undermined India's military superiority - 1.7 to 1. At the same time, Pakistan has continued to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in order to deter India from any limited conventional counter-attack. [7] This was particularly evident in December 2001 when terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad groups, allegedly from Pakistan, attacked the parliament in New Delhi. The result was the most comprehensive and longest standoff in the history of the subcontinent (in which around a million soldiers faced each other on the border for months). However, a war could be prevented.

Pakistan repeated its crackdown in Mumbai in November 2008, a terrorist attack ranking just behind the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States in terms of its audacity and the extent of the damage it caused. Regardless, there was no military response from India. Pakistan has distanced itself from the non-state actors operating from its territory, claiming that they act autonomously. The situation on the armistice line in Kashmir (Line of Control), however, remains extremely tense despite a ceasefire agreement concluded in 2003.

Against the background of its self-imposed strategic restraint, New Delhi pursues a policy of conflict avoidance and therefore refrains from selective retaliation. However, diplomacy and dialogue are regularly disrupted and interrupted by terrorist attacks and blatant violations of the ceasefire. India believes that terror and conversation do not go together. That is why it has regularly warned Pakistan of "consequences" should there be another terrorist attack whose origins can be traced back to Pakistan.

China - Unresolved border conflict in the northeast

In order to have peace on at least one border, India has put the solution of the border conflict with China on hold for the time being and has placed the focus on improving economic relations and expanding bilateral trade, which will reach the equivalent of 72 billion euros in the next three years should. Confidence-building measures have helped maintain peace and stability along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Its course has never been precisely defined and both states have their own, not officially declared ideas. Regardless, the most recent violent incident at the LAC occurred in 1975, which is saying a lot.

However, the popular belief that trade and economic activity create an atmosphere in which political conflicts can also be resolved has not yet led to a breakthrough in the border disputes that China has declared a national matter. A stronger China has become increasingly aggressive along the LAC since the leadership change in Beijing in 2012. Both sides have therefore started to manage the differences along the LAC instead of looking for a quick solution to the border question. [8]

India has always acted defensively on strategic issues. However, it tries to achieve parity in deterrence. It must fill the gap in conventional military equipment and address the huge infrastructure deficits on the Indian side of the LAC, where the terrain is extremely difficult. India is also hampered by the failure to break the strategic alliance between China and Pakistan. Because this serves to bind India's forces on the subcontinent.

The Inner Front - Cross-Border Terrorism and Armed Insurrection

The main task of the armed forces is national defense, but they have another important role: helping the authorities maintain law and order inside. The once massive involvement of the Indian Army in tasks to protect internal security has now been corrected and scaled back. There are currently three areas of conflict: cross-border terrorism, especially in Jammu and Kashmir; Insurrection movements in the northeast, especially in Manipur; and a Maoist-inspired uprising in central India. The latter is referred to as a Red Corridor or a Revolutionary Zone, but these are conceptual exaggerations. At the same time, there is a growing danger from religiously motivated extremism and related movements supported by Pakistan.

The Maoists are active in 20 of the 28 states, with considerable influence in up to nine states. But while 203 of 672 administrative districts are affected by Maoist violence, only 83 are covered by a special development plan of the government (Integrated Development Plan), which is intended to counter the influence of the Maoists. As early as 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoist uprising as the greatest challenge for domestic security. This is one of the reasons why numerous forces from the paramilitary federal police are deployed in the affected regions to support the state police. However, there is no end in sight to the violence. On the contrary: Maoist violence now claims more victims than all other conflicts in the country put together - also because, due to constitutional and political difficulties, there has been no national counter-strategy to date. The result is a kind of stalemate in the affected regions. [9]

Systemic and institutional deficits in defense planning

In the financial year 2014/15 (April to March) India invested the equivalent of 26.4 billion euros in the defense budget. That corresponds to 1.74 percent of the gross national product. China is investing more than three times as much in this area, namely the equivalent of 95 billion euros. In addition, there are expenses of around 36 billion euros for internal security, i.e. measures to stabilize the communist regime. In comparison, India only gives up small change to maintain its internal stability.

In addition, the already low defense spending is not being used effectively, which is due to systemic and institutional deficits in defense planning and budgeting and resulting in an unacceptable backlog in the modernization of the armed forces. At least 70 percent of the new purchases for the military come from abroad, which massively undermines the plans to increase Indian performance in this area.

The development deficits were compensated by improvisation, which in the past has led to numerous accidents due to defective equipment in the armed forces. The Indian defense and armaments industry must therefore open up to investors - also from abroad. But the necessary reforms in the defense sector require political will. India, which has one of the largest armies in the world with the third largest land force, fourth largest air force and fifth largest navy, does not even have a chief of staff or a permanent chairman of the general staff, although this proposal has been on the table for 20 years.


In the long term, India's greatest foreign policy challenge comes from China, with a conflict unlikely in the near future. However, painful needle sticks at the controversial border must be expected. The persistently tense domestic political situation in Pakistan and the likely turmoil in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign troops at the end of 2014 could further destabilize both countries and thus all of South Asia. The domestic political challenges posed by uprisings, terrorism and Maoist violence are, however, far greater than the dangers from outside. While India is on the one hand in a phase of economic growth, on the other hand it is stuck in an era of coalition governments and increasing regionalization. This endangers political stability in the country and at the same time prevents a foreign and defense policy that strengthens national interests. India has a particularly battle-tested military that is experienced in counterinsurgency and in blue helmet missions of the United Nations. Its apolitical, professional and secular role makes it a bastion of democracy. However, a better understanding of the military by the political and civil classes could lead to its even more effective use and a sharper articulation of military and security policy as a whole.