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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” and “atma nirbhar” mantras carry a great philosophy and critical economic depth. These should have been our national slogans from day one of our independence. The slogans are the sirens that induce us to prove our worth as the second most populous nation in the world and the largest democracy.
These mantras have a special significance for our defence production. Hindsight makes us feel ashamed when we think that we are dependent on foreign states for weaponry that is crucial to the defence of the country against the perfidies of our enemies. Imagine the hard-earned foreign currency which we have had to spend the last seven decades to equip our defence forces and make them ready to face challenges from any adversary.
Sometimes we proudly say that we have a defence partner in Russia (earlier the Soviet Union) and 80 percent of our defence requirements have come from that country. We are happy that we have had a very good friend in Russia who stood like a rock behind us to help us at many critical moments in the United Nations Security Council or other international forums. We are beholden to that. Maybe in the initial stages of our independence, the governments at the time felt that infrastructure building had a priority over defence development because India had recently attained freedom after so many centuries of subservience.
But the first jolt that this line of thinking received was the Pakistan-sponsored attack by tribal lashkars on the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir and the great saga that followed it down to the present day. That was when we first realised how we could not remain content with the idealism of Gandhi’s non-violence and the ‘turn the other cheek’ syndrome.
Then in 1962, we not only had the bitter experience of the consequences of our military unpreparedness but also of trusting countries that should not have been trusted at all. That China stabbed us in the back is not as surprising as the confidence we put in those whose intentions we had never tested.
More ludicrous is our complacency, even after the great debacle of 1962 when for several more years we paid only scant attention to the defence arrangement of the country.
It is in this background that we shall need to evaluate the complete reversal of the six-decade-long defence policy of which PM Narendra Modi is the architect. In the 1962 war with China, our jawans were pushed back and beaten by our northern hostile neighbour and, thereafter Beijing felt that India could easily be kept in line. Our then Prime Minister, who had long denigrated the ills of American capitalism had no qualms in urgently requesting arms and equipment from the same country to fight his adversaries. The Congress Party stuck to senseless idealism and let all three wings of our defence forces starved of sophisticated weaponry.
The Defence Research Department was indeed established and assigned the duty of inducting innovation and originality in defence research and production. Still, the fact is that the wherewithal considered as the prerequisite for the success of such an institution was not provided. It fell short of much-needed funds and techniques, exchanges and incentives.
Prime Minister Modi looked at this entire scenario with an eagle’s eye. It was necessary to pull the country out of the morass of spending billions of dollars on the purchase of arms, ammunition and war material of critical importance. The big drain on the country’s resources had to be stopped and a way had to be found how, while saving our resources, we could have the necessary modern equipment to arm our forces. Make in India and atma nirbhar mantras emerged from this new thinking.
We cannot go into the nitty-gritty of the government’s efforts for becoming self-reliant in the matter of defence equipment as that is too elaborate a subject. We shall take a slice out of the cake.
On October 14, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that the INS Arihant, (which means “destroyer of enemies” in Sanskrit), successfully tested an SLBM, firing the missile at a predetermined range and impacting the designated target area at the Bay of Bengal with “very high accuracy”. It added, “All operational and technological parameters of the weapon system have been validated.
This one-sentence statement clarifies India’s nuclear policy. It is a robust incentive for survival, an assured retaliatory capability and above all, it consolidates India’s credible minimum defence but no-first-use commitment. Looking closely at the wording of the statement, there is a clear hint that India no longer uses the worn-out rhetoric of non-violence, passivity and suspension of the initiative but rather accepts that offence is the best defence.
We all know that there is a nexus between China and Pakistan, both hostile to us. China has been building Pakistan’s navy at a fast pace. Only less than two months back China handed over to Pakistan a large frigate. China has also been helping Pakistan to add submarines to boost its naval strength. India’s SLBM test comes as arch-rival Pakistan and long-term threat China are diversifying their nuclear launch platforms and boosting their respective nuclear arsenals. In a 2020 article in South Asian Voices, Sufian Ullah notes that “Pakistan’s current undersea nuclear capability is limited to the Babur III submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) with a range of 450 kilometres and five Agosta-class conventional submarines.”
Pakistan’s limited landmass and the threat of an Indian hard counterforce strike against Pakistan’s small, land-based nuclear arsenal have compelled the latter to increase the survivability of its nuclear force by deploying more weapons at sea.
To that end, Pakistan has taken initial steps in establishing a sea-based nuclear deterrent. For example, the Journal for Nuclear Disarmament notes that in 2012 Pakistan established a Naval Strategic Force Command, indicating an intention to deploy nuclear weapons at sea. Furthermore, in 2018, Pakistan announced the successful underwater test launch of the Babur III SLCM, with its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) describing the result as the “successful attainment of a second-strike capability.”
All this indicates that our adversaries are deeply interested in the militarisation of the Indian Ocean by way of reaction to the Quad. In doing so they forget that a major objective of Quad is to ensure that the movement along the sea channels is free and secure because a major portion of oil and merchandise passes through these waters. However, China has been focusing only on the military aspect of Quad and deliberately ignoring the major objectives of ensuring the free flow of trade through these vital sea channels.