30.04.2014 Author: Matthew Crosston

Surrounded Tiger: The Indian Strategic Intelligence Condition


The complexity of India’s foreign policy and domestic power dilemmas has led to many Western states inaccurately judging the country’s approach to intelligence strategy. India’s intelligence challenges break down most effectively into the categories of domestic, regional, global, and emerging:

  • Indian domestic aspects of security:

    • Political fragmentation

    • Domestic insurgency

  • Indian regional aspects of security:

    • Neighbor dysfunction

    • New ethnic groups and movements

    • Secessionists and external insurgencies

    • Religious conflicts

  • Indian global aspects of security:

    • International terrorism

    • Nuclear proliferation

  • Indian emerging aspects of security:

    • Energy security

    • Food security

    • Water security

    • Cyber security

    • Maritime security

    • Migration security

The domestic and regional aspects have a natural connectivity. Political fragmentation is more than simply a problem of organizing affective bureaucratic governance. As a result of fragmentation and the constant need to broker coalitions and alliances, the capabilities of the Indian government to effectively and timely respond to immediate security concerns are put into question. One of the security aspects not usually considered by Western developed countries is the fear of domestic insurgency based upon uneven and often corrupt economic development. In India’s case this uneven development connects regional, ethnic, and criminal elements into the national security nexus. Several of India’s border states rank high on the Fund for Peace Failed States Index. Thus, neighborly dysfunction becomes an ever present national security concern. Like domestic insurgency, neighbor state dysfunction is not usually a high priority for Western states formulating their intelligence constructs. But for states like India these two aspects are not only critically important they also tend to be the most common scares facing the country on an everyday basis. Cross-border movement and unstable border populations in adjacent countries cause yet another unique security aspect for India. This human flow goes in both directions: so whether one is talking about the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Punjabis in Kashmir, Indians near Nepal, or Tibetans fleeing Chinese persecution and Bangladeshis migrating (legally and illegally) into India, all of these situations present national security challenges that must be prioritized as intelligence priorities. Indeed, given so many states in the Global South face issues of uneven economic development and neighbor state dysfunction, it is obvious why so many have migration security quickly moving up their individual lists of emerging intelligence problems. Given that Western states are the ones with the strongest allegiance to secularization and the separation between faith and state, it is not surprising how much religious conflict still matters to non-Western governments. Religion in India has had a significant impact on social stratification and political mobilization, predominately erupting in violence between Hindus and Muslims and giving way to fears of emerging radicalization.

Given the complex web of national security concerns that face India, it cannot afford to consider limitations on participants, foci, targets, and objectives. Food and water, depending upon the context in which they are being discussed, can easily be seen at times by India as greater national security priorities than nuclear proliferation. As such it should not be surprising to find intelligence resources being utilized in areas that many Western states would consider purely domestic and not related to national security and therefore deemed ineligible for intelligence action. In the past this divergence has often been mistakenly considered proof of the superiority of Western states over non-Western ones, especially in terms of civil society, the rule of law, and liberty. Hopefully this piece reveals that judgment to be misplaced: states need to understand and analyze a strategic intelligence condition that makes explicit the complex web of factors in India that creates unique needs and pressures and justifies the use of intelligence in areas not typically endorsed in the West. This is not proof of superiority. It is simply confirmation of a different empirical context.

It is clear why domestic regime priorities factor into any deductive list of national security concerns within non-Western states: the line of demarcation between domestic and global is not nearly as clear or as explicit as in Western states. This does not represent political corruption, government dysfunction, or civilizational inferiority per se, but rather simple common sense necessity and practicality: the chief national security concerns of India naturally bleed from the global into the domestic and from the domestic outward to the globe. For India this inevitably leads to a focus on its immediate neighborhood, where there are numerous issues and actors to choose from:

  • The nuclear weapons development program between China and Pakistan

  • Afghanistan’s endless civil war

  • The nexus of narcotics, terrorism, and small arms proliferation across Central Asia

  • The danger of Pakistan slowly sliding towards the status of a failed state

  • Sri Lanka’s continued involvement in the Tamil insurgency

  • The struggle against state repression and religious freedom in Tibet against China

  • The nascent movement for democracy in Myanmar

  • Bangladesh’s fight for economic development and its migration problems

This is quite typical for the strategic intelligence condition of non-Western states: it is not that global concerns are put on the back burner but rather there are always more pressing regional and domestic battles to wage. And of course one must not forget, sitting over all of this, is India’s own personal march toward global power status and the subsequent relations that must be had with countries like Russia, Israel, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Sometimes this preoccupation with urgent and intractable domestic and regional problems creates a sense among both Indian and international observers that the country lacks effective coordination and is prone to something derogatorily referred to as ad hoc-ism and drift. This criticism is unfair: with nearly a dozen problematic neighbors, while continuing to undergo its own economic and political transformation, commensurate with higher-level interactions among greater powers, and nearly 15 separate security priorities mashing many of these players together in diverse ways, there simply is no other strategic coordination available to India than one that is justifiably ‘ad hoc’ and allows purposeful drift. It is Western bias to observe this adaptability of Indian intelligence and take it as a sign that the country lacks purpose and planning.

Thus, New Delhi cannot help but feel like a surrounded tiger: it sees itself and its rightful place as a rising power in a polycentric international community but facing numerous rivals across numerous issues epitomized by unsteady and not always reliable alliances. Its approach to intelligence, therefore, will never resemble how the UK or US approaches intelligence. What needs to happen in the West is better analytical understanding that this does not signal Indian weakness but rather the need for India to develop its own unique strategies.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University (USA), exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.