The Shishupala Principle

India and Pakistan have been intertwined in conflict for 70 years. But Pakistan has a far clearer idea of its military strategy than India — yes, even though it has lost every direct war against India. But something is changing.

The death of Shishupala. (Wikimedia Commons).

Let me tell you a story. It concerns one of the most complex and beautiful poems ever written. It concerns a tale within that whirlpool of ethics and moral philosophy, the Mahabharat, one of the two epic mytho-novels of India.

At the heart of this story, written as a poem by 7th century Sanskrit poet Māgha, lies the moral philosophy of mercy. You must understand that the poem Māgha wrote is no ordinary rhyme. It might just be one of the most complex, and beautiful, poems ever written. Why? Because the poem has within it a palindrome in four directions — the most intricate poetic device in the history of poetry.

But this poem of 18 cantos (1,800 stanzas) is not merely about picturesque language. It is also about a critical argument of moral philosophy in the Indic tradition. It purports to ask and answer the following questions:

When can a man be punished?

What checks and balances, indeed indulgences, must precede the application of punishment or justice?

The broad contours of the most attributed version of the story are these — Shishupala, a warrior, is born with more than two eyes and more than two arms. He is the cousin of Krishna, the god-man avatar of Vishnu, the preserver in the Hindu trinity. It is prophesied that when the child Shishupala falls into the arms of the man who will kill him — at that moment his extra arms and eye will disappear. As a child when Shishupala comes to the arms of his older cousin, Krishna, his extra arms and eyes disappears.

When the mother of Shishupala, who is also an aunt of Krishna, realises that for the prophecy to come true, Krishna would, at some point in the future, have to kill Shishupala, Satyavathi does a clever thing.

She extracts from Krishna the promise that Shishupala would be pardoned one hundred times before he is punished.

But emboldened by the promise — and perhaps misreading lack of retaliation as weakness again and again — Shishupala attacks and humiliates Krishna a hundred times. And then once more — this is when the Sudarshan Chakra, the infallible discus of the god, severs Shishupala’s head.

This story bears a great lesson for India’s offence strategy which has always professed its discerning attitude, its restraint, and its responsibility as the behemoth of the subcontinent — -overarching in dominance, at least on paper, in terms of arsenal and economic muscle compared to its neighbours. It also hints at how India’s reaction to Pakistan is changing these days.

There must now be a line with Pakistan, and indeed with other adversaries that India faces. This line could well be called The Shishupala Principle. It suggests a simple policy — a clear, or at least clearer, definition of the point at which India’s strategic restraint is crossed.

At the moment, India’s derives too much of what can be called its public belief systems on security issues from a sort of bureaucratic non-violence — a dour and persistent drudgery of reinforcing status quo.

Some of this comes from a misreading, I believe, of the Gandhian principle of non-violence which everyone keeps saying comes from the Bhagvad Gita, the theological text in the Mahabharat, and the book Mahatma Gandhi carried with him at all times. This seems quite odd because neither the Mahabharat or the Gita is really about absolutist non-violence at all. The Mahabharat is, in reality, and apart from the colourful stories, an argument on ethics. So, of course, is the Ramayana, the older epic. The Mahabharat is infinitely more complex than the Ramayana — and seeks to answers extremely detailed questions of morality and ethical behaviour.

Both the broader text, and the Gita within it, make an argument for dharma — not non-violence. Now dharma is quite difficult to translate but it is, broadly, the law or rule that governs the very nature of existence. Dharma is not made by man or god. Dharma was there before creation, and will live on after it. Dharma exceeds and predates the very notion — and indeed the very perceptional existence — of the entity called god. The argument of the Mahabharat, and the Gita, indeed Krishna’s argument, is that dharma must be upheld, and it is in the victory of dharma over adharma (again usually described too loosely as ‘evil’, but is probably better described as injustice) that the meaning of life and existence — human and superhuman —is defined, and can be understood.

Gandhi himself may have understood these concepts much better than his ostensible acolytes. Consider the following quotes from Gandhi;

‘I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.’

Or even,

‘My method of nonviolence can never lead to loss of strength, but it alone will make it possible, if the nation wills it, to offer disciplined and concerted violence in time of danger.’

It is, as Gandhi perhaps understood, only the man (or nation) willing to wield definitive violence for the defence of justice, which (or who) can truly lead an existence of non-violence.

But that springs up the question: when? As in, when does such a person or nation apply violence (of any kind — military or diplomatic OR by word or deed)? This is the answer that India has failed to ever adequately provide.

It is not my intention to propagate war. It cannot be the intention of any sane person. But it is, though, my idea to point out that from Krishna to Edward Luttwak, the military strategist and writer, thinkers have pointed out that both war and peace are conditional, and not absolutist, virtues.

Consider the opening lines from Luttwak’s famous essay — Give War a Chance:

‘An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.’

Have hopes of ‘further combat’ faded between India and Pakistan? No. This is because, even though the Pakistan army, which is the sole custodian of that country’s security and, one could argue, political existence, has lost every direct war that it has fought against India, in their perspective the war against India actually has never, ever stopped. Not for a single day. Therein lies their sense of everyday victory.

In an earlier period, there was talk of the Pakistani military’s strategy of assaulting India with a ‘thousand cuts’ — since it could not win a conventional war. That strategy sort of drained out after the end of the violence in Punjab and the Khalistan movement — a terror-driven effort to break away Indian Punjab into a separate country called Khalistan. At the moment, what Pakistan has is the old boxing strategy of an everlasting wound — open a wound (Kashmir) and keep striking at it to keep it perpetually open. Sometimes hit softly, and sometimes with great force, but never, ever let the wound close. Even the very nascent signs of healing would signal a defeat — this is why whether it is 2010 or 2016, every time there are a few years of relative peace in Kashmir, the would is opened up with a vengeance. (Of course, India almost always fritters away the peace years with no significant advance in political resolution building and must take a lot of blame for this relentless failure.)

What is changing on the ground and in government policy in India is what I call The Shishupala Principle. This is made up of the artful and dexterous drawing of lines which cannot be crossed — or if they are crossed, India will react with significant hostility and, if possible, inflict maximum damage.

What we are seeing in India is the creation of this new doctrine which is border posts of India’s national and geopolitical patience. This is not an easy task because regional powers must bear the responsibility for keeping peace. But India is starting to argue that its dithering restraint over many, many years hasn’t actually brought it — or the region — any closer to peace. So what exactly is this unqualified restraint really achieving?

The formulation of The Shishupala Principle lies not in lusting for war — far from it. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of blood-thirst. It is, what I would call, unfettering of the war imagination. It is a sort of mental removal of gloves. India does not seek war. It sees itself as a prosperous world power of the future. It wants to advance its ideas, and sell its goods, around the world. All of this would be jeopardised by war. But in embracing, albeit slowly, The Shishupala Principle, India is finally accepting what the military historian Victor Davis Hanson has described as the ‘so-called tragic view’ — ‘War seems to be inseparable from the human condition… war — like birth, ageing, death, politics, and age-old emotions such as fear, pride, and honour — has never disappeared. This so-called tragic view concedes that depressing fact about the human condition, and yet it steels the individual to the notion that suffering is a part of our human lot, and unfortunately cannot be eradicated by any amount of well-intended nurturing’.

India also realises that because Pakistan (a country whose passport is considered the second worst in the world, after Afghanistan) has much less to lose in an unrestrained, god forbid, nuclear, war, its military can so easily adopt the Nixonian Mad Man Theory — where it consistently drops the bar for the activation of its nuclear button lower, and lower still. This theory suggests that the impression is always given to one’s opponent that the slightest provocation would bring forth an outrageous, completely out-of-proportion reaction. And therefore, out of sheer dread, the opponent would consistently supplicate at every negotiation. This realisation, at an earlier time, filled Indian policy-makers with terror.

Also, the Indian security apparatus was for many years dominated by what can only be described as the Pakistan Romantics — these men (and women) often came from the north of India and several had familial ties in Pakistan. Allow me a small generalisation — this was a set which romanticised the shared history of the Urdu language, especially poetry and music, food (mainly meat) and the distance (short) between Lahore and Amritsar. They saw the battles between India and Pakistan not what they were — bitter ideological wars which, at least in Pakistan, defined the country’s very existence, but as squabbles between cousins. Forgetting of course that in the Indic tradition, the war to end all wars happened between cousins at Kurukshetra, and it was Krishna’s explicit advice in the Gita, to the archer Arjun, to fight cousins and protect dharma. This set of Pakistan Romantics created the atmospherics of that now infamous, and rightfully mocked, initiative — Aman ki Asha. As I have said on many platforms — Aman ki Asha (the hope for peace) is important but this sort of irrelevant seminar organising has become Aman ka Nasha (the addiction to fictitious peacenik-ing with absolutely no real political resolution on the ground).

You would have noticed that India is no longer mostly led by people from the north, and that means the age of India’s fear of the Mad Man Theory of the Pakistani army — backed by assorted mullahs and jihadists — is coming to an end. India is trying to move closer to the founding philosophies of its ancient texts to construct a post-modern doctrine of firm lines that cannot be crossed. This may involve some severing of ties — and even some heads.