“The Blind Men of Hindostan”


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Valedictory Address Christ University, Bengaluru

Conference on Non-Traditional Security Threats 03 September 2016

Let me first declare what a singular honour it is for me to be here at the Christ University to deliver the valedictory address as the curtains come down on this conference on non-traditional security threats. I would be failing in my duty if I did not congratulate the galaxy of scholars and students who participated in the very lively debates, addresses and exchanges. Indeed the experience was stirring as it was humbling. Enriching for the wealth of knowledge that we so heartily partook of and humbling for the Odysseusian voyage that we undertake with the launch of this conference. I also want to give a hearty ‘shabash’ to the organizers who have done such an outstanding job in putting it all together with so much grace. I particularly want to congratulate students of the department of International Relations who have conducted the event with great verve, a hearty cheer to you, your vitality and your contagious effervescence.

In coming to grips with threats and challenges that confront a nation, the lines that demarcate traditional threats; by which I suppose is meant those that demand a military response, from non-traditional security threats is blurred. The confusion renders discernment problematic as one security threat morphs to the other. It also places leadership in a quandary as to what combination of tools from the State’s armoury of Comprehensive National Power would be most appropriate to confront it. The dilemma is analogous to a story in primary English text of my days titled “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan”. The tale is told of six blind men who visited a zoo. Coming upon an elephant each felt and sensed different parts of the pachyderm; the first wrapping his arms around a leg swore it was as the trunk of a tree; the second ran his fingers along the torso exclaimed, no it is like a wall; while the third holding the tail vouched it was more like a rope; the fourth stroking its head and feeling the swish of the elephants ear deposed, forsooth it’s like a fan; while the fifth and sixth grasped the tusk and the trunk and vowed it must be akin to a spear or related to a snake. But, as we know, the truth in its entirety is composed of the six vital elements that made the elephant. The same may be said of the various threats and challenges that speakers thus far addressed; each one’s subjective experience and indeed narrative is true, but it is inherently limited by the inability to account for the totality of truth, that is the elephant-of-state is an integrated whole of all those elements and the State can be destabilised by trauma to any one of them.

Contemporary history of the Anglo sphere has had disproportionate influence on structuring a world order and defining economic and societal values. Driven by the philosophic motivation of free will and a belief of liberal laws delivering what is best for mankind; it does not make an attempt to explain or seek a transformation to the dangerous inequities amongst nations, tyranny of the carbon economy, domination of military power or indeed the ‘emperor’ of challenges: Climate Change. The last, links and is intertwined with all other threats, traditional or non-traditional whether in the political, economic, demographic or military dimension. And therefore it is to Climate change that I shall focus your attention.

Amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s many pronouncements on the ills of mercantilism and industrial capitalism the one that was prophetic in its sweep and profundity were his lines written in December 1928 for Young India: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism in the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million (sic) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Gandhi intuitively came to the conclusion that Industrialization was designed for inequity and an anarchic consumerist style of existence was untenable as we quickly emptied the innards of the planet. There is today no doubt that the climate predicament has been accelerated by the manner in which the lure of the carbon economy has evolved and its impious upshots has the world’s peoples finger prints on it. Its impact has broadened and intensified while its sway on politics and society comes at a time when politically the global perspective is more diffused and society blinkered in its uni-dimensional view of development. The November 1970 Bhola cyclone that hit the entire coast of erstwhile East Pakistan is one of the deadliest natural disasters of living memory; the official death toll was estimated at 500,000 but the number is likely to have been higher. Damages included destruction of approximately 20,000 fishing boats, property and crops. Total loss of cattle reached in excess of one million and more than 400,000 houses were destroyed. Maximum wind speed reached about 222 km/h while the storm surge was about 10.6 metres (never heard of before in recorded history of that region) which partially inundated the Sundarban island of Bhola, displacing millions setting into motion mass migrations the effects of which were political, military as well as demographic. The consequences are apparent even today. One of the chief causes of the disaster was global warming, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels; these are manifest in the increased periodicity of calamitous climate events and the scale of disasters.

There is another foundational problem that is linked to the system that we live and labour in; the Westphalian scheme of nation states (touched on by one of the speakers) is structured to channelize political energies towards nationality, sovereignty and the urge for domination rather than concentrating on new ideas to relieve and reconstitute the relationship between States such that uncertainty and turmoil that currently obtains is replaced by the larger reality of common destiny. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the precedent of a new system of political order in central Europe, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign nations. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state’s domestic affairs. As European influence spread through imperial conquests and colonial domains, these Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to the prevailing world order. However the awkward irony is that these principles came into acceptance among and within what was essentially a cohesive religious entity “the holy Roman Empire.” We note today that these principles are at odds with the globalized world that we live in and perhaps the time has come when the Westphalian model itself requires a critical review for the ‘emperor-of-challenges’ is provoking man to think of an alternate way to exist. Here communications which can serve as the vehicle that catalysis the spread of new ideas of the larger reality has, unfortunately, found satiation in egocentric intrusiveness.

In this belligerent milieu of individual rights in a self-righteous state of confrontational flux against the nation and nations feeling the heat of relations within and without; illusions of a new world order emerging out of the ashes of the Cold War were quickly dispelled and found little use in understanding the realities. Some of the symptoms that have emerged are an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa and her claims to the South China Sea; the competition between autocracy and liberalism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty of the era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order that comes together to face its common destiny. Sovereign democratic processes have feeble impact on the challenges ahead be it the carbon economy, climate events or in restructuring the system we live in. The reasons are amply clear for it is the spiritual nature of the quest for development to the exclusion of all else but the nation that blinkers political philosophy to things as they are rather than what they could be. So why has the political domain remained unaffected by the many crises that antagonize man? Is it myopia or a self-destruct lemming-like impulse?

Let me now yield the podium on an optimistic note; idealism is the exclusive right of youth; and it is to you that I commend the future. A future more benevolent, less bigoted, more tolerant and clear eyed about man’s common destiny and the philosophical passage from the individual to kinship.

5 thoughts on ““The Blind Men of Hindostan”

  1. Dear Admiral, A most stirring appeal to the young to look beyond the old Anglo-European models if we have to survive the clear dangers of climate change. Congrats! Regards, Rangi.

  2. fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I am confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  3. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you should write more about this subject, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t speak about such subjects. To the next! Best wishes!!

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