My journey into the world of national policy making on information security coincided with the Snowden revelations. It was wholly by accident and never planned as these things go, a series of accidents and initiatives by wholly disconnected and eminent personalities who I was fortunate to bump into and joined in a common journey. But this piece is not about the movement to reclaim a defence of our information realm which is a tale for another day and time as it still unfolds. This is about the first glimmer of hope in the way forward for the Indian nation wherein a consensus on the contours of the journey forward has been reached at least within the military.
The Blind Men of Hindoostan a poem by JG Saxe was first introduced to me in the National Defence Academy a place wherein deep intellectual reflections have little relevance in the realities of a brutal and exhausting cadet life. Inspite of that, I can still recall my sense of slight disquiet at the barely concealed contempt of JG Saxe for the learned and blind men of Hindoostan and the relevance of this poem being taught in that cradle of leadership of the Indian military. A full two and half decades later, I realised with a little bit of horror that JG Saxe was spot on and Indian policy initiatives in the ICT sphere bore an uncanny resemblance to the learned and blind men of Hindoostan.
It was quite heartening to attend the ARTECH 19 a seminar organised by the Army Design Bureau in partnership with SIDBI. Speaker after speaker emphasised the importance of indigenous technology to face the challenges of warfare in the Information Age.
So after being part of a bruising campaign of almost five years wherein we were both ably assisted and insidiously resisted by very wise and eminent men and women of the Indian strategic establishment, it was quite heartening to attend the ARTECH 19 a seminar organised by the Army Design Bureau in partnership with SIDBI with a largely military audience. In many other seminars and quite a few organised by the military wherein I was invited to speak, there was sadly no consensus. ARTECH 19 was different, speaker after speaker right from the RRM, the COAS, the DRDO Chief and the Defence Production Secretary emphasised the importance of indigenous technology to face the challenges of warfare in the Information Age. Not a single speaker pontificated about a global village and the promised land flowing with milk and honey that awaits India by buying foreign back doored ICT products listed in the Magic Quadrant. Nor did a single speaker talk about air gapped security protecting the Indian military networks.
I attribute this miracle partially to two Indian industrialists Messers Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. The first by his recognition of the dangers of data colonisation and appeal to the nation on the need for liberation from MNC domination and the other by announcing his intention to setup the largest data centre in India by committing INR 70,000 crores. Indian businessmen with deep pockets have joined the movement late, after seeing the economic logic of such a move. There are those who have told me that they would rather be under the yoke of a Google or Microsoft rather than under the yoke of a Reliance. In this I cannot agree with them as they seem to echo Winston Churchill who is said to have prophesied “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre & men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.” This fear of bigger exploitation stems from the tacit understanding of the realities of a dysfunctional and moribund legal justice system that exists in India. We need to reform and improve it rather than choosing to stay under the yoke of powers beyond our control.
This is not to suggest that the speakers emphasised on indigenous technologies after the announcements by Messers Ambani and Adani, on the contrary the strategic significance of indigenous technology in the ICT space was first recognised by the Northern Command of the Army in India, but the opposition to this initiative from sections within the Indian establishment and the Army was astonishing and a wake up call to the nation. That two very prominent and successful businessmen of India have now taken very public first steps gives us hope. As a former head of an intelligence agency explained to me; the parallels between the establishment of the first trading post of the European colonisers by firmans granted by rulers and their gradual taking over of the nation by influence peddling through the local trading communities and the similarities with the modern day ICT industry finally caught the attention of the powers that be. The term Data colonisation then was the trigger to make the Indian elites sit up and notice. The Army now needs to walk the talk, and the first step would be to take the Northern Command test beds to its logical conclusion. The BOSS OS from CDAC Chennai is merely a proof of concept, the OS has to be given to a private IT company to make it into a product with a user friendly Office Suite. The Army has to plan for a reasonable budget for this.
Mechanically adhering to provisions of the procurement manuals is a sure method of defeat and will kill the initiative.
If the army leadership thinks that this advice on logical next steps will come from the CDAC a quasi government establishment or the elements within the Army that have tried their best to sabotage the initiative due to ignorance and a tribalistic sense of regimentation; they are mistaken. Mechanically adhering to provisions of the procurement manuals is a sure method to kill the initiative. They would be better advised to call for a panel of Academicians and Industry players to render the right advise in a time bound manner. By now the nation has a fair idea of who is in what camp in this fight and choosing the correct panel is the key. The nation and history watches carefully and with bated breath and it is now time for the political leadership to step in, the stakes are simply too high.