There is an Elephant in the Room
Bureaucratic minds in India are constantly engaged with the idea of China, particularly in comparing milestones in economic development. Political India, on the other hand, enjoys some degree of smugness when India is termed a rising superpower on par with China. Without daring to actually say so publicly for fear of sounding critical of China, we apologetically attribute our slower growth indicators to the fact that things take a little longer in a democracy, where laws, human rights and worker’s rights, environmental pollution and a wide range of other concerns need to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the crucial issue of India’s security concerns vis-à-vis China is that it is like a particularly huge elephant in the room, sitting on our sofa, making noises from time to time, nibbling at the snacks on the plate, yet being studiously ignored by large sections of the ruling establishment. The exceptions are the Indian Army, which cannot speak out independently, and others who make India their central concern and are not beholden to purely Communist-centric ideological positions.
In early 1998, as Defence Minister of India, I was interviewed by Karan Thapar for a television programme. The first question he asked me was whether China was India’s “Enemy No.1”, in the popular parlance of the Bombay film world. When I answered in the negative, he pursued in his typical dogged manner and presented another option: “Is China threat No. 1?” Again, I did not agree to his formulation and said, “No, it is potential threat No. 1, but we are engaged in talks which should bring about a better situation,” or words to that effect, as I clearly did not want to sound antagonistic towards China, yet had to speak the truth. A copy editor in a national newspaper headlining the television interview gave a twist to my statement. He decided that the Defence Minister of India had said that “China was India’s Enemy No. 1,” and repeated often enough by left-oriented journalists, it was quickly accepted as the blasphemous truth. It must be mentioned that the interview took place after the Pokhran II nuclear tests — and after Pakistan’s test, carried out just three weeks later in response to ours. It seemed obvious to everyone that Pakistan was our biggest threat, so what I said not only went against commonly perceived notions but was viewed by the Opposition, particularly the left parties, as an astounding affront. Despite many clarifications, including by my friend Karan Thapar, the truth for many is still the copy editor’s silly and inaccurate headline. However, having set the record straight on this matter for the umpteenth time, it is necessary for the people of India to know how China deals with India on security issues and how pathetic is India’s response to many uncomfortable realities.
The story of 1962, when Prime Minister Nehru and his Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon blinded themselves with slogans of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and exposed the nation to the shock of a full-fledged military invasion by Chinese troops, a war and a defeat, is still raw in many quarters. Historical records of India’s strategic failings at this time are kept under wraps. Why are we afraid of facing our own history with a view to correcting past mistakes? Despite having lost Indian territory which has not been recovered till date — and despite a unanimous Parliamentary resolution in 1962 to do so — conversations with common folk in China reveal that in fact they have been taught to believe that it was India that invaded China in the first place. The communists in India who dominate every foreign policy and historical debate have continued to let this mistaken view prevail among their cadres both in India and abroad. This results in a failure to do what is necessary to strengthen India’s borders and defence preparedness. Very recently A.K. Antony, India’s current Defence Minister, expressed his shock at the lack of strategic infrastructure on our borders with China. China’s development on this front is far ahead of ours. It is amazing that the Defence Minister should be taken by surprise when it is his job to ensure that the Indian army is fully supported with airstrips, roads, bridges, helipads and other facilities to operate at optimum efficiency. The army provides daily situation reports and endless wish-lists. Any responsible Defence Minister, including Antony, would certainly have taken note and agreed to them. Are instructions not carried out because of our usual bureaucratic sluggishness — as was witnessed with snowmobile requirements in Siachen in 1999 — or is it something more sinister than that? The people of India need to know the real reasons for this lack of preparedness for any eventuality and be reassured that they will not be surprised again as in 1962.
Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China as India’s Foreign Minister in 1979 and again as Prime Minster in 2003. Narasimha Rao visited as Prime Minister in 1993. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, much was made of the many handshakes and keenness to restore friendly relations. The question of border disputes was airily brushed aside when Rajiv Gandhi stated that the McMahon Line was “merely a thick line drawn on an old map and was subject to many interpretations.” A series of meetings and contacts had taken place earlier and following the new mild and amenable position, a further series of meetings have continued between Indian and Chinese authorities. These have led to cultural exchanges and active embassies on both sides, and India is now China’s largest trading partner in Asia. However, there has been no progress on matters of strategy and security.
For any progress on that front, all we need to do is read Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi’s statement made on CNN-IBN in November 2006: “In our position, the whole state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that. That is our position.” Significantly, the statement was made just before Hu Jintao was to visit India. Apart from a contradiction from India’s Foreign Minister, the matter was dropped. As significantly, the Chinese intruded into Arunachal Pradesh when Prime Minister Vajpayee was on his visit to China in 1993. This too was hushed up for reasons of diplomacy. If anyone, politician or official, from Arunachal Pradesh applies for a visa from the Chinese Embassy to travel to China they are refused on the grounds that since Arunachal Pradesh is a part of China they do not require visas, thus indirectly asserting that Indians there are actually Chinese. Did Sonia Gandhi take such matters up during her recent much-hyped visit to China or was it just a very expensive photo opportunity for her and her son?
While China makes it a point to protest if a Tibetan protester is visible during visits of their high-ups to India, we deliberately ignore the fact that powerful Chinese missiles are stationed in Tibet and are aimed in India’s direction. More than 200,000 Chinese troops are stationed in central Tibet on the Indian border. Five missile bases and at least eight ICBMs, 70 medium range missiles and 20 intermediate range missiles are within striking distance. China also uses Tibet for chemical warfare exercises and toxic waste dumping from other countries. We have long ignored the strategic importance of an independent Tibet as a buffer zone between India and China. We could add to that the question of why India, as a democratic country that allows freedom of speech, should not let people on its soil protest for what they perceive to be their rights. During the 1990s, we had to approach the Supreme Court to defend the rights of Tibetans to burn the Chinese flag as a means of protest. (Many of us, along with hundreds of Tibetans, were detained at police stations because the Chinese premier was driving past.) Chief Justice P.B. Sawant ruled that every refugee had the same rights (including burning the flag of another nation) as all Indian citizens, except for the right to vote, and that all those who had been wrongfully detained should be released forthwith. It was a legal victory for us, but subsequent governments have still kept all protesting Tibetans well out of sight when Chinese dignitaries visit India.
While India offers asylum to Tibetan refugees and honours the Dalai Lama and his way of peace and non-violence, it readily signs a joint declaration with China recognising Tibet as part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and disallowing Tibetans from engaging in political (i.e. anti-China) activities in India. History bears ample evidence that Tibet was never part of China and has a completely separate cultural and religious foundation. India recognised this through its diplomatic outpost in Lhasa till the Tibetans were swallowed by the Cultural Revolution in China and were forced to seek refuge in India in the early 1950s. We seem to adopt a dual personality by proudly offering Buddhism to the world, defending secularism, and propagating Gandhian principles everywhere while continuing to shut our ears and eyes to China’s whims on matters of territorial expansion. The high-speed railway into Tibet, excellent roads right up to our borders in Ladakh, Nepal’s invitation to China to extends its railway to Nepal, and China’s recent assistance to the Sinhalas against the Tamils are of a piece with China’s powerful presence and territorial ambitions that are never off the table anywhere.
During the National Democratic Alliance regime, as Defence Minister I spoke to Gen Fu Quanyou, Chief of the Chinese Army, about our concerns at their supplying missiles, including the Ghauri, to Pakistan, and the helipad issue in Arunachal Pradesh. It was only during this period that the Defence Ministry’s concerns were given importance, often overruling the displeasure of the Ministry of External Affairs which not only had been setting the parameters of discussion but seemed to be content with the countless comings and goings that have brought no progress on issues of India’s security interests.
Alongside, take a look at the countries which the Chinese Communist Party is eyeing today — Tibet, Taiwan, Burma and now Nepal. In Africa, they have begun controlling regimes by pouring in considerable funds to counter the ‘pop star’ benevolence of Western countries. The regime itself does not believe in religion, but, while printing Bibles to soften countries for the Olympics, they regularly attack the Falun Gong, a peaceful domestic cultural movement, regularly torturing and killing many of its followers. The Chinese Communist Party destroyed the traditional culture of the land which was based on faith and virtue and there are unconfirmed but undenied reports that Buddhist statues have been destroyed by them in Arunachal Pradesh. Tiananmen demonstrated to the world the real face of the Chinese regime and its response to those who speak of human rights or democracy, which are the cornerstones of all that India stands for. It is indeed painful to see India engaging obsequiously with Burma’s military junta even while it conducts a violent crackdown on monks protesting peacefully. We rationalise our engagement with Burma by hoping they will not encourage our militant groups to establish posts on their side. There has been no visible benefit so far of this specious engagement, while China’s hold on the Burmese military regime grows stronger every day. We are fast losing our old relationship with Nepal’s democratic forces, conceding space to China via Maoist dominance.
Is all this out of some unknown long-term strategy, a simple case of sluggish lack of preparedness, or mere political expediency of the cowardly? It must be remembered that the entire region around India is intrinsically undemocratic or subject to instability and violence and much of this is integrating with and fuelling insurgency in our border states, besides the growing numbers of Maoists working across large swathes of India, who are committed to violence to achieve power.
How long will we hide these existing realities under the carpet and pretend to our people that India has the political, moral and military capabilities to protect and sustain its economic ambitions?