India must learn to assert

What’s with us as cricket team, as people, as government, as country? An objective take would be that we are a bunch of losers. Passivity, defensive-mindedness, meekness, and timidity are qualities that historically have characterised India and Indians, with the turgid myth-mix of spirituality and tradition of non-violence adding to this awful image. A series of recent incidents and events highlight the cost and consequences to India and Indians of such attributes that are also, unsurprisingly, reflected in the country’s stance vis-a-vis our main adversary, China.

Anuj Bidve was murdered as an initiation rite by a punk in Manchester. That Bidve was killed is less the issue than the fact that he was chosen as the target. But, Indian students and immigrants in the West are not infrequently teased, mugged, verbally assaulted, physically humiliated, have turbans yanked off their heads on the street as much as at airports, robbed at gunpoint and, occasionally, shot to death. The real reason for such attacks is the telltale diffidence, willingness to take abuse and slink away rather than stand their ground that marks Indians out as easy prey. It is no coincidence that the last time there were race riots in the United Kingdom, in August 2011, it was only when South Asians counter-attacked that swarms of marauding white and black gangs in Southall, Hackney, and other Indian enclaves, melted away. Acting helpless or reacting helplessly to provocation only begets more violence and victimisation.

Speaking of victims — is there a more hapless lot of highly-paid, non-performing, dolts than the Indian cricket team who were mangled in Melbourne and smashed in Sydney? It has been said again and again but is worth repeating: It is not the loss but the manner of their losing that hurts. Australians played as if their life depended on it, their intensity reflected in a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude. Their coddled Indian counterparts took the field with a lax outlook and when the situation turned dire, responded with a virtual ‘take us prisoners’ plea, giving up quite literally at the first sign of trouble. But attacks on Indians residing in foreign countries and the fate of puffed-up cricketers without the stomach for a fight have a lot in common with India’s foreign and military policy, which should come as no surprise.

Consider the latest turn of events regarding China. Beijing is on the back foot, wary of the situation going awry. US President Barack Obama has reoriented American military strategy to ‘pivot’ on East Asia. Major regional maritime powers — Japan, and Australia, are joining the US, the littoral states in South East Asia, and Vietnam and Indonesia in the South China Sea, to curtail the Chinese strategic space. This is the time, one would have thought, for New Delhi to join in cornering Beijing, not pandering to it. But, as usual, New Delhi genuflected. The Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) was kept on track by the Indian government by accepting Chinese dictation on the constitution of the Indian military delegation. The Ministry of External Affairs’ justification for this backsliding even featured Chinese diplomatic lexicon. The dropping of Group Captain Mohonto Panging, operations head of the Sukhoi-30 squadron in Tezpur, the MEA explained, was the “mature” thing to do, thereby echoing the phrase — “show maturity” that Chinese spokespersons often use when advising India not to react to Chinese provocation. The defence ministry, after initially calling off the whole, meaningless, exercise, relented under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office. If Beijing is allowed to establish substantial diplomatic precedent by not allowing Arunachalis into China because it claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of ‘southern Tibet’, then progressively the Indian title over that province will weaken and, in time, the fact that New Delhi accommodated Beijing will be cited by the latter as evidence of India conceding an enlarged China. This is the old Chinese imperial habit. Any act of friendliness by kingdoms in South East Asia led to the emperors of Qing and Ming dynasties, for example, to treat them as tributary states.

That Beijing acts superior is less the problem than India acting its vassal. How else to explain that every time Beijing sneezes, Delhi gets the shivers? Beating up Tibetans peacefully demanding freedom for their homeland outside the Chinese embassy in a supposedly democratic India, and weeding out ‘undesirables’ from lists of China-bound military Indian delegations on Beijing’s say-so, is bad symbolism, especially as China puts so much store by it. Pleasing Beijing for any reason is unlikely to advance any of India’s goals, least of all bring an early closure to the interminable border talks currently involving national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo. But, this last, is not the priority; rather, according to Menon, it is “deepening communications”, “managing differences”, “building commonalities” and otherwise keeping the peaceful “process” of interaction alive. If strengthening of process is all that’s at stake then what’s on offer is more tunnel, not light at the end of it. In the event, vital national interests will be better served if India squarely joined all willing partners to strategically discomfit China as much as possible, and by any and all means, all the while mouthing self-serving platitudes and pieties that are the essence of Chinese diplomatese.

China is feeling the heat, and India should increase pressure on it. ADD is history, but it should lead to the MEA following a strictly reciprocal visa system. Hereafter, any Chinese Communist Party official or PLA officer who has served in Tibet should be barred from visiting India under any pretext. It will require New Delhi formally to take a stand which is implicit in its traditional position, namely, that Chinese ‘sovereignty’ over Tibet is untenable as long as Tibet is neither genuinely ‘autonomous’ nor vacated of the large and lethal PLA occupation forces stationed there. This will meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s basic conditions. But it will require New Delhi to show guts, and there’s the rub. One cannot remember the last time the Indian government stood up for India.

[Published in ‘The New Indian Express” on January 13, 2012; available at]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to India must learn to assert

  1. Ravi says:

    In order to assert, an individual or a set of individuals (like a Nation), should have a set of simple, but well founded and deeply rooted core values that instill pride and self-respect. Patriotism by itself is nothing but a manifestation of an individuals self-respect integrated over an entire population. The average Indian has been taught from day one to be obsequious at all costs, interrupted by occasional bouts of bombastic and meaningless talk amounting to nothing but “toothless waffle”. With this lot, how can one expect India to assert itself vis-a-vis the Seychelles let alone China. Where in the world does one find a PM of a Nation stymieing his own Nations strategic program, or doing irreparable damage to his own Nation’s external intelligence agency?

  2. Jagdish says:

    India shall learn to assert, when India knows who she is, why is she a nation and what she stands for. Assert for what? is the question on the average mind.

    If the only premise for our borders with China are the McMahon line designed by the British and not our own sense of what defines our borders for our nation – then the result is an inborn weakness to defend the indefensible.

    Change the argument and say, Tibet has ALWAYS been a buffer state between India and China and Tibet’s ancient links with India and Tibet’s autonomy and the existence of this buffer state is crucial for lasting peace (amongst other issues) between the Indian and Chinese peoples, will give us a credible and defensible leg to stand on.

    The original sin was to inherit the structures of colonial India. Instead, we should have destroyed the colonial heritage and sought to redefine them in Indian colors. But with brown sahibs at helm, that is a tall goal.

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