Why does India’s policy towards Tibet and China leave much to be desired? It is not policy but an inculcated systemic weakness – political, intellectual, as well as military – that drives New Delhi’s China policy.
With the 21st century promise of becoming an Asian century, international attention has shifted to the two Asian engines of growth in the coming years – India and China. While India’s rise has been quiet and has caused little apprehension worldwide (except in Islamabad and maybe Beijing), China has raised red flags everywhere from New Delhi and Moscow to Canberra and Washington. Consequently, the last decade has seen shifts in global geopolitics to match these concerns, from a renewed American presence in the Indo-Pacific region (the stationing of US marines in Darwin and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that pointedly excludes China so far), to a significant improvement in Indo-US strategic relations (including the famous civil nuclear agreement, expansion in strategic and high technology trade, Indian membership to international export control bodies, and annual military exercises).
Interestingly, some of the mildest reaction to China’s growing economic and military muscle has come from its neighbour, India, who by all theories of strategic thinking should be the most concerned. While the country’s Ministry of External Affairs, based out of South Block, has touted this as its “non-alignment” (misunderstanding the original meaning of the term) in the new global order, the reality is that the South Asian giant is afraid that the world will notice that it has been caught with its pants down.
The Yellow Peril
China borders 14 countries, more than any other country in the world except Russia, and it has also had border disputes with most of them. Although most of the disputes have been settled, China is known to revive the issue at a later date. In fact, since 1949, China has been in 23 territorial disputes, of which six (seven if you include Tibet) – with Vietnam, India, Bhutan, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan – remain unresolved.
However, the India-China dynamic is rather unique in that while there are severe tensions between the two Asian states, the latter is also the former’s largest trading partner. Thus, while the foundation for a sound relationship has yet to be laid, both countries have chosen to ignore the 3,000-pound fire-breathing dragon in the room. From China’s perspective, the key issue is New Delhi’s alleged support of the Dalai Lama and fomenting rebellion in Tibet, while India accuses Beijing of making claims on Indian territory and extending military support (including missile technology and nuclear weapons) to Pakistan. Furthermore, the India-China War of 1962 has left deep scars in the Indian political psyche and left India with approximately 45,000 square kilometres less land in the Aksai China region of Kashmir. This dispute remains unresolved, and though both sides seem to play down the problem, it is still simmering. For example, in 2009, China attempted to block a $3 billion loan to Arunachal Pradesh (which they claim) from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and on multiple occasions, refused to issue visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh as they were ‘already in China.’ A 2010 report by the Pentagon titled, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, cited an Indian academic who noted that in 2008, “the Indian military had recorded 270 border violations and nearly 2,300 cases of ‘aggressive border patrolling’ by Chinese soldiers.”
A brief history of India’s northeastern borders
The Indian perception of Communist China as a threat is wrong – the problems India faces with China today would have been identical to the ones India would have had to face had Chiang Kai-shek won the civil war. As Jawaharlal Nehru rightly divined, China was a nationalist and expansionist power before it was a communist power. Thus, the question of Tibet and the border dispute (which is really an extension of the Tibet question) could not have been avoided or reasoned away had Sun Yat-sen and his followers been defeated in 1949.
India’s ante bellum border with China was the remnant of British primacy in India and its environs until the second half of the twentieth century. It is usually divided into three sectors, the eastern (Northeast Frontier Agency or NEFA), the middle (the boundary between Tibet and Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), and the western sector (Ladakh). Of these, the middle sector did not see significant contestation. In the other two sectors, the boundary was not clearly defined; the Raj was more concerned with ensuring that it not abut on Russia, its great rival in Central Asia. To this end, they employed Major General Sir John Ardagh in 1897. Ardagh’s recommendation, based on an 1865 survey by explorer WH Johnson, was deemed too ambitious by the Indian administration and rejected. In 1899, the British ambassador to China, Sir Claude MacDonald, suggested another line that placed most of Aksai Chin within China. While the Chinese refused to commit to the latest suggestion, the British unilaterally imposed the MacDonald line until 1911 when revolution in China made them unsuitable of maintaining the border against the Russians. At this point, the British reverted to the Ardagh line. In the east, the 1914 Simla conference between India, Tibet, and China demarcated the border and was agreed upon, but China later claimed, in an attempt to counter Tibetan autonomy, that Tibet had no right to conclude any such agreement. The McMahon Line, as the border was called in the eastern sector (named after the Indian foreign secretary of the time), was not enforced because China was too weak to pose any threat in Assam. It became an issue only in 1935, when Tibetan authorities detained a British botanist near Tawang. Between 1938 and 1944, the Indian government sought to put its weight behind the McMahon line, but as war clouds gathered over Asia and Europe, Britain was more amenable to discussion and negotiation with China and Tibet, their allies in the war. However, they insisted that the McMahon line was the current valid boundary of India.
The Tibet Issue
The Tibet issue is also significant in the border question. While China – both Communist and Nationalist – claimed, disingenuously, that Tibet had always been a part of the Chinese domain, Britain wished to keep the Himalayan state as a buffer between the Raj on one side and China and Russia on the other.1 Therefore, they recognised Chinese suzerainty, not sovereignty, over Tibet. In practice, this meant that the British enjoyed diplomatic relations with Lhasa and stationed troops in the country. With independence, India legally inherited this relationship with Tibet. The Indian ambassador in Nanking, KM Panikkar, observed that India’s primary interest was the McMahon line and drew attention to the fact that the Chinese had accepted the Simla convention but not ratified it. Warning that any government in Peking after the civil war would claim Tibet, he noted that this would revive Chinese claims against Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan and undermine the McMahon line. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese interests and intentions in Tibet were widely known among the Indian leadership.
As expected, China invaded, occupied, and annexed Tibet in 1950, immediately after its civil war and the defeat of Nationalist forces. India then did not seek to provoke China but did not give up her rights in Tibet either. Aware of India’s fragile economy and weak military, Nehru was not prepared to give voice to his concerns on China in public. For the time being, watching the developments in Europe, he was convinced that an invasion of India by China would lead to a world war and thus assured of India’s physical safety. But, as Nehru observed, “the real protection we should seek is some kind of understanding with China.”
Nehru ordered the construction of checkposts along India’s border with its new neighbour to prevent any incursion or infiltration. He also commanded that the regional infrastructure be built up but not too visibly as he did not wish Indian actions to spark off a reaction from the Chinese just then. While Nehru was certain of India’s legal position on the border in the east, he was not so sure in Aksai Chin. Following the recommendations of the Himmatsinhji Committee’s recommendations in 1951, the Indian government tried to extend administrative cover and economic welfare measures in the disputed regions. This would strengthen Indian claims to the land. Beyond the road-building and setting up of checkposts, the report also suggested that India decide on its claims in the region and approach Beijing to settle them. Until then, India should not surrender her rights over Tibet. Over the next two or three years, Beijing refused to discuss the border issue, stating that Chinese maps were outdated and they had to be updated before any talks could take place. KPS Menon, then the Indian foreign secretary, noted that irredentism has always played a part in the policy of the Chinese government, whether imperial, Kuomintang, or Communist. He recalled a map he had seen on the walls of a military academy in Chengdu a few years back that showed large portions of Kashmir as well as areas south of the McMahon line as Chinese territory. That, surmised Menon, was why the Chinese were hesitant to talk to India about the border, and he advised that any border negotiation must take place in the context of a general agreement on Tibet. While hinting that the McMahon line was a scar left by British imperialism, Beijing nevertheless accepted the line as its border with Burma. New Delhi assumed that the recognition applied to the entire line and considered the border question, at least in the NEFA, settled.
For their part, New Delhi did not push an explicit discussion of the border issue. As Panikkar had advised, the Chinese were unlikely to accept the Simla convention as every Chinese government since had repudiated it. Furthermore, if the issue were raised, China might insist on a position unfavourable to India. In such circumstances, it would behoove India to remain quiet and use the time to make its position effective in the frontier areas, where its administrative hold was weak and its political position fledgling. In hindsight, this may seem an obtuse policy, but in 1952-53, this was an attractive proposal. No doubt, Nehru had heard the whispers of Chinese designs on Indian territory, and he thought that India should be on the lookout for Chinese infiltration. Unfortunately, not all of Nehru’s directives were met with alacrity – in a 1953 tour of Uttar Pradesh, Nehru was aghast to find that financial and bureaucratic bottlenecks had effectively slowed his border reinforcement orders to a trickle and as GB Pant put it, there had been “no visible progress.” The message was echoed by Joint Secretary TN Kaul from NEFA. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Nehru was hesitant in pushing the boundary question to the fore. India was far from consolidating her influence in the border regions and ill-prepared to counter any measures by China to take possession of these parts. If the issue became hotly contested, India would be unable to defend her claims. Nonetheless, to appear firm to the Chinese, Nehru published new maps of the area, showing Aksai Chin as a part of India. As RK Nehru later recalled, Indian legal experts had warned Nehru that his claim to Aksai Chin was weak at best and relied too heavily on a nebulous arrangement in an 1842 treaty with Tibet over grazing rights. However, the prime minister had seemed amenable to adjustments in Aksai Chin as part of an overall settlement.
The Panchsheel Agreement in April 1954, to Nehru’s mind, further solidified the boundaries between India and China, and as part of the agreement, India gave up its rights in Tibet and recognised the region as an autonomous part of China. This, RK Nehru told the British, was really “a concession only to realism.” But contrary to many in India’s new Right, Nehru was not naive. “In the final analysis,” he said, “no country has any deep faith in the policies of another country, most especially in regard to a country which tends to expand.” On his return from China, Kaul wrote urgently to Nehru, predicting that India and China would come to blows within five years. This heightened Nehru’s anxiety, particularly given what he knew about the progress of establishing military infrastructure in the frontier areas. Recent Chinese maps also showed parts of Uttar Pradesh and Assam, along with NEFA and Aksai Chin as part of China. As a result, Nehru urged the building of checkposts in disputed territories to thwart any Chinese adventure; as the saying went, occupation was 90% of the law. Over the next five years, the debate continued within this framework. The discovery of the Xinjiang-Tibet road by Parliament in 1957, which Nehru had known about, caused a stir. It must be remembered that Nehru was willing to concede Aksai Chin and therefore disregarded the development. However, in the hands of a less charitable parliament, the issue quickly became a hot potato. That same year, an Indian patrol was disarmed and turned around by the Chinese near Bara Hoti. Nehru had never insisted that Aksai Chin belonged to India, but increasing pressure from a jingoistic parliament and the brazen rudeness the Chinese had taken to showing on the border question piqued Nehru.
| Figure 1: India’s disputed boundaries
To add to an already tense situation, a rebellion broke out in Tibet in 1959. Beijing immediately accused New Delhi of assisting the rebels with material support and encouraging anti-China feelings in them. The documentary evidence shows that this is an outright fabrication – some Khampas who had fled to India to escape Chinese atrocities had clearly told the Indian political officer in Sikkim, Apa Pant, “we are not asking you for arms or ammunition…we want [Nehru] to help us morally.” However, CIA assistance to the Tibetan rebels since 1958, internal differences within China’s Communist Party, and a developing schism with a post-Stalinist Soviet Union led by Nikita Khrushchev ratcheted up the pressure on Mao Zedong and India was the easiest place for a show of force. As China moved troops into Tibet to quell the rebellion, they met Indian forces busy establishing checkposts and bunkers. Naturally, clashes flared up along the border, deteriorating the situation even further. Upon the strong urging of Parliament, Nehru had released a White Paper on the Chinese question in 1959. Although hoping that it would set the record of the negotiations in the clear and assist towards a resolution, unfortunately, the releases now restricted Nehru’s options. Given China’s increasing hostility along the border, the Indian prime minister found it difficult to back down from a firm stance himself and was forced to actions that resonated with an emotionally aroused parliament and public rather than those that made sense.
A series of events transpired that hardened Nehru’s stance on the border question. First, there were two serious clashes at Longju in 1958 and at Kongka La in 1959 that left Indian soldiers dead. Then, in 1960, the Chinese government released new maps that claimed even more territory than their 1956 maps did. Unflappably, Zhou Enlai declared that there was no discrepancy in the two sets of maps. Despite never trusting the Chinese, Nehru lost what little faith he may have had in Mao’s and Zhou’s pretensions to peaceful resolution of the boundary dispute. His own parliament and public urged him to take a tougher stance all the while. During Zhou’s visit to India in New Delhi, both sides agreed to set up a legal-historical commission on the border. The report from the body gave India an unassailable case in the dispute, even in Aksai Chin. Reinforced by these findings, Nehru was yet cautious and rightly so, as events would prove: China rejected the findings that had gone against their claims. Nehru was even more convinced of the Chinese leadership’s duplicity by this point, but conceding to the facts on the ground, the Indians came up with a proposal: Aksai Chin will, de jure, remain a part of India, but recognising the importance of the Xingjiang-Tibet Highway to China, India would allow the communist power to maintain a de facto possession of the area. In conversation with their British counterparts, the Indian officials admitted that this was the best face-saving option available given a preponderance of Chinese power (the Chinese eventually fielded 80,000 soldiers against India’s 12,000). For reasons other than India, Beijing rejected the proposal.
In October 1962, Chinese troops swarmed across the border and thumped the Indian forces. Post bellum analyses have largely argued that the army was not sufficiently trained, nor was it sufficiently equipped; it was not even sufficiently manned to meet the threat. As must be, the ultimate responsibility for this lay with the prime minister. However, it was not a failure of policy but of resources, imagination, and implementation, for none of which Nehru was personally responsible. Certainly, books like The Guilty Men of 1962 (DR Mankekar), Himalayan Blunder (John Dalvi), and India’s China War (Neville Maxwell) have served more to vent frustration with the Indian government than shed light on the reasons for the conflict. This is partly due to a lack of access to government documents but also because it is easier to pour scorn upon one’s favourite whipping boy – Nehru, Menon, Kaul – than do genuine scholarship.
In 2008, the Olympics were held in Beijing. Across the world, Tibetans took to the streets to protest against the Chinese government’s brutal oppression of their homeland. These demonstrators were given free reign as long as they didn’t create a public disturbance. Demonstrations broke out across Tibet as well as Vienna, Paris, Munich, Budapest, Reykjavik, Rome, Vilnius, the Hague, Zurich, London, San Francisco, Ottawa, Sydney, Tokyo, New Delhi, and other cities. In places were the demonstrations became boisterous, local authorities dispersed the crowds, all the while acknowledging the right of the demonstrators to peaceful protest. New Delhi was the only democracy that went one step further and banned Tibetans from protesting despite saying it would not do so. In March 2012, the Chinese premier Hu Jintao visited India for the fourth BRICS summit in New Delhi. Again, Tibetan protestors took the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of Tibetans in China and came onto the streets. In a well-choreographed response, New Delhi cracked down on the Tibetans again – many were arrested, while police took to ‘watching’ dormitories and residences of Tibetans. Pitifully, it was difficult to distinguish the statement from China’s Department of Asian Affairs from one that would be expected from the Indian MEA – Director General Luo Zhaohui thanked New Delhi for not allowing the “so-called pro-freedom Tibetan activists pushing extreme radical views” to derail the BRICS summit.
Indian observers have lamented their country’s kowtowing to Beijing on Tibet. First, South Block accepted Tibet as a part of China without receiving a reciprocal recognition of India’s position in Kashmir. Second, they gave up their trading and diplomatic rights in Lhasa. Third, India has made it quite clear that while the Dalai Lama is a welcome guest in the country, the MEA will not tolerate any anti-China activity from him or his supporters. Fourth, India has always submitted to pressure from China and suppressed any political activity by Tibetans on India soil, and let us be clear on this point – we are talking about the Dalai Lama (whom Beijing accused of “Nazi policies“(!)) and his supporters, not Hafeez Mohammad Saeed (Lashkar-e-Taiba) or Masood Azhar (Jaish-e-Muhammad). And yet, “India and Tibet are like two branches of the same Bodhi tree”, the late Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai once said in a letter to the Dalai Lama. In turn, Tibetans also consider India the Gyaghar Phagpai Yul, or Arya Bhumi. It is also quite clear the esteem in which Tibetans hold the Chinese – on a stone pillar in front of the Jokhang pillar in Lhasa is carved parts of the Sino-Tibetan Peace Treaty of 821: “Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China.”
Why has New Delhi acted in such a craven manner on this issue? While the rhetoric against Pakistan is quite bombastic, Indian governments have generally been as mild as milk with Beijing. There are two reasons for this. First, while there are other strategic concerns with Beijing such as its support of Islamabad, the border dispute, of which two generations of Indians have grown up thinking as the Great Betrayal, is really not that much of an issue if the claims on Arunachal Pradesh are dropped (and there have been hints that Beijing is willing to play ball in this regard). There may be a few minor kinks in the border which could be straightened out through negotiations, but the Indian government is forced by public pressure to claim land on which, by India’s own legal scholars, New Delhi has tenuous claims at best. Nor is it possible to – at least, it would be political suicide – to confess before the Indian public to half a century of deceit. Secondly, despite massive increases in the defence budget (around $40 billion in 2012), India remains woefully weak and if China were to take offence and act on firm rhetoric from India, the nation may not be able to defend herself. It is this hollowed-out image of Indian military power that politicians want to hide.
The Indian Military Speaks (Groans)
Outgoing Army Chief General VK Singh wrote in a recently leaked letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the Indian Army is not ready to fight a war.
The army’s tanks have run out of ammunition, the air defense is…97% obsolete and the infantry is short of critical weapons,” while the “elite Special Forces are woefully short of essential weapons.
As the General’s detractors have rushed to point out, the highest army officer of the land does have a score to settle after his stand-off with the government over his retirement. Furthermore, given the military’s recent acquisitions – MMRCA, surface naval vessels, submarines, helicopters, transport aircraft, missile systems – the claims seem far-fetched. However, as India scholar Sumit Ganguly noted, where there is smoke, there is fire. India’s weapons acquisitions process is indeed dilatory, cumbersome and plodding, and several recent press reports support the General’s assertions.
If the General were alone in such claims, perhaps a fickle public might forget and move on to the next episode of Indian Idol of a Bollywood blockbuster. Singh’s companion in his claims is none other than the Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who stated in 2009 that the military gap between India and China was too wide to bridge and that the giant communist state would be India’s primary security threat in the coming years. Speaking plainly the Admiral pointed out,
The gap between the two is just too wide to bridge (and getting wider by the day). In military terms, both conventional and non-conventional, we neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force. These are indeed sobering thoughts and therefore our strategy to deal with China would need to be in consonance with these realities.
To any discerning observer, there is no need of exposés from the military top brass on the reality of Indian military preparedness – the press is awash with stories of the death-grip bureaucracy has on everything in India, including defence.
In 1950, when China invaded Tibet, India had barely won her independence and was still recovering from 190 years of British rule. The Indian army had just been deployed in Junagadh, Kashmir, Hyderabad, and was still in Bengal. Partition had necessitated the need for a massive reorganisation of the armed forces – initially, the situation was so bad that British officers had to be seconded from Her Majesty’s Government to hold together the former colonial army. In 1962, India had had only 15 years to build up a credible military when the Chinese attacked. The disparity between the two countries was so great that there was nothing Nehru could have done to win that war. In the Lok Sabha, when a frantic member of parliament claimed that the Indian army could raise ten million men overnight if Nehru just gave the call, the prime minister calmly asked the MP how he intended to clothe the new recruits, train them, and arm them. Weakness necessitated India’s soft-spoken policy.
There are no such compunctions in 2012. While the military and economic disparity between India and China is still overwhelming, it is somewhat of India’s own making this time. Although it is true that economic liberalisation has created wealth in the country only in the past 20 years, India’s defence establishment is riddled – hollow – with inefficiency, bureaucracy, and apathy. It ought to be embarrassing that the nation cannot even provide boots for its soldiers. But there are more serious…gaffes – in the Indian Air Force (IAF), for example, fighter jets are frequently flown past their prime, the MiG-21 being the star example. Admittedly, these have been refurbished (twice), but the basic capabilities of an air frame only deteriorate over time, not increase. First inducted in 1964, the obsolete plane (despite its technological upgrades) is still the most numerous in the IAF and has been plagued with frequent crashes. As an American analyst commented, the IAF holds the world record of over 500 plane crashes in the past 20 years.
Poor industrial maintenance is part of the problem – Rakesh Sharma, an IAF test pilot, said that fighter planes he had sent back to the laboratories for having defective parts defective parts were not repaired, but the laboratories fitted the reported defective parts in other fighter planes. Training is another a problem – HAL’s (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) trainer platforms have been found to be woefully inadequate. Due to the shortage of even these inadequate trainer aircraft, the IAF has cut down flying time for new pilots to one-third of the usual rate (25 flight hours of basic training instead of the usual 75). By comparison, the U.S. Air Force offers more than 100 flight hours of basic training to its cadets.
The sanctioned strength of the IAF is 45 squadrons, each squadron consisting of 18 planes. Due to crashes, hiring issues, and other problems, India has never fielded beyond 39.5 squadrons. In 2008, India was forced to announce a tender for the purchase of up to 240 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) because of the delays in the production of India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Tejas. Although an LCA will be no match for an advanced MMCRA, it can help temporarily plug in the gaps and provide reasonable support in the air and to ground troops.
The rot does not stop with the IAF – at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), two things that are not regular are research and development. It was recently admitted that India’s much-vaunted indigenously-built LCA, though budgeted at Rs. 560 crores in 1983, has ended up costing Rs. 17269 crores(!) And oh…after all that, the LCA is not even indigenously manufactured – the engine is imported from the United States. Similarly, the Kaveri engine was found to be too heavy and didn’t give enough thrust after spending Rs. 2,839 crores. Other DRDO projects such as the naval version of the LCA, an LR-SAM system, and the AEW-&C – an Indian AWACS – suffer from similar cost overruns. In comparison, China has conducted the test flight of its fifth generation J-20 fighter aircraft. Although there undoubtedly are kinks in the Chinese process as well – reverse engineering stolen technology instead of original development, for starters – the fact remains that the communist power can manufacture a jet far superior to the LCA.
In 2006, the Indian Navy purchased the Israeli-made Barak missiles because India’s highly touted Integrated Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) had failed to produce results. The Navy, waiting for the Trishul missile, eventually chose to purchase missiles from abroad because despite twenty-plus years in the making and declared successful by the DRDO, it did not evoke confidence among senior Navy officials. First test firing of the Trishul took place in 1991, and the manufacturer declared test firings completed by 1998. The armed forces, however, rejected the missile, as not ready for service. So development continued, until 2003, when the project was cancelled. But the project, which has cost nearly $200 million so far, had political friends. Development was allowed to continue, even though neither the army nor the navy wanted it (the project was finally shelved in 2008). Trishul’s range is approximately nine kilometres, and missile has suffered from reliability problems, particularly with its guidance system. Overall, the IGMDP has overshot its budget by at least Rs. 1,400 crores and scheduled to run from 1983 to 1995, was active due to delays until 2008.
Indian armour is no more fortunate than the navy or Air Force. The Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT) project was launched in 1974 to replace the aging T-54s imported from the Soviet Union. Typically, after significant cost overruns and delays, the first Arjun MBT rolled off the factory lines in May 2009 (like the LCA, 58% of the cost of this ‘indigenous’ product is for foreign components). Since geopolitics does not coordinate its moves with the DRDO’s schedule, the Army was forced to order the Russian T-90S in 2001. Following and initial purchase of 310 units, another 1,000 tanks were to be built at the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) in Avadi, outside Madras, with Russian transfers of technology. A decade later, HVF has built just 150 T-90S tanks, hamstrung by Moscow’s obstruction in transferring technology and the Russia-built assemblies needed even for the India-built tanks. It was only after placing an order for 347 more ready-made pieces in 2006 that Russia began to transfer critical technology such as the T-90S’s gun turret and armour to India. Finally deployed, severe problems were encountered in service, from issues with heat-related malfunctions of the fire-control system’s key Thales Catherine thermal imaging (TI) camera, lack of cooling systems leading to uninhabitable temperatures over 60C degrees inside the tank, and reports that at least one armored regiment had an in-service rate of just 25% for its T-90S tanks. In the midst of this discontent with Russia, the Arjun outperformed the the T-90S in every crucial parameter. Yet the Army has ordered only 248 Arjun tanks so far (doubling the original order for 124 tanks after the trials), preferring to upgrade the old T-72s instead. Part of the reason is that the unconventionally heavy Arjun (60 tonnes) is difficult to integrate as support equipment such as pontoon bridges are designed to support regularly weighted tanks of 40-50 tonnes. HVF has made this decision easier on the Army with its minuscule production capacity of 50 tanks per year, though the DRDO insists that a 500-vehicle order will give it the volume needed to iron out all production difficulties and provide a platform for future development.
In terms of manpower too, India’s armed forces are hampered. Currently, there is a shortage of around 11,500 commissioned officers in the military. While one reason for this is that the post-1991 economy has made private sector pay and opportunities far more attractive than a career in uniform, another is the outdated procedures and restrictions followed by the military in pay, promotions, service, and work environment.
Beyond newspapers and statistics, Kargil showed that the Army and Navy Chiefs are indeed correct in their assessment of India’s defence preparedness. The 1999 conflict with Pakistan was closer than is generally realised. It was Israeli assistance, which remains secret to this day, that turned the war around in India’s favour. Lack of equipment or poor quality equipment due to corruption has cost lives in Kargil as well as in Bombay on 26/11 (investigation showed that the bullet-proof vests of officers Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte, and Vijay Salaskar were of an inferior quality). Even infrastructurally, while China has improved its hold in Tibet with helipads, roads and railways, Nehru’s orders to adequately secure the frontier areas remains unfulfilled by subsequent Indian governments. Even at a tactical level, India is found severely lacking: the 26/11 stand-off in Bombay revealed the poor state of even India’s Special Forces. They were slow to deploy and took a significant amount of time to displace the terrorists holed in the Taj Hotel and other sites around the city. Ultimate success was due more to numerical superiority and their own courage than training or superior tactics of their commanding officers. Kandahar is another sad notch in India’s beleaguered history of security operations. The ultimate reality is that the fault lies more after 1962 than before. At all levels – training, equipment, and policy – India has settled into an institutional malaise that Nehru struggled against and today’s leaders are a part of.
Hope Springs Eternal
With total failure on all fronts, it is no wonder New Delhi hesitates to stand up to Beijing in even the smallest matters. India’s political masters understand that decades of neglect, corruption, and poor planning have left India barely capable of thwarting an invasion by Major Chip Hazard. Worse, any serious altercation on the border with China might bring this to light (the Chinese probably already know all this but the Indian public seems blissfully unaware and commensurately jingoistic). While there is little hope, as the Navy Chief admitted, in matching China force-for-force, India needs to develop new strategies to counter superior force. Network-centric warfare, aided by the confounding geography of the Himalayas could still give the advantage to India, if her military planners and political masters showed the vision to take appropriate action. This requires research, development, and planning at the strategic level and training and equipment at the tactical level. While traditional methods of war-fighting cannot be abandoned entirely just yet, Indian military strategists have shown their ability to innovate, if allowed, with doctrines such as Cold Start.
Unlike in the past when long lead times were available for mobilisation and preparation for war, the same luxury would not be available in future wars. The crucial deciding factor would be a vigilant state of defence preparedness both by up-gradation of military equipment and modernization Success in war in future would not necessarily go to nations larger in size, population resources and potential, but to the one prepared militarily at the outbreak of hostilities. It is one thing to be unprepared and another to be unwilling. But India’s defense strategy so far has been marked by large dollops of both.
1: China’s claims on Tibet are absolutely bogus. The essence of their claim is that Mongolia was always a part of China, and in 1206, Genghis Khan united the the tribes under a centralised Khanate. In 1271, the Yuan dynasty was formed and it ruled over a united China. In the process, the Mongols ‘peacefully’ incorporated Tibet in 1247 after defeating the Western Xia (1227) and the Jin (1234). China claims that the Mongols (or the Manchus in 1644) were never considered outsiders as China is a multinational state.
There are three problems with this argument: 1. the historical records are quite clear that the Mongols and Manchus were considered foreigners, or mánzi. The Mongols ruled over China and Tibet, but never on behalf of the Chinese; 2. while it is true that Tibet was once under strong Chinese influence (under the sixth Dalai Lama, 1683-1706), the official documents are again clear that Tibet and China were independent nations. In fact, except for this brief period, Tibet has always been far closer to India; and 3. if one were to accept the logic that Tibet belongs to China because the Mongols conquered and held both Tibet and China simultaneously, one can also claim that Canada and Australia belong to India!