Between two rocks & a very hard place

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Between two rocks & a very hard place

Saturday, 08 April 2023 | Deepak Sinha

Between two rocks & a very hard place

The Chinese see occupied Tibet as the palm of hand that will only be whole when they control the fingers: Arunachal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal & Ladakh

Leave aside political affiliations and the flag-waving, slogan-shouting, adrenaline-pumped personas we adopt while watching cricket and ask ourselves a simple question: To what extent are we invested in our country, and what are we willing to sacrifice for its well-being and progress?

Ukraine, for example, has a population of about 43 million. More than a fourth of this, mainly women, children and the aged, have been either internally or externally displaced by the ongoing war. By most estimates, over hundred and fifty thousand are dead or wounded, which includes over 30,000 civilians, and counting. The country’s infrastructure is in ruins and despite this, their leadership, wholly supported by the people, fights on resolutely, with no quarter given or asked for. Determined to fight till they succeed in driving the Russians out of their territory, regardless of the time or toll it takes.

In sharp contrast, we are said to have lost over 1000 square kilometres of what we claim as our sovereign territory in Ladakh, without even putting up a semblance of a fight. What is even more shocking is that our Government, for whatever reasons, has yet to publicly acknowledge this loss. Instead, we have had to face the ignominy of the External Affairs Minister, who publicly stated that China is far too powerful for us to confront. What does that say about us?

To be utterly honest, this is not the only Government to have cowered in the face of Chinese aggressiveness. Every iteration from Nehru’s time has done so, leaving aside Indira Gandhi’s first tenure. It was in her time that not only did we give the PLA a bloody nose at Nathu La, but also neutralised them by signing the Indo-Soviet Accord that allowed us freedom of action to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 with no interference. Of course, FM Manekshaw’s decision to attack in the winter, with the passes closed, worked to our advantage as well.

Our defeatist mindset is borne out by how we have treated the Tibetan diaspora that took refuge here after the Chinese occupation of their homeland. Not only did we let them down at every opportunity we got, from the time of the Chinese military occupation, but continue to do so even today, by not standing up for them. All in the hope of pacifying the Chinese leadership so that they leave us alone.

What we have failed to understand or ignore, is the simple geopolitical truth, that Dr Lobsang Sangay, the previous Sikyong, or head of the Central Tibetan Administration, has lucidly explained on numerous occasions. He points out that the Chinese see occupied Tibet as the palm of their hand that will only be whole when they control its five fingers: Arunachal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh.

Recent events, including the situation in Nepal, Bhutan’s discussions with China over Doklam, without involving us, and the name changes in Arunachal announced by the Chinese support his contention. It is the reasons for our complacency and passiveness that are difficult to decipher. Indeed, some academics and researchers do suggest that the Government has little choice given the power differential and we should continue to downplay tensions as no other country will come to our assistance in case of a conflict. 

Not only is that a telling critique of our confused foreign policy choices, but also makes clear that there is little understanding of how militaries operate, or of the factors that play a crucial role in achieving success on the battlefield. It is not just the size of the budget that matters, but the quality of troops, their combat experience and the numbers they can support at the point of decision. Given the topography, the treacherous and long lines of communications, the comparative lack of battlefield experience and the relative strengths both sides can bring to bear, our chances of upsetting Chinese designs should not be underestimated.

The fact of the matter is that the Minister’s words do not for a minute convey that there is some ingenious strategy in place to deceive the Chinese and make them complacent, till we are ready to confront them at a time and place of our choosing. Instead, it is exactly what it looks like, just plain cowardice. Words that also dishonour our gallant men who made the ultimate sacrifice at Galwan and gave reason to the Chinese leadership to pause and reconsider their aggressive designs on our territory. 

Our take on history suggests that we were enslaved because of traitors such as Jaichand and Mir Jaffar, who let us down at crucial junctures. But what seems more likely, is the far more unpleasant possibility that we are all no different from those we hold in contempt. The truth is we have produced only a handful of true Bravehearts, like Rana Sangha, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

As one has repeatedly pointed out, the only facet of governance that we seemed to have learned from our British masters was divide and rule, and that we have now made into an art form that would be the envy of rascals like Warren Hastings and Robert Clive.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and a Senior Visiting Fellow with The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai)

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