Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - SUNDAYCOMM­ENT -

The bru­tal killing of 20 per­son­nel of the In­dian Army, in­clud­ing a colonel-level of­fi­cer, by China’s Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) in the Gal­wan Val­ley on the night of June 15 will re­ver­ber­ate across In­dia for a long time to come. In­dian se­cu­rity per­son­nel — from the armed forces, para­mil­i­tary forces, and the police — have of­ten given their lives in the quest to de­fend In­dia’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity, sovereignt­y and the Con­sti­tu­tion. And as of­ten, their con­tri­bu­tion is for­got­ten.

But Colonel San­tosh Babu and the 19 other men killed in the line of duty will stay on in pub­lic mem­ory for three rea­sons. First, this was the first time since 1975 that In­dian blood was shed de­fend­ing the bor­der against China. Two, the na­ture of the killing was bru­tal — PLA, in what In­dia has called a “pre-med­i­tated” at­tack, vi­o­lated norms of war. And In­dia and China are not even of­fi­cially at war. And fi­nally, their killing has high­lighted the place of Ladakh in gen­eral, and Gal­wan Val­ley in par­tic­u­lar, as es­sen­tial to In­dia’s ter­ri­to­rial imag­i­na­tion.

This, then, can make June 15 — or Ladakh 2020 — the mo­ment when, for two gen­er­a­tions of In­di­ans, the se­cu­rity threat from China has be­come tan­gi­ble and real. It can make it the mo­ment when dis­cus­sions about the “com­pet­i­tive-co­op­er­a­tive” re­la­tion­ship with China and how to nav­i­gate great power pol­i­tics will move be­yond the rar­efied sem­i­nar cir­cuits of elite an­a­lysts and as­sume a strong place in pub­lic con­scious­ness. And it can make it the mo­ment when China be­comes an is­sue in In­dian domestic pol­i­tics, strongly tied to pub­lic opin­ion, par­ti­san po­si­tions, and the idea of na­tion­al­ism.

The in­ter­sec­tion of domestic pol­i­tics and for­eign pol­icy is old. In­deed, a lot of schol­ar­ship sug­gests that for­eign pol­icy it­self is the ex­ten­sion of domestic pol­i­tics and is shaped sub­stan­tially by it.

In In­dia’s case too, this has been true. But bar­ring the 1962 war, and the crit­i­cism that the then Prime Min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru faced, the most crit­i­cal for­eign pol­icy is­sue has been Pak­istan. This is not sur­pris­ing. The tragedy of Par­ti­tion, Pak­istan’s sup­port for Khal­is­tan, the Kash­mir ques­tion, its sponsorshi­p of ter­ror­ism in In­dia which has cost thou­sands of lives, four wars (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999), and the man­ner in which the ex­ter­nal en­emy (Pak­istan) is of­ten used in po­lit­i­cal dis­course to de­monise an in­ter­nal con­stituency (In­dian Mus­lims) lends the In­dia-Pak­istan re­la­tion­ship par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal salience. In­deed, as the say­ing in South Block goes, the real joint sec­re­tary in charge of the Pak­istan desk at the min­istry of ex­ter­nal af­fairs is the Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia. And that is be­cause each de­ci­sion on Pak­istan is a po­lit­i­cal, not a bu­reau­cratic, one.

The In­dian strate­gic com­mu­nity has long recog­nised China as a threat. The bor­der dis­pute and Bei­jing’s ef­forts to change the facts on the ground by its con­sis­tent in­cur­sions; its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, par­tic­u­larly Tawang; the large trade deficit; China’s firm sup­port to its “all-weather friend”, Pak­istan, now but­tressed by the China-Pak­istan eco­nomic cor­ri­dor; its ef­forts to box in In­dia by en­cour­ag­ing regimes hos­tile to New Delhi in the neigh­bour­hood; its moves to thwart In­dia’s le­git­i­mate am­bi­tions (such as per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil or en­try into the Nu­clear Sup­pli­ers Group); and its am­bi­tions to es­tab­lish new style im­pe­ri­al­ism through the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive have all been closely noted and are a part of the in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory of the gov­ern­ment of In­dia.

But along with this, there is also a recog­ni­tion of the power asym­me­try be­tween the two coun­tries. In­dia’s econ­omy is much weaker; its mil­i­tary and tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties don’t match up to China; its State ca­pac­ity is more lim­ited; and in the maze that is in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics, China is a more sig­nif­i­cant player and In­dia can­not rely on part­ner­ships and ex­ter­nal band­wag­o­ning. Along with it, In­dia — at this stage of its eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment — needs for­eign cap­i­tal and investment, and deep­en­ing eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence with China has been seen as a way to both neu­tralise the com­pet­i­tive el­e­ments and aid In­dian de­vel­op­ment.

This mea­sured pol­icy ap­proach worked be­cause China was not an is­sue that an­i­mated pub­lic opin­ion. But it will now face a chal­lenge. This is both be­cause of China’s ag­gres­sion (not unique to In­dia — just ask Viet­nam, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and oth­ers in its neigh­bour­hood) and be­cause in In­dian democ­racy, poli­cies can­not be com­pletely out of sync with pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment.

The killings of June 15 have sud­denly wo­ken a large num­ber of cit­i­zens to the fact that Pak­istan is an im­por­tant, but per­haps not the most im­por­tant, se­cu­rity chal­lenge In­dia con­fronts. The Chi­nese will­ing­ness to as­sert it­self abroad un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, and the power dif­fer­en­tial with In­dia, makes it a more se­ri­ous ad­ver­sary. The calls for boy­cotting Chi­nese goods may be pop­ulist and rooted in ig­no­rance of eco­nomic re­al­i­ties but they re­flect the emerg­ing mood about China, which is go­ing be­yond sus­pi­cion to a de­gree of loathing.

The evo­lu­tion of pub­lic opin­ion is bound to have an im­pact on po­lit­i­cal dis­course. And that is why even a prime min­is­ter such as Narendra Modi — who has proudly worn the badge of na­tion­al­ism and pre­sented him­self as a se­cu­rity hawk — had to face tough ques­tions, not just from crit­ics but also more in­de­pen­dent ob­servers, about his claim on Fri­day night that there is no ex­ter­nal pres­ence in In­dian ter­ri­tory. The Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice, on Saturday, came up with a clar­i­fi­ca­tion. But the re­sponse to his ini­tial state­ment is in­struc­tive. In­dian pub­lic opin­ion is not in the mood to tol­er­ate even the hint of a ter­ri­to­rial con­ces­sion to China any­more.

This, then, will have an im­pact on the pol­i­tics of na­tion­al­ism in In­dia. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — by dis­en­gag­ing with Pak­istan till it acts on ter­ror and through the sur­gi­cal and air strikes un­der its term in of­fice — has pro­jected it­self as a staunchly na­tion­al­ist force. But now, it will have to be ac­count­able for its ac­tions on China too. The well-mean­ing ad­vice to the Op­po­si­tion not to “politi­cise” the na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue may go un­heeded, for if the rul­ing dis­pen­sa­tion has ben­e­fited from weapon­is­ing na­tional se­cu­rity for elec­toral ends, the Op­po­si­tion will seek to em­u­late the same. Ex­pect the BJP to talk about Pak­istan, and ex­pect the Op­po­si­tion to counter it with China from now on. Ladakh 2020 has in­tro­duced the China fac­tor into In­dian pol­i­tics. Its con­se­quences will be long-last­ing.


The killing of 20 In­dian Army per­son­nel on June 15 has made the threat of China real and tan­gi­ble for two gen­er­a­tions of In­di­ans and placed the re­la­tion­ship at the cen­tre of pub­lic con­scious­ness. It will shape the pol­i­tics of na­tion­al­ism

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