Madonna and child,  Kashmir, India, by DILIP BANERJEE
UMadonna and child,  Kashmir, India, by DILIP BANERJEE
  There's an elephant in the room

  Vol VII : issue 3&4


  Ashis Nandy
  George Fernandes
  Jaya Jaitly
  Uma Varatharajan
  Rashid Haider
  Santosh Rana

  Prakash Singh
  Joy Goswami
  Only in Print
  Current Issue


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George Fernandes & Jaya Jaitly


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.

p. 1 p. 2


George Fernandes is former Defence Minister of India. Jaya Jaitly is former President of the Samata Party of India