The Non-War in Bhutan



The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will probably be less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources, and real embarrassment (indeed, lasting shame) for the Indian government and national public.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, with boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat (which is not a fiction) was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

August 7, 2017

Appeasements



As anyone who follows Indian public discourse is aware, the rhetoric of ‘Muslim appeasement’ is now ubiquitous. No longer limited to the rabid Hindu right, it has penetrated the language and perception of citizens who consider themselves secular and moderate, and who are, indeed, often opposed to the nakedly violent elements of the Sangh Parivar. These moderates nevertheless offer the word up as a reason, if not a justification, for the behavior of the rabid, conceding that the various phenomena of Hindutva in Indian political life were produced by the appeasement of minorities (specifically Muslims) by politicians (specifically the Congress and the Left parties). Effectively, then, they agree with a key plank of the Hindutva platform, and reflect its increasingly hegemonic presence in what constitutes common sense in both private and public life.

The word ‘appeasement’ has a wider history. Its popular usage began with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to postpone the Second World War by agreeing to Adolf Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in 1938. It soon became shorthand for a range of interconnected political faults: shortsightedness, cowardice, cynicism, betrayal. Its application in the Indian case has included all those implications. This is curious, because Chamberlain’s perceived mistake was to have appeased a foreign enemy. His appeasement was a foreign policy, rather than an ideological position. Appeasement in India, on the other hand, has been a discourse anchored in domestic politics and national ideology. It is more heavily loaded and pernicious than a handshake in Munich. The original implications of the accusation are very much present in India, but the line between foreign and domestic enemies has become blurred. Indeed, the rhetoric of appeasement is useful precisely because it blurs that line, continuously turning a portion of the Indian population into an alien entity and democratic politics into treason.

Objectively, the idea that minorities – and Muslims in particular – have been pampered by the Indian state is ludicrous. Muslims in India are, on average, considerably poorer than Hindus. Their presence in the institutions of government and public life does not remotely approach their percentage of the population, and they suffer from chronic discrimination in housing and employment. Harassment, intimidation and worse by the police, army and paramilitary forces is a fact of life. They are increasingly subject to the violence of vigilantes and lynch mobs that are either ignored or assisted by the state. They cannot complain about intolerance or criticize the Indian state – let alone the army and other sacred cows – without immediately provoking a firestorm of public outrage and being told to shut up or move to Pakistan. They are, moreover, subject to pervasive and unquantifiable abuse in what might be called personal interactions with the majority community. This abuse overflows into the public domain, saturating the press and online forums with vitriol about ‘mullahs,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘love jihad,’ people who have too many babies, and the rape of disinterred corpses. If Indian Muslims have been appeased for seventy years, it has not accomplished very much.

If we look at the body of evidence that is held up to demonstrate appeasement, it quickly falls apart. Nobody can demonstrate how this appeasement has hurt the majority community, let alone been illegitimate. Indian Muslims can vote, it is pointed out defensively, as if this is some sort of extraordinary generosity in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. They are allowed to live in India, it is proclaimed in the same vein. Again, what generosity, ‘allowing’ people to live and vote in their own country! Indian democracy and pluralism are not charity to an undeserving minority; these are gifts that, in the words of the Constitution, the Indian people gave to themselves. Not only are these the substance of freedom and the justification of independence (because otherwise, what is independence for?), they are essential to multi-ethnic nationhood.

The Muslim Civil Code and Article 370 of the Constitution (which gives ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir) are perennial targets of those who believe that appeasement is real. Such claims reflect a total obliviousness of the historical context of these policies. Article 370 came out of the extraordinary political, military and legal circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union. Without it, the National Conference would not have given its assent to the annexation of the state, and without that assent, the Indian position would have been untenable. The Instrument of Accession was not enough to ensure either legitimacy or order, and negotiators in Delhi and Srinagar understood that a measure of popular consent was needed that could be acquired only through political concessions. The ‘special status’ of Kashmir is not some inexplicable foolishness on Nehru’s part; it is a hard-headed compromise based on recognition of the actual specialness of the political situation. Muslim personal law is a product of the aftermath of the Partition, when it was important for the Congress to demonstrate its commitment to the principle that India was neither Pakistan nor Jinnah’s version of Hindustan, i.e., to ensure that the Indian state did not belong to any particular ethno-religious community. Moreover, given the horrendous violence that had just taken place, it was necessary to reassure the remaining Indian Muslims that they were safe in India, not just individually but as a community. That reassurance was essential to the stabilization of the fledgling state and its fragile institutions.

The Muslim Civil Code is quite rightly a contentious body of law. It authorizes the most reactionary elements of Indo-Muslim society to speak for the community, and consequently it infringes upon the rights of women as equal citizens of a democratic state. It can also be argued, albeit tenuously, that a nationally-organized society should have a uniform code of civil law. (Why? The assumption is reminiscent of the case for a national language that was abandoned in 1965.) In any case, the Indian Constitution unambiguously looks forward to a uniform civil code; religion-specific legality was originally intended to be a temporary arrangement. But while the activism of Muslims who want to abolish triple-talaq and reform unjust divorce laws is entirely admirable, the professed sympathy of Hindus must be viewed with great suspicion. Hindus can legitimately protest the plight of divorced Muslim women only when they give up their own habit of turning away Muslim renters, and are ready to welcome Muslim sons-in-law. Until then, they would do well to examine the reactionary elements within their own civil code (there is a considerable body of scholarship on this), to stop beating their wives and bullying daughters who make their own sexual choices, and to insist upon the recognition of marital rape as a criminal offense – none of which they are willing to do. They might also try to understand that the reform of Muslim personal law will become politically feasible – i.e., acceptable to those Muslims who are themselves ambivalent about it – only in an environment of security and tolerance, or in the absence of the naked hate that now runs casually through Indian society and its public discourse. A beleaguered minority will cling to the symbols of its identity even when those symbols are themselves oppressive. Not even majorities are exempt from this dynamic: it is worth noting that the ‘reformed’ Hindu civil code became possible only when colonial rule had ended. Until then, the most repressive laws and customs were zealously protected as markers of national sovereignty, and even Vidyasagar found it necessary to oppose the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which outlawed sex with girls under the age of twelve.

For the appeasement-wallas, there is also a constant accumulation of petty and local complaints: about municipal authorities telling Hindus to desist from playing music near mosques, state-subsidized Haj, government support for madrasas, Muslim criminals who are supposedly protected by politicians, and the tendency of non-Sanghi political parties to protect (occasionally) what are understood as ‘Muslim interests.’ They barely notice that Hindu pilgrimages are also subsidized by the state, Hindu criminals also receive the patronage of politicians, and that Hindus are louder and more effective than Muslims when it comes to demanding that the state protect their ‘sentiments’ from assorted insults. They forget that so-called 'vote-bank politics' - the articulation and protection of particular interests - is the normal stuff of democratic politics, and not the equivalent of giving in to a foreign enemy (unless Muslims themselves are imagined as aliens) or some peculiar ‘pseudo-secular’ vice. Do Hindus not form 'vote banks' when they organize themselves by caste, class and language? Democracy without vote banks would require a level of individuated citizenship that does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone India. These complaints are typically accompanied by outrage at the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and religious minorities in Pakistan, the implication being not only that the ill-treatment of Muslims in India (and Kashmir) is a reasonable retribution, but also that Pakistan is the preferred model of the relationship between the individual, the community and the state. For them, democracy and politics – i.e., the need to work through constitutional means and make concessions at the negotiating table – are weaknesses. They would prefer that the Indian state simply bludgeon its way to produce the results desired by ‘the majority,’ even if that means killing, terrorizing, disenfranchising or expelling a hundred and fifty million people. Those options are still voiced mainly as wistful fantasies and in private conversations, but the overflow into the media and the street – slogans of ‘Pakistan ya kabristan’ (‘to Pakistan or to the graveyard’) –  is already apparent.

‘Appeasement’ in the Indian context is thus a fundamentally anti-democratic discourse in more ways than one. It equates the citizenship – i.e., freedom – of a minority community with an intolerable weakness of the nation-state. Any sign of the political equality of the minority becomes not only a sign of treason (by minorities and their sympathizers), but a sign of the superior power of the minority, inverting the actual status quo in a perverse nightmare of Hindus ‘losing control of their own country.’ The ultimate version of that nightmare is the frequently-expressed anxiety about the ‘Muslim birth-rate,’ or the fear that Hindus will cease to be a majority in India. Not only is this highly paranoid and numerically improbable, it negates a basic principle of the liberal-democratic nation state, which is that there can be no permanent majority and minority. Today’s minority must, hypothetically, be able to become tomorrow’s majority without nullifying the nationhood that is expressed in the state. If that prospect is so horrifying that one would rather resort to ethnic cleansing or invent a mythology of appeasement/treason, then it is necessary to ask what kind of nation Hindus (or Israeli Jews who resent having to share their state with Arabs, or white Trump supporters who also complain incessantly about 'pampered' minorities and the 'neglected' majority) inhabit. An objectively dominant majority that feels, acts and speaks in the mode of an oppressed and aggrieved minority is one of the surest symptoms of fascism. It is a danger to itself as well as to others, because its peevish violence inevitable rebounds against itself, eroding its own democratic rights and freedoms. That erosion, in which the state has repeatedly compromised its own liberal principles at the behest of the majority, is where 'appeasement' is truly manifested in India.

In this situation, ironically, the fate of liberal democracy comes to rest more with the minority, which is invested in it, than with the majority, which chafes against it and longs for the unrestrained ability to coerce. The idea that minorities are the conscience-keepers of liberalism has a history that goes back to the early twentieth century. It has generated one of the roles played by Jews in American political life until the late 1960s, and as Faisal Devji has pointed out, by Muslims at one point in the history of the subcontinent. I will go a step further and suggest that democracy needs minorities to survive. Majorities are thuggish by nature, undeserving of democracy and resentful of it. They do not ensure the democratic rights of minorities; it is the other way around. Freedom - understood as a rights-bearing relationship with the liberal state - is inherently a minority condition.

April 18, 2017

Hometowns and ghost towns

My Photo

Most modern societies have a romance of the hometown: a place that ‘one is from,’ and that serves as an anchor of reference and identity when one is adrift, happily or unhappily. It – or rather, the idea of it – provides continuity when the spaces and compartments we inhabit collapse or converge. In much of the world, the hometown is detached from everyday life. It is a place that one has left behind, and that functions as an identifier even when a permanent return is unlikely. In the refugee and migrant worlds of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, hometowns have been not only the places left behind as people moved in search of education, work, safety and nationalities, but also the unseen places that parents and grandparents had once known. Such hometowns – Pabna, Lucknow, Lahore – are constituted by the thinnest of nostalgia. A cousin of mine recently crossed the India-Bangladesh border to see the ancestral family home in Dhaka (‘lost’ since 1947), could not find the building, went back disappointed, and only later realized that he had gone to the wrong address.

The American hometown is less ethereal. It is a place that one has never left. Its heart is the local high school, with its football rituals that one continues to attend as an adult, and mascots that one continues to revere. Those who actually play football or basketball expect to be recognized and flattered at the local hardware store or diner, or to run the store itself someday. Students graduate from these schools – which their parents also attended –  with the expectation that they will never leave town. Their circle of acquaintances will not expand much further beyond those who are already their friends and enemies. They will, they hope, find jobs or take over family businesses that allow them to marry and have kids, to divorce and pay child support, to buy a home and a couple of cars, to retire, sicken and die with dignity.

That hometown is easy to find but hard to hold on to. It is, one might say, a mythology of community and reassurance in a vast, thinly populated land, where pioneers could go only so far before needing to stop. The place where you stopped became home: homestead, little house on the prairie, island in the wilderness, Mayberry, surrounded by the combination of emptiness and savagery that gives shape and meaning to the settler colony. Unarguably, only a part of America has actually lived even a portion of this dream, and today the hometown is more beleaguered than ever. The savages have multiplied faster than the homesteaders, and the economy has moved to the wilderness of university towns, coastal cities and foreign parts, demanding that people follow. The wilderness is also America, a competing myth with its own power and cruelties, but without that paranoid insularity.

The American hometown is a historical phenomenon. It is a product of datable, identifiable and intersecting episodes in the recent past: industrial employment, unionized wages, job security, home ownership and welfare assurance, brought together by the New Deal, the Second World War, the unchallenged manufacturing hegemony of the 1950s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. These brave new hometowns fattened on the mythical homesteads; the self-righteous and existentially imperiled innocence of William Jennings Bryan became the images and soundtracks of the multi-layered ‘security’ that was a central part of American ‘greatness’ at a particular moment in time, which was the Cold War.

When the Cold War economy unraveled, hometowns became unsustainable. High school degrees became inadequate for securing jobs, and the self-inflicted injuries of the Reagan era not only weakened the unions that had allowed white workers to live middle class lives, but also began to gut the concept and institutions of social security. It became necessary to contemplate Tom Joad all over again, and this could only be a stepping down from greatness. People who should have left found themselves unable to contemplate actually leaving, because they imagined they would be leaving themselves behind, and because they were afraid of where they might have had to go. Not surprisingly, it was in this period – the 1980s – that the hometown was reified as a melancholy myth of an endangered American identity: the subject matter of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, charged with betrayal. Because that betrayed place had been more real between the 1940s and the 1970s than, say, in Bryan’s time, it was now that much more frightening to see it turning into yet another American mythology of place: the ghost town, in which you were the ghost.

In the last election, the ghosts turned out in force to vote for Donald Trump. In the process, they aggravated the injury that their Reagan-loving parents had inflicted. They did so for reasons that have to do with the nature of the hometown itself: the security and superiority conveyed by the conviction of roots in the soil and separateness from the rootless, and, of course, fear of being uprooted. They did not just vote for a fascist leadership that is contemptuous of every liberal safeguard within democracy; they revealed the Volkisch underpinnings and fascist possibilities of an existentially insecure Homeland made up of hometowns, in which folksiness is an established political idiom, indulged without reflection by liberals and conservatives alike.

The fetish of roots and the folk’s fear of the unrooted is, of course, a common aspect of fascism. It brings together entitlement and anxiety, typically expressed as racism, because race is among other things a perceived relationship to place. Those who are out of place, without a place, or indifferent to place are not only races apart, but also racial enemies and enemies of race itself. Like any matter out of place, they constitute dirt: the dirty Jew in Germany, the dirty Arab in Israel, the dirty Mexican in the American southwest, refugees in upstate New York, immigrants everywhere. And as dirt in the age of sanitation, they are invitations to cleansing and other forms of intervention. As animals that have wandered in from the wilderness, they threaten the hometown resident with the prospect of invasion, or of having to enter the wilderness himself. It generates music like “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Indiana redneck’s response to Los Angeles.

Along with the fear of savages and animals, the prospect of being exiled to the jungle brings the fear of emasculation. The narrative of the American hometown is a richly gendered text, consisting not only of the culture of team sports, guns, pick-up trucks (or muscle cars) and the predictable comfort of marrying your ‘high school sweetheart,’ but also the ritualized expectation that you will, upon graduation, become a newly-carded member of the same labor union to which your father belongs. When these expectations and rituals become threadbare even as mythology, the crisis of manhood takes the form of racist, homophobic and misogynistic violence, and overrides rational calculations of economic and political self-interest, not to mention ethical considerations and the niceties of liberal democracy, which can only appear effeminate. It produces the compulsive bullying and the stormtrooper phenomena that Arthur Rosenberg identified, in 1934, as the essential ingredient of full-blown fascism.

The citizen in that mode of reaction functions as a modern peasant, hostile to science, even more hostile to the arts, resentful of educated outsiders and of education itself. (The American high school is primarily a location of socialization, and only secondarily of learning.) The modern peasant is, in one sense, a contradiction in terms, but is actually a common creature. He or she retains the provinciality of the peasant and the fetish of the soil, but it is now national soil, and suspicious outsiders are national enemies. The forms of hate remain familiar and assimilate the old, but the content is substantially new. Hannah Arendt once remarked of European anti-Semitism that it was ‘not about the Jews,’ indicating a difference between the ‘classical’ pogroms of rural bigots and the nineteenth-century urban Gentile’s dislike of the emancipated Jew. The new hate, she suggested, was more about the nationalizing citizen’s resentful relationship with the liberal state and its allies. The particular target was incidental. In present-day America, it would be inaccurate to say that the racism, anti-intellectualism and gender norms of the hometown are merely byproducts of a government policy or even a cluster of policies such as neoliberal capitalism; they are imbedded in much deeper histories of the settlement of the continent. But they are nevertheless intertwined with global economic currents that have made the American hometown obsolete, and made it necessary for the peasants to do what other peasants have typically done, which is to embrace the city. The obsolescence of the hometown is inseparable from the reluctance of its denizens to do move to where the colleges are, where the jobs are, where the strangers and savages are.

The American hometown – which is not just a place, but an idea in which Trump and Springsteen are both complicit – is not a benign sentimentality. It is a nostalgia of arrested development, intertwined with white privilege, violent masculinity, and the fundamentally unreasonable and unhealthy refusal to grow up and leave home. There is something pathological about a political reality in which adults who cling to their high school selves vote for a man who consistently behaves like a spoiled child. It is, after all, not rational to confuse cities and the wilderness, or to expect that manufacturing jobs that have disappeared due to automation will return if foreign-made products are hit with tariffs, or to act as if the mass deportation of undocumented aliens will help unemployed Americans who do not want to pick oranges or drive cabs. It is irrational to be terrified of Muslims when the overwhelming share of the killing in this country is done by Christians, and by the police. Rationality in political decision-making may be unfashionable and ‘elitist’ (on this point, there is a perverse agreement between the far right and the post-modern left), but if we are going to have a modern state, then the primacy of verifiable information over ‘feelings’ in governance is an essential hedge against fascism. 

February 9, 2017