Given the destructive power available with each of the major powers and the costs it imposes on both sides, the world will never again witness an all-out general war. All the wars fought since the surrender of Germany and Japan in May and August 1945 have been limited wars, with the application of force limited to the theatre of conflict and/or the limited use of available resources. Even while Vietnam fought an all-out war with all its available resources, for the United States it was a limited war with only a fraction of its available power and resources deployed.
Probably the closest thing to a general war we have seen in recent times was the Iran-Iraq war, where both countries mobilised all their resources and strained every sinew to win, but even here they observed restraints on attacking civilian centres and oil installations which were critical to pay for their futile war.
Since Independence India has been a participant in five major conflicts, but all of them were very limited wars. In 1948, even as the Indian Army was battling with Pakistani forces, trainloads of weapons were being shipped to Pakistan as per the Partition agreements. Even in 1999, during the Kargil war, air services and border crossings at Wagah were not affected, and diplomacy on all tracks too was as usual. Despite the use of air power by India, it unilaterally imposed restraints upon itself such as not crossing the Line of Control and restricting the use of force to the Kargil sector, thereby severely impeding the Indian Air Force’s effectiveness, prolonging the war and costing many more lives.
Kargil was India’s first living room war, where controlled electronic feeds lit up emotions in homes nationwide that fostered a groundswell of jingoism. While it would be rather difficult to award points like in a boxing match, India clearly emerged as the winner in terms of perceptions, despite greater losses in men and material. Since modern wars are invariably militarily indecisive, perceptions are much more important than costs. Nothing illustrates this better than the reported conversation in April 1975 between an American colonel, visiting Hanoi to finalize the modalities of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and a Vietnamese colonel. The American said: “Remember every time we met in the field we beat you.” The NVA colonel pondered this remark for a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant”.
This century has been good for India, so far. Its economy has been bounding along finally, reflecting a closer correlation between promise and performance. The demographic trends have never been so propitious. Given current trends and informed forecasts India’s GDP is expected to double every seven years or so. It is closing on $2 trillion now and growing at about 6-7 per cent each year. By 2050 or so, we could be looking at GDP of over $40 trillion.
How we fare during these next crucial decades depends a great deal on how we perceive ourselves. This psychological factor is critical to sustained growth. Economic thinkers now seem to have come full circle in their reasoning. Classical economics was linked closely with psychology. Adam Smith’s other great work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and dealt with the psychological principles of individual behaviour. Jeremy Bentham contemplated a good deal on the psychological underpinnings of utility. It was the neo-classical economists who distanced themselves from psychology and sought explanations for economic behaviour with what passed off as scientific and rational methods. It is not as if the switch was complete. Many great economists like Vilfredo Pareto, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter continued to base their analysis on psychological explanations. In more recent times, this school of economics has been given greater importance and is reflected in the award of Nobel Prizes to behavioral economists like Herbert Simon and Gary Becker. Every politician worth his/her salt knows that the national mood and perceptions are decisive in determining national outcomes. Thus, defending India physically comes only next to defending its mood.
One need not emphasise the interplay of time, technology and perception in our preparations to defend India. India now has no say in the choice of its neighbours. Pakistan came into being in 1947 and China was given Xinjiang by the then Soviet Union in 1948, and it occupied Tibet in 1951. Pakistan’s animosity and China’s adversarial attitude is a reality that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Compounding these are troubled conditions within all our neighbours, and even within India. Counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and combating unconventional warfare are manpower-intensive and have potentially debilitating consequences if not acted upon firmly and swiftly. India has been a laboratory for all these forms of warfare, and now has well-honed tactics and manpower to deal with them. While we must continue to pay close attention to these threats we must not take our eye off the external challenges that persist in dogging us.
While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it was during September 6-13, 1967 when Indian and Chinese troops last clashed with each other at Nathu La. Nathu La, at 14,200 feet, is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890, the Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate with the deployment of the Indian Army at that time. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border.
This six-day clash had all the elements of high drama, including intense artillery duels. The PLA infantry made major efforts to overrun Indian border positions held by 2 Grenadiers. These attacks were repulsed with severe Chinese causalities. According to published accounts of this incident, it appeared the Chinese had received a severe mauling in the artillery duels across the barbed wire fence. Indian gunners scored several direct hits on Chinese bunkers, including a command post from where the Chinese operations were being directed. On October 1, 1967 this repeated itself at Cho La, when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the PLA and similarly not found wanting. The PLA suffered much more than damaged pride. It is interesting to note that shots were never fired across the border again. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army stand eye-ball to eye-ball, but the atmosphere is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.
In 1971, as the Pakistani armies in the east as well as the west were crumbling, Henry Kissinger, then the US President’s national security adviser, met China’s UN ambassador Huang Hua at a CIA safe house in New York. William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives, has gathered the transcripts of the secret talks, that were only recently declassified and against Dr Kissinger’s wishes, in a just-published book. In them Kissinger told Hua: “The President wants you to know that it is, of course, up to the People’s Republic to decide its own course of action in this situation, but if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation in the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, and it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.” The Chinese declined the invitation. Sam Manekshaw was then India’s Chief of Army Staff and J.S Aurora was Eastern Army commander, not men of straw like B.M. Kaul and P.N. Thapar who were at the helm in 1962. And above all, Indira Gandhi was not Jawaharlal Nehru. She was made of firmer stuff, and knew when to leave things to the generals.